October 21st, 2019, was a golden day for those interested in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Somehow, across a variety of teaching and learning platforms, several educators were in sync about one specific point: there is immense possibility when we integrate purposeful pedagogies of welcome. Indeed, Lowrie’s (2019) “Vulnerability in the Classroom,” Felton’s (2019) Creating a Relentless Welcome, and Pacansky-Brock’s (2019) “I see you,” all emphasized the benefits of enacting pedagogical warmth.
Because I am an online adjunct, these texts inspired me to wonder about the ways that welcome can (and should) warm virtual classrooms more broadly, and my own online teaching practices, more specifically. I believe that it is through continued reflection and sharing that we can (and should) cultivate a compassion-driven Scholarship of Online Teaching and Learning (CSoOTL rolls off the tongue, right?). It is my hope that sharing my own reflection will inspire continued conversations about the importance of promoting welcome in our virtual pedagogies and practices.
Vulnerability in Digital Spaces
According to Lowrie (2019), online courses can function as spaces that exacerbate interpersonal distance because “faculty can hide behind the safety of the computer without showing much, if any, of their humanity.” In other words, technology can create barriers that prioritize the impersonal. I do think it is a little dangerous to view teaching with technology from a place of problem-first, but, I also appreciate that Lowrie is encouraging educators to think purposefully about their interactions with students, emphasizing the importance of a “give and take between students and instructors,” virtual or otherwise, that “allows for vulnerable moments.”
In the classrooms I facilitate, one such vulnerable moment comes when I create a culture of trust by sharing my cell phone number. Yes—you are reading that correctly. Since 2008, I have been giving out my personal cell phone number to students. I establish clear expectations for calling (or texting, which is encouraged), such as reserving my early evenings for nighttime routines with my children, or outlining a reply protocol of 24 hours during the week, just because I am, like so many of my students, juggling so much. But rather than operating as a restriction, these parameters are just further proof that I am human, too. Sharing my phone number shows I am willing, as Lowrie (2019) encourages, to engage vulnerability in a way that I am comfortable with, and that encourages student engagement. Subsequently, students are willing to reciprocate—they are willing to match my investment, or exceed it.
Persistence and Virtual “Practices of Welcome”
Taking risks is not possible if the classroom—as a space and place—is considered unsafe, or unsupportive. Felton (2019) outlined how “practices of welcome are essential for engaging all students, and particularly those from groups who have been marginalized in higher education.” The simple way to start: “call students by name, as much as possible.” Though seemingly straightforward, and emphasized as “non labour-intensive,” these practices must be sustained long-term, becoming somewhat systematized in order to be successful. They are not a one-and-done effort, which is aptly reflected in the term Felton borrows from David Scobey; they are “relentless.”
In an essay describing some of the key tenets from my evolving virtual feminist pedagogy, I mention what has become my own persistent practice of welcome: acknowledging students by their preferred names. I write specifically about a virtual practice of name recognition, which is a bit different than Felton’s design, but the underlying premise is the same. I thank my students, by these preferred names (which I track, rather archaically, on an Excel spreadsheet), for all of their classroom contributions–discussion board posts, writing assignments, and peer interactions. In other words, I thank them by name in virtual spaces “as much as possible.”
When I first started teaching online, I worried that this much thanking was overkill—that the “relentlessness” would somehow numb students rather than nourish them. I also had concerns that starting every response with “Hi, X. Thanks for sharing Y,” might make it seem like I was teaching by template. But, time and again, students shared how this practice made them feel like I cared (I did/do!) and was invested in their contributions (I was/am!).
Staring from “I See You”
Acknowledging students by name is the first way I show online students that I see them—a concept at the heart of Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s (2019) compelling call for teachers to be more mindful about giving the gift of welcome via a “warm human presence” that both recognizes and rewards students’ diverse lived experiences, as well as creates opportunities for story-sharing and support.
For Pacansky-Brock (2019), seeing is compassion and kindness enacted; seeing is an active culture of care. At the end of her essay, she emphasizes the need for educators to create virtual spaces that can encompass students in their entirety. She urges the importance of interacting with students via authentic and complex connection, as opposed to thinking of them as “names on a screen.” Names are not enough.
I’d like to get better at sustaining this seeing. This is a part of my pedagogy that I want to be more purposeful about. Perhaps that comes with establishing a more formal community of practice—a move towards making manifests the idea that sharing is caring at the faculty development level, too.
What strategies do you use to see students and encourage welcoming online environments? Let’s build our CSoOTL together.
Bio: Niya Bond is an online English educator, academic advisor, and PhD student studying online teaching and learning at the University of Maine.
Felton, P. (2019, October 21). Creating a ‘relentless welcome.’ Retrieved from https://www.teaching-matters-blog.ed.ac.uk/creating-a-relentless-welcome/
Lowrie, L. (2019, October 21). Vulnerability in the classroom. Retrieved from https://s16815.pcdn.co/articles/teaching-and-learning/vulnerability-in-the-classroom/
Pacansky-Brock, M. (2019, October 21). I see you. Retrieved from https://brocansky.com/2019/10/i-see-you.html