Connectedness and learning: an invitation

How much capacity for empathy do we have, for ideas and people whose worldviews are very different from our own? How much hospitality do we have in ourselves, beyond mere tolerance, for this kind of difference?

Maha Bali,  ‘Whom do you listen to? And why I’m hoping to go the US this August

At Mary Freer’s compassion lab last week I learned new things from systems researcher Fiona Kerr. Fiona advises large corporations on social neuroscience, and is a robust and articulate critic of the ways in which technology investment seeks to substitute face to face human interaction with AI, VR and robots. She speaks persuasively about the evidence that nurturing connections created between humans who trust one another transform our capacity to think, to innovate, to navigate risk and to plan with discernment. All of these are core benefits to any environment concerned with learning, so you would think that universities would be first in the line to be fostering empathic and collegial workplaces. Connectedness makes us better at the things that universities are here to do, literally.

jewellery links
Linked spirals: network diagram, photograph by Kate Bowles

There are practical problems, however, with applying these lessons to universities, first because we are hierarchical institutions with power issues; and secondly because we are naturally global organisations. The problem with the neuroscience of empathic connection is that the two activities that offer the greatest benefit in terms of brain responses are prolonged touch, and retinal eye lock. Neither transfer well into virtual environments; and prolonged touch doesn’t transfer well into many workplaces, so bear in mind that Fiona was speaking primarily to people involved in therapeutic patient care. (And even eye contact doesn’t generate such positive brain outcomes in Skype meetings as in face to face contact, which I found useful to know.)

So if we’re putting more effort into online communication (and universities really are burying themselves in email, at every level); and if we’re also positively encouraging online collaboration because it offers a wider horizon beyond collaborators who are local to us, then we need to figure out what it is that builds connection in online or virtual environments. All of us who teach also need to understand how students who are skilled in using technology to connect to others may still need support to develop those connections to a level that stimulates their capacity to empathise and then discern, in the same demonstrated way as eye contact and touch.

This has me thinking about what it means to teach empathically in diverse online environments, where we can’t always see or hear from the people we’re learning with, and we can’t assume in any fundamental way that they experience life as we do. We can take nothing for granted about the strangers we don’t meet, except through the words they offer in writing or when they talk to us through our screens. To remember to teach inclusively is to engage our own brains in thinking about the world as it is for others: over there, in that body, at that time of day, in that season, during that cultural festival, under that government, in that family structure, with those religious hopes.

The challenge of working inclusively and generously in online environments is impressive, but the opportunity that it opens up for us is something that we can’t leave to chance in this difficult world. So I am really glad to be heading to the US with my friend and colleague Maha Bali, to lead a section of the Digital Pedagogy Lab to be held at the University of Mary Washington in August. You can read more about our track here. We wrote that post together knowing that for very obvious reasons, Maha may have a tough time even entering the US as an Egyptian Muslim woman. But this is precisely why we’ve both chosen to try to show up:

we are coming to the US to lead this track because we both believe that the practical exercise of global citizenship is more important than ever. We believe that inclusive intercultural digital pedagogy is not a luxury, and can no longer be an afterthought. This time of walls and travel bans demands conviction and ingenuity from critical digital educators concerned with gestures of openness and hospitality. To change the landscape on both sides of the walls that are being built to keep us apart, we need to show up and collaborate wherever we can.

We are honoured to be making this complicated journey together. Above all, we are looking forward to working with participants at DPL Fredericksburg to shape new practices of witness, justice and empathy, and to advocate without compromise for a pedagogy of respect to the stranger, the migrant, and the refugee.

And after listening to Fiona Kerr and thinking about how our brains actually work, I’ll be asking specifically whether narrative practice in digital pedagogy is the missing dimension that enables us to form a profound sense of each other, in the absence of eye contact and touch. I’m thinking about stories that have been shared with me online, and how I retain a sense of that person through the lens of their story. To me this opens up a new way of looking at tools, platforms and practices to find those that are most likely to honour listening, without simply defaulting to likes and hearts and thumbs up. Which platforms are best to let someone know that they have been heard in this world? Which digital tools enable us to maintain a rich sense of the storied life being lived elsewhere?

So with all this in mind, I can’t say enough about the beautiful essay Sean Michael Morris has written about his practice of writing about teaching (Sean will also be leading a track at DPL in August, on this very thing.) As he puts it, all of of us who teach do so for reasons. It’s not always obvious what those are; it’s not always the case that we have been inspired by being taught formally or informally. Sometimes, we just found ourselves in the room, and stayed. That’s certainly what happened to me.

Sean’s story about his father covers so much ground; it’s a love story without romance, delivered reverently, candidly and carefully. It’s a story of connectedness and frailty, that gives space to what we learn about a person after they have passed from our life. About working with learners, who are at the core of this essay and at the centre of his practice, Sean has this to say:

We are not dealing with students, but people with dreams, people who will fail and people who will succeed, people who may end up alone and people whose high point of the day may be a conversation with us. Being kind may seem counterintuitive to the academic ethos—especially when being kind can sometimes mean being wrong—but we owe it to ourselves to think outside our setting, to see past the artificial boundaries of generation, expertise, and authority. And while we’re at it: race, gender, sexuality, religion.

This is how we should write about teaching. From a place less studious and a place more generous.

He could just have said this, but it’s the story that he shared around it of his relationship with his father that expanded the possibility of connection, and helped me to concentrate on and recall what he thinks about students. The gift of Sean’s story, the small details that are still in my mind, opened a space in the present for me to imagine my own storied life as a person who teaches, especially online. So I’d really like to know more about how this sense of connectedness and this intensity of recall might show up on an MRI. But for now it’s enough that this essay (and many others, by others) was shared online and I found it.

And if you can make it to Fredericksburg August 7-11, come and join us all. We’d love to see you.

Details are here.