Online Teaching as Prosthesis? Covid19, Ableism and the Academy

During the first weeks of the pandemic and the rushed adjustments made to allow for remote working and teaching, one feeling became palpable within the disability community: anger. After years (read: decades) of fighting for accessibility, the exact same accommodations that had been denied to disabled people time and again (which cost time, income, jobs, and have forced disabled people out of academia), similar demands by nondisabled people were now implemented without much further discussion. Suddenly, home office, online classes and online meetings were not only possible and affordable but deemed vital and necessary. My disabled colleague at another university, for instance, was suddenly allowed to grade student term papers on the computer, while previously, and despite her struggles to do so, being forced to correct them manually due to “legal concerns.” How then, does online teaching as part of the new accessibility impact disabled and chronically ill students and staff in times of Covid19? Is everything better, now that we can work from home and teaching takes place online?

This blog entry responds to online education from a disability studies perspective. When talking about disability during Covid19, I believe it is central to take the intense ableism and microaggressions into account with which disabled and chronically ill people are being confronted because of the pandemic. Being faced with the threat of the virus, as well as deliberations about the expendability of disabled lives, has a decisive impact on our wellbeing and our ability to work and study. The distancing measures (including remote instruction) protect not only particularly vulnerable people, but everyone. While they bear many advantages and indeed respond to many demands that disabled people have made over the years, I focus on the problematic way that remote instruction is framed. I refer primarily to the article “Sites of Normalcy: Understanding Online Education as Prosthetic Technology” that appeared in Disability Studies Quarterly in 2014. According to the authors, Marie Moeller and Julie Jung, online instruction is a form of accessibility and allows students to attend university remotely, which permits “parents, full-time employees, persons with disabilities, persons living in rural areas” to obtain an education. Yet, inadvertently, it also alleviates universities of the pressure (and financial “burden”) to make educational spaces more accessible to marginalized bodies. This “‘benefits’ educational institutions by keeping [nontraditional students] out of sight and conveniently out of mind.” 

Simultaneously, however, cultural narratives devalue online education. Moeller and Jung show how conversations about online teaching, despite the fact that it can improve accessibility, perpetuate and promote ideologies of normalcy, because cultural narratives frame online education as a “pedagogical oddity,” that is marked, together with its users as a “‘less-than’ substitute for the real version.” The authors proceed to describe examples from popular culture, such as the TV series Glee, which help reinforce normalizing ideologies that construct online education as an “inadequate substitute for traditional place-based education.” They illustrate how even advertisements for online courses construct the inability to attend campus as an abnormal, individual problem that can be solved by “special” accommodation through technology. “Furthermore, the reason someone might seek out online education (e.g., a person whose agoraphobia motivates her to learn online) emerges as a problem normal students don’t have and thus for whom online education is not needed.” Following these examples, Moeller and Jung state that by perpetuating the status of online education as a poor substitute for “the real thing,” remote instruction receives a status of “prosthetic technology, which we define as a culturally recognized inferior substitute for a nonexistent yet normatively desired ideal that both constructs its user as a ‘problem’ (you’re not normal) and provides the user with a ‘solution’ (this will make you more normal).”

What does all of this have to do with our Covid19 situation here in Germany? Criticism of online classes, in which my colleagues and I have invested hours and hours of extra work to make this form of teaching possible, claiming that these are “not as good as the real thing” exists in Germany, and at Kiel University, too. In an open letter, more than 2000 lecturers at German universities demand an, albeit careful, return to teaching on campus, citing collectivity, networking and the open exchange between people present (“Anwesende”) as the basic principles of university teaching. Given the short time which students and staff alike had to familiarize themselves with new technology and invent methods to teach digitally, this criticism is perhaps justified. 

Nonetheless, not only does the discussion make the quality and effectiveness of in-class seminars indisputable, perhaps overlooking that good teaching depends on more than being in the same room, but there is also a greater issue at stake: if we are able to return to (perhaps only phases) of place-based education during the winter term, this distinction between “real” education and online “substitute” starts to matter. It starts to matter for students and staff who are part of the #HighRiskCovid19 group. Us folks with diabetes, heart disease, weak immune systems or damaged lungs (or those of us who live with a partner or friend or child who is part of this demographic): we will likely be the ones who will teach, and will be taught, online. I am grateful that provisions for our safety are being made and I wholeheartedly support the statement by the Accessible Campus Action Alliance who warn of the risks campus re-openings pose to disabled students and faculty, as well as to all others. But, according to the article in question (and the normative ideology I recognize in some of the ways we talk about remote instruction), our online education and teaching will be perceived as “less than”. And, following Moeller and Jung, the negative value that is attached to these accommodations are projected onto the bodyminds for whom these accommodations are made. How tempting would it be, if my online class is really not an adequate substitute, to just tell me to get another job? Because surely, I do not want to disadvantage my students? Who would even enroll in my class if you could just have “the real thing” instead? Perhaps only the students who are legitimately afraid of Covid19? See where this is going? 

