By Joelle Mann
Last week we came together for a webinar of reflective and responsive practice organized by SUNY Council on Writing Board Members Amy Beth Wright (Purchase College), Katelynn DeLuca (SUNY Farmingdale), Tom Friedrich (SUNY Plattsburgh), along with Mitch Morris, Director of College Writing at Purchase College. Maintaining a commitment to creative, relational expression, participants openly discussed their experiences in the writing classroom this past month.
The webinar was organized around bursts of writing, brainstorming, and breakouts. Participants sought to turn Friday fatigue into an embodied expression of contemplation and deliberation. Starkly working against the technological determinism that seeks to quiet our rooms and ZOOMs, this webinar reminded us of our responsibility to deliberately incorporate small acts of reflection in our digital classrooms.
Working our way through our own words, the session began with Amy Beth Wright asking, “What is one adjective to describe how you are feeling about this semester thus far?” followed by a brainstorm in the chat window and aloud. The contemplative practice at work here allowed participants to brainstorm adjectives that highlight the highs and lows of our first month of the fall semester. Listening to participants share their perspectives helped to shift our conversation as a community. Tom Friedrich imparted, “There is something welcoming in knowing that people are feeling better, getting their teaching together, while also feeling challenged by this situation. I live between those poles.” Tom’s observation seemed to describe our brainstorm, and words such as “unsettled,” “isolated,” and “wary,” became linked to “hopeful,” “anticipatory,” and “productive,” our language creating a collective space for sharing. It is this same space that helped us to achieve a sense of solidarity while we continued to think about the learning spaces we are currently creating for our students.
Digital Spaces and Relational Bodies
It is no secret that space is an organizing principle in our classes. And this semester, we have had to think about new ways of organizing our digital learning spaces. Because we seek to create a community of writers, inciting students to collaboratively reflect and revise one another’s writing, we have had to think about unique ways to create community in the digital world. As Mitch Morris noted, we must make more concerted efforts to help students come together in our digital space. Deborah Cooper, too, reminded us that we need to think about the digital as a way to connect rather than as a way for things to go terribly wrong.
While we teach our students about writing as an embodied practice, it is also important for us to remember, especially during this moment, the ways in which writing creates relational knowledge. Embodied writing attunes us to our relations with others; it nourishes an enlivened sense of presence in and of the world through emotional connection.
Sara Ahmed tells us that we experience knowledge through our bodily affects and emotions: “Knowledge cannot be separated from the bodily world of feeling and sensation,” she claims. “Knowledge is bound up with what makes us sweat, shudder, tremble, all those feelings that are crucially felt on the bodily surface, the skin surface where we touch and are touched by the world” (171). Right now, while we are surrounded by technological screens, it has never been more important to think about the ways we transfer and experience emotional and embodied knowledge through writing. As a group, we discussed ways to humanize our teaching to create spaces for students to feel connected to each other’s bodies and to their own writing practice.
Strategies That Work
Together, we came up with some of the key strategies that seem to be working in our digital and hybrid classrooms. Listed below are some of the strategies that members brainstormed during their breakouts:
- Collaborative Writing: Many agreed that focused moments of collaborative writing in the digital classroom have given students time to reflect and brainstorm together. Plus, this act of writing requires spoken and written expression while students work together to write. Instructors are currently using Google Docs and Google slides to create opportunities for students to write collaboratively.
- Collaborative Notetaking: The use of Perusall and Google Docs are the two most popular ways to enact collaborative, digital notetaking. Many instructors found that scaffolding these notetaking activities (giving students specific annotating roles) helped students have a focus while working together.
- Community Building and Ice Breakers: Peter Dearing and others highlighted the importance of incorporating humor in opening or closing activities. Tom Friedrich uses a ZOOM poll to ask, “Is a taco a sandwich?” or “What are you watching on television right now?” These helpful questions lighten the mood and create a space for conversational exchange. For closure, Amy Beth Wright and her students dance together to create a light and carefree mood.
- ZOOM Polls and Breakout Rooms: The use of breakout rooms and ZOOM polls, in general, have been a way to create micro-communities within our larger classrooms. And instructors have found these to be important ways to create formal and informal group work, allowing diverse voices in the classroom to be heard in different ways.
- Small Group Discussions: There was a good deal of discussion about the effective use of time inside and outside of class. Katelynn DeLuca talked about creating “found moments” with students by ending class a few minutes early to allow for extra help or personal discussions. Many others discussed scheduling office hours for student meetings rather than just waiting for students to come. Also, there were suggestions about slowing down transitions between activities, reinforcing pedagogical connections throughout the lesson.
- Discussion Techniques: There were many suggestions about ways to create effective discussions. Some use quick writes, some use the ZOOM chat to brainstorm, and others, like Nicole Sieben, uses a ten-minute writing session at the beginning of classes to help students later converse. VoiceThread was also a tool that has been helpful for some, and Liz Kotseas uses it often to connect with her international students. Wordle also seems to be a way to brainstorm and engage!
- Practicing Care and Reflection: Brian Fallon shared how he has been using shared Google Docs and breakout rooms to check in with students. Often splitting the class into two smaller rooms, he asks them to reflect upon how class is going so far, what readings are working, what questions they have etc. Mitch Morris and others recognize how reflection can be a prominent way to focus the class, to create opportunities for small group sharing, and to facilitate moments of unification and reciprocity.
- Opening Methods of Participation: Some participants discussed creating more opportunities for participation and forms of citizenship. For example, tweeting something about the class, guiding discussions, or creating student-led questioning sessions.
Embodied Writing and Meditation
Our session ended with an act of literal and figurative embodied renewal. Led by Amy Beth Wright’s poetic and poignant voice, we engaged in a five-minute meditation to end the webinar. Looking ahead to the future, we reflected on the bodies that must humanize our technologies: our students’ bodies and our own.
Tom Friedrich quoted an apropos line from philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception to concretize our final act of reflection:
Whether it is a question of another’s body or my own, I have no means of knowing the human body other than that of living it, which means taking up on my own account the drama which is being played out in it, and losing myself in it. I am my body. (198)
During 2020, we have watched a virus wreak havoc on our bodies and our body politic. Coming together as a community, the webinar helped us to recognize the cathartic advantages of our own reflections while we help our students reflect. Listening to Amy Beth’s breathing exercises during the final moments of our meditation, we recognize calm as a constant and life-giving praxis. Moving forward, we begin this week knowing that while we are online, our writing practices and pedagogies will seek to connect the bodies we see across our screens.
Thank you to everyone who organized and participated in the webinar. We will see you at the next webinar in October.
Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Second Edition, Routledge, 2014.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by C. Smith, Routledge, 2006