The Pedagogy of Compassion: Resources From Our August 6 Webinar

By Amy Beth Wright

Tree with branches made of words, compassion, empathy, listening, etc.
Image courtesy of Mindfulness Northwest.

Compassion, and awareness of the cumulative trauma of both structural racism and the dislocation brought on by the global pandemic, were through-lines in the discussion during SUNY Council on Writing’s first webinar in advance of the fall 2020 semester, “Reflecting Back, Preparing within Uncertainty: Fostering Student Agency in Writing Courses.”

Joelle Mann (University at Binghamton), Laura Davies (SUNY Cortland), Shyam Sharma (SUNY Stony Brook), and Michael O’Connor (Onondaga CC) began the session by sharing a few of the key concepts that are integral to the design of their Fall 2020 writing curricula. Attendees chimed in via the chat as well as in breakout sessions to share strategies and tools; below is a summary of the discussion as well as a roundup of useful links and resources that were circulated. Thanks to all panelists and attendees for an enriching exchange!

Our next webinar, “Living with Uncertainty: Supporting Student Learning in a Dynamic World,” is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. on August 13. In this session, SUNY Council on Writing board member Brandon Maxam and colleagues from Jefferson Community College will discuss support plans and services for nontraditional students in the fall. Reminders and a Zoom link will be posted in our Facebook group, as well as on Twitter.


Each panelist first took a moment to respond to a prompt from Sharma, “How are you approaching your course design and semester planning, and with what key challenges in mind? What are your principles and strategies for addressing those challenges?”

Slow Pedagogy and an Ethics of Care

Joelle Mann will be teaching first year writing within the BingFlex model at SUNY Binghamton, which combines online and face-to-face instruction. She described embracing “slow pedagogy,” or an ethics of care—decelerating to spend time examining, discussing, and reflecting from a variety of entry points, with the effect of building sustainable relationships, and centering ethics and equity. Online instruction will cover major concepts that will be both introduced and further examined during in-class sessions. Class time will also prioritize ways to collaborate, such as brainstorming via the mind map, one approach that offers a physical, tangible way to use the space together.

To read more on slow pedagogy:

Determining Our Own Tempos by Peter Shaw and Bob Cole
The Power of Patience, Harvard Magazine 
Oberlin College, Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence

And, to learn more about Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking, visit her website.

Labor-Based Grading Contracts

Laura Davies noted that labor-based grading contracts address the structural racism that has been implicit within many models of writing assessment, historically. In meeting a selection of baseline criteria (which are discussed during class time) like minimum word count and other core elements, students can guarantee a minimum grade ( a B, for example), upon completion of an assignment, while continuing to work on core learning outcomes within an expansive writing process. Davies also described assigning low-stakes reading and writing assignments to be “graded” as complete or not, which in sum would equal 30% of a student’s grade—if they do not complete a few assignments their grade is not in jeopardy,  while an equitable system of accountability roots within the course.

To read more on labor-based grading contracts:

Inoue’s Labor-Based Grading Contract Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom
Inoue’s Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future

Davies also recommends OSCQR’s rubric,,  as well as Flower Darby and James Lang’s Small Teaching Online.

Non-Cognitive Challenges and Self Concept

Michael O’Connor delved into the non-cognitive challenges to learning, such as access to equipment, software, and Wi-Fi, childcare, housing and food insecurity, and work schedules, noting that these affective, non-academic issues shape student’s concepts of who they are as learners, readers, writers, and students, and impact time management and study skills. With continued recognition of the trauma of institutional racism, including greater emphasis on ASE scores, O’Connor advocates for a mindset of flexible generosity. With an understanding that not all students can be synchronous at all times, O’Connor recommends saving and posting class lectures, and replacing transactional language (such as, “If you do not complete X, then Y will be the consequence”) with non-judgmental phrasing, such as “I noticed you weren’t there today, is everything okay?”

O’Connor described centering our shared humanity and vulnerability within the classroom, and identifying failure as a moment of growth and an inroad to a reflective conversation, ultimately valuing student experiences as essential to their success. He also advocated for creating spaces where students can respond positively to one another’s work.