Don’t get me wrong, I want to “get back to normal,” too. I miss teaching in a classroom, interacting with students and my colleagues in person. And I’m not complaining that the university and the department are allowing me to work and teach from home to protect my health. But we do need to check the way we talk about remote teaching. We need to recognize that the production of online education takes more time, not less, than preparing an in-person class. We need to make sure not to discourage instructors (and students) by perpetuating the idea that no matter how hard we try and how much time we invest, our online lessons will never be as good as the traditional in-person class. Because doing so risks perpetuating the same ableism that the discourse about the pandemic already creates en-masse. Rather, I would love to see a different description of online teaching that describes it neither as “an inherently democratizing ideology [n]or a joke” as Moeller and Jung put it. This appraisal of online teaching is not meant to result in the ‘cost-effective’ removal of in-person teaching, complete with more online classes per teacher and fewer teachers overall. Rather, let’s appreciate online teaching as a valid way of instruction that was, incidentally, born out of crip engagement with, among other issues, higher education. In the words of activist Aimi Hamraie:

“Please recognize that the very types of remote access that universities now mandate for classrooms and conferences have been denied to disabled people. Please also recognize that disabled people have long engaged in refining methods for remote access to protests, classrooms, doctor’s offices, public meetings, and other events. Mention this in your classes so that students know they are benefitting from crip technology and praxis. Commit to accessible teaching because it is crip technoscience and disabled ingenuity that has made remote participation possible.”

I hope that the accommodations during Covid19 that benefit disabled students and staff (which include online education) are a step towards a more inclusive university that does not lead to a split into “online” and “real” education. Because we need more acceptance of disability in higher education and more accessibility to make sure that everyone can participate in higher education equally – during and after Covid.

Student Lives Matter

In recent weeks a groundswell of protest against racism in America has played out in both the real world and social media. Mobile phones, social media accounts, photographs, and videos, played a vital role in exposing and countering systemic oppression. Such concerns might seem somewhat different from the usual ‘online learning struggles’, but in truth, it is in the midst of all of it, as it highlights the struggle for Educational Justice and the importance of technologies in changing these problems for the better.

According to David J. Leonard and Safiya Umoja Noble’s essay “Black Student Lives Matter: Online Technologies and the Struggle for Educational Justice”, black students continue to learn in an anti-black environment. Thus, they see the need to take their voices to a virtual street to be heard and to protest the injustice they face, laying bare the emptiness of the rhetoric of inclusion into college communities. This, and the wider national political atmosphere, inspired students to mobilize their voice on social media, which in turn, built bridges to the less fortunate black neighborhoods outside the campus walls, posting real-time events that transcend the old media and its editorial lines. For example, to connect to protests in Ferguson following the killing of Mike Brown, students at Harvard and Howard University circulated photos of themselves doing the “HandsUpDontShoot pose”.

In higher education, equal opportunities and diversity advertised by universities are often little more than brochure topics to attract students and showcase a ‘post-racial’ harmony. However, social media, through stories of minorities showing a different side of the learning space, can provide a different side of the equation. In America, “almost 1 Million students of all color experience racially and ethnically based violence, which includes verbal aggression, harassing phone calls, and other types of psychological intimidation each year”, a study is quoted. The students that experience these types of discrimination are deeply affected as a recent study from Northwestern University, under the name ‘Psychological and Biological Responses to Race-Based Social Stress as Pathways to Disparities in Educational Outcomes’, suggests that the stress of racial discrimination may partly explain the persistent gaps in academic performance between some non-white students, mainly black and Latino youth, and their white counterparts.

Social media help students reach a wider and different audience, generating bigger support and interest to the cause, hence becoming a powerful player when demanding reforms from a rather reluctant administration that tries to silence their voices to protect the illusion of ‘post-racial’ harmonic community where race is no longer an issue to encounter. Also, it provides a push forward for other discriminated students not only racially, but for reasons of religion or gender, etc. that might feel intimidated by the notion of activism, protesting and demanding change, to follow their footsteps and open a meaningful virtual discussion under one hashtag movement that might eventually lead to organizing significant events in real life. Social media is a legible space of protest, and it is pivotal in making visible the crises facing Black college students and their efforts at social change.

Although social media and technology help create a feeling of community and collective identity, it also starts with an individual’s narrative that emphasizes their humanity and agency, offering them a voice to contribute to issues that are hard to voice on campus ground by oneself. Thus, attracting more people with the same challenges to speak out and create a shared experience. It also provides anonymity as you can speak out using an alias, which gives a ‘sense of security’ and de-stress. 

