Title

Bodies Online

College teaching and embodied identity in the pandemic era.

August 4, 2020
 
 

The hardest part about teaching effectively online is that my butt is stuck in a chair all day. Yeah, I know: set reminders to stand up, raise my computer screen to eye level, learn yoga, etc. I do all that, but ever since the March 2020 emergency pivot to remote instruction, my shoulders have been rapidly rounding into permanent parentheses. My mind’s online, but IRL my body is trapped in a chair with no lumbar support. My virtual classroom is taking a serious toll on my corporal form. Moreover, although I won’t be physically present with students next semester, they’re bringing the same stereotypical assumptions about what a college professor “looks like” into my online classroom as they do face-to-face. Today, when higher education is talking more seriously about effective online teaching and learning than ever before, and grappling with how to teach during a pandemic, we can’t lose sight of the reality that instructors’ corporal form -- our embodied identity -- always matters.

Advice columns, webinars and video tutorials aimed at helping college instructors teach in-person, hybrid, remote and online classes effectively and humanely during the COVID-19 pandemic have rightly focused on course design, pedagogical frameworks, and pressing problems of student academic equity and accessibility. There has been less attention paid to how instructors’ embodied identity intersects with teaching practices. Too often, otherwise excellent advice about college teaching seems to presume a level pedagogical playing field, but women and all faculty of color face what sociologist Roxanna Harlow termed “disparate teaching realities.” In academia, BIPOC faculty are routinely “presumed incompetent,” as the groundbreaking anthology (and its 2020 follow-up) unforgettably put it. Recently, #BlackInTheIvory compellingly documented anti-Black racism in higher education, further demonstrating that white body supremacy doesn’t magically disappear when students and instructors gather to learn together. As Nichole Margarita Garcia explains, when students and colleagues tell you that “you don’t look like a professor,” it’s a verbal assault. It reinforces systemic exclusion and discrimination in higher education and reiterates deeply entrenched gendered, racialized stereotypes about subject expertise, academic skill and classroom authority. 

Discourse about “best teaching practices” frequently fails to take fully into account these unequal teaching realities. Gender expectations and racial bias are always at work, even in cyberspace. For example, studies have repeatedly shown that in identical online courses, the class in which the instructor identifies as a woman receives lower and more critical student ratings. Commendable calls for pedagogical compassion and care for students during the coronavirus crisis may also reinforce gendered expectations of female professors’ emotional labor in the COVID-19 era. Being on camera to conduct meetings with students has economic class-, race- and gender-based ramifications for instructors. Let’s face it: men aren’t the ones worrying (in public, at least) about how their middle-aged necks look on Zoom. Scholars of online teaching convincingly argue that instructors must humanize online learning. We have to show up to our online class! But we should also consider the disproportionate demands these teaching practices may place on women and all underrepresented faculty, particularly contingent and untenured instructors.

I’m old enough to remember a brief shining moment in the 1990s when the World Wide Web was a sci-fi fantasy come thrillingly to life. Burning with a grad school-induced postmodern theory-soaked fever dream, to me the internet looked like the next step in the evolution of culturally constructed subjectivity and gender trouble. Soon, we’d be shedding our bodies, eliminating all man-made boundaries between nations and peoples, and engaging in a pure meeting of minds. A golden age of intellectual communing was about to begin!

LOL. That … didn’t happen.

From Gamergate to “incel” manifestos, the internet has instead facilitated a golden age of toxic masculinity, not to mention racism, terrorism, conspiracism and colossal monopolies. We Gen Xers learned a long time ago that the internet wasn’t going to be a utopia after all. We in higher education now need to more concertedly contend with the fact that online teaching and learning doesn’t free us from systemic racism, sexism, stereotypes and discrimination. And when we advocate for necessary and important changes in assessment and course policies during a crisis, we can’t forget that identity always plays a role in how students perceive us and our pedagogical strategies. When it comes to teaching in the pandemic era, our hearts and minds matter, but so too do our bodies -- whether our butts are online or on campus or in the classroom.

Jessamyn Neuhaus is a professor of U.S. history and popular culture at SUNY Plattsburgh and 2020-21 interim director of the Center for Teaching Excellence. In addition to two historical monographs and numerous articles and book chapters, Neuhaus is the author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers (West Virginia University Press, 2019). She is currently editing an anthology of insights into effective teaching and learning from women, marginalized and underrepresented college faculty.

Visit her website, Geeky Pedagogy, and find her on Twitter @GeekyPedagogy.

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