By Dr Kate Cantrell and Associate Professor Jessica Gildersleeve
In a recent article published in Times Higher Ed, North American scholars working in public health, sociology, and STEM discussed their reshaping of curricula to teach the pandemic. Mike Limarzi, for example, a Senior Professorial Lecturer of Mathematics and Statistics in Washington DC, rewrote his calculus course to teach exponential growth through pandemic modelling, while Krista Milich, an Assistant Professor of Biological Anthropology, developed a three-week intensive that covered topics such as employment law, health messaging, and science communication. These reinvented courses, as Ellie Bothwell explains, were “designed to be educational in both the practical and academic sense” and “to help students psychologically process the crisis” (par. 2).
In our experience teaching narratives of trauma in a first-year Australian literature course, offered during lockdown, we were cognisant of the importance of connecting with students who not only felt disconnected from their studies during the pandemic but additionally discomfited and perhaps distanced by the challenging nature of the course. While we were initially surprised by the overwhelmingly negative affect reported by students in response to the set reading, we were reminded, as Mary O’Dowd points out, that the study of Australian literature, and Australian history more generally, is often met with a “resistance to hearing the story” (105). For this reason, one of the key aims of the course is to uncover students’ cultural biases and blind spots, and to build students’ capacity to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
As we adapted alongside our students to a “new normal”, we discovered that in addition to our usual duties as reading and writing instructors, we had two equally important and intertwined ethical responsibilities: to build our students’ “reading resilience” (Douglas et al) and to practise academic kindness.
While the pedagogical literature on the latter is sparse, we conceive of academic kindness as intellectual compassion, empathy, and generosity – active habits that seem necessary as we live and work through a mass traumatic event. While technology has been lauded as the solution to disconnect, its impartiality is breached by the fact that its affordances often distribute unevenly along gender, class, and geographic lines. As Suzy Houston explains, “Digital technology may well be applauded as the hero of the pandemic, but without exceptionally generous measures of empathy, kindness, and a deep awareness of our own humanity, the technology won’t get us very far” (par. 7).
For us, as literary scholars, adopting academic kindness as a pedagogical practice means not only modelling it to students and each other, but leveraging its transformative potential into the existing framework of reading resilience, such that it builds collective responsibility and accountability. In practice, this means connecting with students through story, and treating students not as antagonists but as co-narrators. In our case, it also means engaging students in an open and honest dialogue about historical legacies of privilege and injustice, while at the same time encouraging students to embrace – rather than resist – difficult questions about the relationship between trauma, history, and complicity.
Therefore, to foster rather than enforce a culture of kindness, and to extend allyship to students in a way that feels genuine rather than tokenistic, we use reflective practice and sharing to construct a private dialogue between teacher and student. For example, to help students manage their affective response to the traumatic past (and the traumatic present), we penned students a letter ‘On Being Confronted’. The letter, as an ancient form of art and a personalised form of correspondence, was a deliberate act of exposure, highlighting the importance of transparency and trust in the transaction between teacher and student, and self and world. As we disclose:
In this letter, we want to share with you some secrets about reading that no one tells you but which everyone expects you to know (a strange and unhelpful situation, we confess) … Reading, as you’ll see, is not always safe and comfortable; sometimes, it is confronting, and therein lies the greatest secret of all.
Through letter writing, we sought to reach each student through warmth and humour, moving beyond the rhetoric of the lecture to adopt instead a conversational mode that meets students where they are. In doing so, we realised that now more than ever we must support our students in a meaningful way. Indeed, something as simple as letter writing can reduce techno-overload and alleviate the techo-stress that now permeates our everyday. Above all, we realised that while kindness is a virtue we often aspire toward as people, it is not something we necessarily regard as innate to teaching, and this must change.
Bothwell, Ellie. “Universities Reshape Curricula to Teach the Pandemic.” Times Higher Education, 2 Nov. 2020, http://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/universities-reshape-curricula-teach-pandemic.
Douglas, Kate, Tully Barnett, Anna Poletti, Judith Seaboyer, and Rosanne Kennedy. “Building Reading Resilience: Rethinking Reading for the Literary Studies Classroom.” Higher Education Research & Development, vol. 35, no. 2, 2015, pp. 254-266.
Houston, Suzy. “Making Kindness a Priority.” GCU Academic Development and Student Learning, 6 Apr. 2020, http://gcuacaddevelopment.wordpress.com/2020/04/06/making-kindness-a-priority/.
O’Dowd, Mary. “Engaging Non‐Indigenous Students in Indigenous History and ‘Un-history’: An Approach for Non‐Indigenous Teachers and a Politics for the Twenty‐First Century.” History of Education Review, vol. 41, no. 2, 2012, pp. 104-118.
Kate Cantrell is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of Southern Queensland. She is an award-winning writer, editor, and teacher working at the intersection of creative writing and social justice, with an interest in narrative representations of ‘wandering’ and contemporary accounts of illness, immobility, and displacement. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in several magazines and journals, and she writes regularly for Times Higher Education.
Jessica Gildersleeve is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Southern Queensland. Her books include Christos Tsiolkas: Utopian Vision (Cambria, 2017), Don’t Look Now (Auteur, 2017), Contemporary Antipodean Gothic on Screen (Amsterdam UP, forthcoming), and The Routledge Companion to Australian Literature (Routledge, forthcoming).