Back in Germany, social media activism and communities are not as wide-spread as in the US. Such lightweight social media presence could be explained by the existence of counseling programs on the ground, for instance, ‘Diversity and Equality Counselling’, that make an effort to tackle all types of discrimination happening at the university. Also, I think challenges in Germany for example as opposed to the US are more politically focused rather than social problems.

That being said, social media is an open space where one can demand reform, fight injustice, and seek positive change on the ground, but also a powerful tool of suppression, bullying, violence, and a perpetuation of injustice. In most cases, it depends on which side of the spectrum you sit. It marks who is an ally to the cause, but also who is on the flip side of the coin.

Finally, technology has opened new mechanisms to approach activism and helped the less fortunate to amplify their voice and share their most vulnerable side. Hoping to make a change that would impact their lives as individuals. But still, the ‘old fashion’ activism taken to the streets is more efficient at challenging the injustice. However, that doesn’t mean that one is better than the other, instead, it means they complement each other, working hand in hand for a better future.  

Humanities in the Digital Age

An image of a flower. Romantic piano music starts to play as John Lithgow starts to philosophize: “The stem of the flower is in fact STEM […] but the blossom of the flower is the humanities. Without the blossom, the stem is completely useless. […] The humanities teach us who we are.” Although the video “The Heart of the Matter” by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences was made to bring attention to the fact that the humanities are badly underfunded, it also highlights the alleged discrepancy between the humanities and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects. George Lucas’ statement sums it up: “Science is all the how. And the humanities are the why.”

Currently, millions of students and teachers of the humanities are nevertheless forced to rely on technology during the corona crisis. How does this work? Besides from the usual frustration when someone’s internet connection crashes in the middle of a video conference, some humanities scholars like Simon Strick in “Digitally Drunk” argue that this kind of ‘online classroom’ does not work at all for the humanities, in which sensitive topics like racism are often the focus of attention: “What is the PowerPoint document, YouTube-Video, or interactive PDF that best simulates the experience of reading and discussing Gender Trouble for the first time? How do I do ‘mood work’ when teaching 20 people in a virtual classroom on BigBlueButton?” It is easy to understand that online seminars can be a challenge and a major change for teaching in general, but is there really no reasonable way to connect the humanities with technology?

The possible answer to this are called the ‘Digital Humanities’, which combine the traditional humanities disciplines such as literature, history, and philosophy with the application of computational tools and methods. They have, as Alan Liu puts it in his essay “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?”, the potential to use new technologies to help the humanities communicate with, and adapt to, contemporary society. Recently, they are being gradually integrated into the humanities, looking to improve, create and disseminate new means of communication between the humanities and the public.

A great example to illustrate this is SELFIECITY. The project investigates the style of selfies in five different cities across the world to understand how the history of photography can help to better understand the so called ‘selfie phenomena’ and how social media images can be approached theoretically in general. On their website, the researchers did not only present their findings about the demographic of people taking selfies, but also let you navigate the whole set of 3200 photos in an interactive ‘selfiexploratory’ to let you experiment with the data yourself. Therefore, the study does not only show to what extent digital humanists‘ use of technological tools and methods to investigate and to understand human-behaviors help us to be aware about a particular fashion-style and communication of a specific community in a specific time and space, but lets everyone who is interested delve into the experiment for themselves. Is there a better way to study?

Furthermore, Simon Strick argues that ‘mood work’ does not work online and that sensitive topics like racism are better discussed in an offline classroom, where one can read the room’s affects. While one could agree that discussions are more complicated in a video or microphone conference, this is rather due to the unusual circumstances, which are new for both teachers and students. In the first few weeks of the online semester of the CAU, most students did not know how to respond to the teachers’ questions. Do I just start talking or do I have to raise my hand? What if someone else starts talking at the exact same time? Some students even had to mute their microphone for entire sessions because they did not want to disturb their classmates with background noises, which unfortunately prevented themselves from participating in the class at the same time. Situations like these can occur in every subject, no matter if you study humanities or STEM. Lively discussions are definitely more likely to occur in an offline classroom or maybe in a possible future, where students and teachers got used to online classes.

Nevertheless, sensitive topics are not a good reason to completely neglect technological tools and methods in the humanities. Instead, digital humanities can be used to help and support discussions about certain topics. An example for this is the “The Baltimore Uprising 2015 Archive Project”, which was initiated to collect historical records of the arrest, and the protests that followed, of Freddie Gray, a black man who died after he was arrested by the Baltimore Police Department on April 19, 2015. The website contains several pictures, videos and interviews by eyewitnesses and community members, that present a different perspective to the public from what the media portrayed. When the humanities discuss topics like racism, no matter if it happens in an ordinary classroom or in a video conference, they would definitely benefit from the different point of views that can be reached through technology and the internet, instead of just discussing the topic within the – unfortunately mainly white – classroom.