O’Connor recommends:

“Both students as well as us are experiencing this as trauma,” he noted, encouraging educators to think about accountability as working both ways, and to build in moments of reflection to think consciously about self-care.

Structure, Accountability, and Support

Shyam Sharma discussed his felt need for “flipping everything” during the pandemic, highlighting “how often I find myself facing the challenges myself that I used to pose for my students – the ball is back in my court half of the time, or half the ball is.” We must help students “go as far as they can from where they are right now,” rather than demanding that each of them reach the same destination. The classroom must be a space that is appealing, that is intrinsically motivating.

Sharma shared his teaching strategies about three themes associated with “flipping”: agency, accommodation, and accountability. Quality, he said, can only be achieved by fostering agency (rather than demands for rigor), rigor through motivation (rather than demand and “being a tough guy” professor or scary language on the syllabus), and structure through trust (rather than enforcing deadlines and policies), seeing support as needed.

Accommodation is now the default, rather than exception, and we can’t be asking for proof for sickness causing absence, for instance. Guidelines may help students stay on track (including more flexible and access-conscious guidelines), care may motivate them to reach out to us as needed, and fostering commitment help them do the best they can.

Accountability will similarly depend on support, rather than demand. Providing students netiquettes and educating them about how to be effective learners in technology-mediated courses may support and motivate them. Technocratic solutions must be replaced with humane pedagogy. Read his recent essay, “Unteaching Tyranny,” which begins, “It is possible and necessary to use technology to empower and inspire, not be tyrannical,” here.

Strategies Shared by Attendees

Grading, Assessment, and Reflective Practices
  • Katherine Johnston of SUNY Stonybrook described asking students to write a reflection letter assessing their participation within the peer review process, and to assign themselves a grade; she noted the profound honesty in their reflections. The process fits into the framework of slow pedagogy and is also helpful in terms of metacognition, Mann noted.
  • MaryAnn Duffy, also of SBU, shared, “I like the idea of a reflection letter about peer review in combination with a tutorial video modeling it.” Duffy also mentioned including more peer review to offset time grading.
  • Assign student’s writing partners or writing groups that might stay intact over the course of the semester, supporting consistent accountability and asynchronous participation, and also perhaps integrating letter writing.
Peer Review and Workshopping
  • For both annotation and peer review, assign three to four students to a GoogleDoc, and ask each to use a different font or color for their comments. If FERPA guidelines are an issue in terms of Google, Microsoft Teams and Sharepoint are also useful for sharing files and tracking changes for peer review, as well as for collaborative assignments.
  • Tracy Carrick mentioned  two social annotation apps, and Perusall, to slow down discussion about readings. They are effective both synchronously and asynchronously.
  • Using the Canvas Peer Review tool, students can respond in multiple ways — with marginal comments, open rubric responses, and audio/video. Carrick also recommends using Discussion Board in Canvas, setting up small groups, and having students uploaded their papers as attachments in the Discussion Boards.
  • Elizabeth Mazzolini uses Eli Review for peer review and  reflection in FYW. “Students are accountable to each other, and the instructor can manage the process, with rigor in terms of keeping students giving quality feedback to each other. I recommend it.”
  • Patricia Dunn shared, “Yes. I agree that it’s very important to teach peer response. To model the process. To experiment with sentence starters. To let them practice. To generate (with them) some guidelines so that things stay balanced and tactful.”
  • Hold synchronous early morning office hours, for students who are abroad.
  • In group work over Zoom with English Language Learners, one guiding principle for synchronous distance learning/teaching: involve more conversation and voice thread rather than discussion board.
  • Food for thought from Maureen Kravec, SUNY Empire State College, “I have taught online as well as face-to-face. This fall, I will also be doing videoconferences. I find the most difficult thing about teaching online is that the students tend to think of the faculty member and course in terms of the preconceptions they have of college professors and writing. I find it much easier to break through those thoughts (if they are negative) in person.”

Rita Nezami captured the theme for the webinar, “Students need to feel we care for them, especially at a time like this. Compassion and generosity are key to success.”

To view the entire conversation:






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