Sean Michael Morris
I have been criticized for standing up in front of a class. Criticized, cajoled, heckled—usually in a friendly way—because my pedagogy asks that teaching and learning decenter the instructor in the classroom. Yet, I stand, and where I stand the front of the classroom follows. Whether I am behind a podium, whether I am standing amid tables where groups are gathered, whether I am in the back of an auditorium and speaking. I stand, and I am the front of the classroom.
In part—probably to a greater degree than I am aware—this is because I’m a white male. A white male who passes for straight (but isn’t), and who passes for neurotypical (but isn’t). A white male whom one supposes has a Ph.D., but never pursued one. A white male who passes for an academic, but who not only eschews that title, he also was never indoctrinated into academic life. But none of those intersections of my social location matter when I have a mic, a podium, or a classroom.
To another degree, the front of the classroom follows me because I am the teacher. Of anyone in the room, I know more in its entirety the circumference of the community there. I know the end of the semester or quarter, it’s final thesis, at least in theory; and in many cases, I have sailed these waters before. But more than that: the community needs me. If education is an act of freedom, of liberation, as bell hooks posits, then it is also risky. I am in the room to minimize that risk, to keep the boat from capsizing while students rock it as hard as they can.
That may smack of control, but it’s compassion. I don’t want anyone to fall overboard; and if they do, I would like to be sure they know how to swim.
My presence is important especially when I acknowledge it, especially when I allow that I am a white, cisgender, straight-passing male, and especially when I acknowledge that my presence would be different, and equally as vital to the community of the classroom, if I were not white, cisgender, straight-passing, and male. My presence is important when I am transparent to my intersectionality so that the power differential in the room—between teacher and student—can be shone a light on and, if not diffused entirely, at least understood.
Presence, in other words, is not simply showing up to call on raised hands, answer questions, or deliver Powerpoint lectures. Presence is human, all-too human, because education is human, and learning is a problem that humans must solve. And a teacher’s presence must welcome students’ presence so that the community can begin to answer the questions education demands we address.
Community in a classroom, though, is complicated. Students’ presence is more nuanced, more implicated, than our own. It is not enough to include students’ intersectionality, their social location and stories in the narrative of the classroom. It is not enough because to ask them to share their stories without sharing our own, to refer to the literature of “diversity,” to talk about the “marginal,” is to center the teacher in more dangerous ways than taking the podium. The instructor’s own social location must be included in the narrative of the classroom so that there is a chance to decenter it. If we do not speak up about our own power—if we don’t do more than simply concede the podium or the center of the room—we have done too little to undo that power. Then, our presence is an elephant in the room; our social location the litmus for all social locations. A silent authority silences without ever saying a word.
In “Making the Invisible Visible,” Kisha Tracy and Katherine Covino write,
As instructors, we have the responsibility to challenge this simplification and the blind acceptance of categories — or boxes — that either inherently limit human potential or are intended to prevent full participation and representation. In particular, whatever our disciplines, it is imperative we design pedagogical methods that will help our students make the invisible — those threatened with erasure, those who lack representation, those who defy the definitions imposed upon them, those struggling against the political machine — visible and expose the power structures that work to maintain the invisibility of marginalized individuals.
As someone who is neurodivergent and gay, the problem I see with this approach is that I am not invisible to myself; no one has erased me—because I am alive and I write and I speak. I struggle against the political machine, but I also know so does my neighbor, and you, and whomever my teacher may be.
The fullness with which we talk about the injustices done to “marginalized” people, I fear, not only fails to acknowledge all the ways they/we have spoken, do speak, want to speak, but also centers the hetero, white, cisgender, male assumptions of education. In other words, if an instructor decides what marginal is and what marginal does, then those in their classroom already must follow social rules they cannot defend themselves against.
Difference cannot become canon. Because canon means passing muster, and we cannot ask difference to pass muster. Rather than put marginalized folk under a microscope in order to understand their struggle or develop compassion for difference, might we not instead wreck the classroom with story?
In digital environments, this story-making, difference-sharing, power-exposing activity becomes much harder. Not only does the learning management system or a course web site stand in for the instructor (I was recently asked why simply assembling the curriculum—textbooks, reading schedule, quizzes, assignments and the like—wasn’t suitable to demonstrate instructor presence in an LMS), but the platform itself silences difference. To quote myself, “Despite any stubborn claims to the contrary, instructional design assigns learners to a single seat, a single set of characteristics.” Students are sorted alphabetically; they appear as small profile pictures (if not anonymous avatars) in discussion; they are rows in a spreadsheet. Instruction isn’t modulated, but doled out when students press a button.
As Inside Higher Ed (and others) reported, the question of instructor presence online is no laughing matter. Western Governors University, a horror of digital learning that bases its teaching on competency-based courses, was recently called upon to return over $700 million in federal financial aid. The Department of Education, which recommended the action, cited “concerns about an inadequate faculty role” in online courses. When instructors don’t show up, students don’t learn.
Unfortunately, the response of most instructional designers and online teachers is to turn to tools. As Jean Dimeo reports there are “a variety of video-audio production tools [that] can help instructors better connect with online learners.” Dimeo’s article outlines four of these tools recommended by presenters at the 2017 Quality Matters Connect conference in Fort Worth, Texas. And while I too have been recently wowed by the smooth operation of a video production tool (Instructure’s Arc), I am far from believing that the tools will preserve the very complicated, nuanced need for presence in an online environment.
That we turn to tools for digital learning indicates we don’t understand, or have abdicated our understanding, of pedagogy. In fact, most tools perpetuate problems of censure, erasure, racism, heteronormativity, and other harmful assumptions of “same-ness.” They are designed for lowest common denominator teaching and learning and do not feature genius in their methods.
As well, I’m unconvinced by Arc, Screencast-O-Matic, Snip, Sway, Panopto, and the rest precisely because these tools do nothing in and of themselves to make transparency, human connection, the problem of learning that can only be solved by the community of a class, more express. Tools and rubrics and best practices will not solve these concerns. Western Governors University cannot rise from the ashes by the power of a video lecture. Yet this is precisely the wool they attempt to pull over our eyes.
What is missing from digital learning is the recollection that I am human and you are human. That we are vulnerable and needy. That we are brave and terrified. That we watch the news at night and tremble and that, for better or worse, we believe education holds some of the answers to our fears. Students can stare at our faces on a screen all they want, or for as long as we require it, but will that suffice as presence?