Furthermore, digital humanities are playing a major role in supporting teachers, students and researchers by creating platforms, archives and software that are providing accessible materials and contents in a way that makes learning equally accessible for all learners, be they rich or poor. Two examples are Omeka and WordPress, which are publishing tools that can be used to create attractive visual display of digital collection material and as platforms for creating and publishing digital scholarship. WordPress, on the one hand, is highly recommended and used by many institutions, organizations and schools. One can for instance create forums, which can be a good place to bounce ideas of each other and get a sort of an interactive community discussing specific topics and sharing same interests. More than that, WordPress is also an excellent opportunity to distribute content, surveys, mailing lists and digital publications. The platform also provides a basic setup that is free for everyone to use with reasonable and accessible prices for more functionalities. Omeka, on the other hand, is well-known for providing great plugins – for example ‘Neatline’, which allows scholars and students to tell stories with maps.

In summary, it can be said that although there are still many scholars who claim that the humanities and technology are two areas that do not belong together, the digital humanities are proving the opposite by creating great technological tools and methods that can equally help students and teachers to understand and analyze certain topics. To come back to the metaphor of John Lithgow, who argued that the STEM is completely useless without the blossom that is the humanities – what is a blossom without its stem? Not capable of survival.

Digital Desire

For me, as a teacher, the last couple of sessions have been somewhat of a disaster. The technology of the video conference has completely failed me. For reasons I was unable to determine, the connection broke down again and again, people couldn’t hear me, voices were put into slow-motion, videos froze, i.e.: the lot. It was frustrating for everyone. However, I felt something even stronger than frustration. I experienced an urgent desire to communicate, or rather: an unfulfilled desire to learn that my communication was successful. Do you hear me? Can you see me? DO YOU KNOW WHAT I’M SAYING???

Thinking about this experience I realized that this communicative desire is a constitutive part of all my online-teaching, and not only a response to technological glitches. I feel a constant need to explain to students what we are doing and how I want to do things; I constantly write emails to my students reminding them of what to do, where, how and why; I address students directly, asking them what they think about a certain text, a format, a tool; I urge them to contribute to discussion threads and blogs. I need to see them react to what I am doing. I need them to signal: I hear you! This, really, is different to my behavior in times of co-presence. I hardly write emails to students; I seldomly remind them of their tasks. To be honest, I am quite content with seeing them once a week; we have a good discussion in class and that’s fine until next time. Why this difference?

When looking at communication in situations of co-presence, the sociologist Niklas Luhman highlights what is going on beyond communicating in words: »Compared with explicit communication (…), reflexive perceiving has specific advantages. (…) Above all, perception achieves (…) great complexity in absorbing information with limited analytical precision – thus a far-reaching but only ›approximate‹ mode of intelligibility, which can never be communicated«. In situations of co-presence, we see each other being in the same situation, the same room at the same time, we see each other looking at the same text, listen to the same words. And even though, of course, that doesn’t mean we know what’s going on in each other’s minds, the shared situation produces »great security about the commonality of an item of information (however diffuse) that one possesses«. We don’t know exactly what it is, but we share it.

But it is not only the shared context which produces a certain security of commonality that defines a situation of co-presence. Not for nothing, we call such instances face-to-face communication. As Luhmann writes, this produces “a capacity for modalizing communication through parallel processes of weakening, strengthening, and contrary utterance on a level of (intended or unintended) ›indirect‹ communication«. It’s what happens beyond mere words that makes the difference, and it’s of specific importance »for working out changes in theme or an end to contact«. Every word leads to another – and another, and another. Only a mutual gesture, a look in each other’s eyes, a nod of the head can end this. It’s okay, we can leave at that. It’s okay.

It’s never just okay on the internet, and that’s why it never ends. In fact, one might even conclude that our desire to find an end (which never comes) drives the internet. In her book Blog Theory, Jodi Dean, an American political theorist, writes: »It’s not like cinema, where people only have to show up. For the internet to function at all (…), people have to use it, add to it, extend it, play with it. Our participation (…) drives it.« And we can’t stop participating, nothing fills the void that opens up between words and answers that never come: “In a world of code, gaps and omissions can become knots of anxiety.”

p.s.: the internet is known to be a place for self-marketing. Let me add to this and recommend my new book Digitalschatten to you. It was written before Corona, obviously, and it has nothing to say about remote instruction/online learning specifically, but it has all the more to do with desire, digital communication and the role of bodies in communication.