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Thinking teaching with corona/covid 19 – echoes in empty hallways

By Irina Schmitt

2020’s spring term was dramatic. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy some drama, and our U-turn from classroom to online teaching had some dramatic flair. There was a definite sparkle of ‘Yes we can’ (over more damp notes of panic in the online teaching novice – ‘how does that work? Why does everything take so long?’).

While I learned to handle the basics of preparing a video lecture, other forms of drama filled the news and the feeds: much less joyful ones. So many stories, so many lives; suffering, pain, violence, both structural and direct. I keep wondering, now at the end of the term, how these news feeds affect students, the students I have not-met this term and in a broader sense those students-who-are, students-who-might-be, students-who-cannot-be?

Here are some of the stories that have haunted me, this early summer 2020.

Early on in the pandemic, it must have been March, news reached me about a trans kid (I use the generic term for reasons of confidentiality) in a city not far from Lund, who was thrown out by their parents. (The network kicked in and found them a place to live.)

Or the article about increasing domestic violence against queer people in the UK during the pandemic; violence by parents, children, partners. ‘So “the household” is figured as a space of protection, but that is hardly true for many people.’ writes Judith Butler, analyzing capitalist and individualist logics of conceptualizing society, health and care.

Then there is the story of a trans woman from Uganda, whose resettlement to Sweden as a quota refugee is put on hold because the Swedish Migration Agency interprets the travel restrictions under corona/covid-19 unnecessarily severely. 

The frustration about the situation of health care workers in Sweden and elsewhere working under unsafe conditions, on many levels, and how it highlights the racist and ageist assumptions of Swedish society which make racialized and old lives less worth protecting.

The stories of police violence, murder and lynching in the US, the worldwide grief and anger. The much-needed reminders that this violence is not only happening far far away, but that it is part of Swedish histories and presents. The public debates that try to chastise Black Lives Matter activism as irresponsible in times of corona/covid-19, when in our part of the world we are encouraged to be active consumers in shops and restaurants. Listen carefully: Black Lives Matter.

Or the many stories how under the remit of corona/covid-19, governments (for example in the USA, Hungary and the UK) are suggesting or issuing legislation that will severely limit access to medical care and legal protection for trans people. Violent discussions about gender confirming care also soar in Sweden.

Some blame ‘the Jews’, some blame ‘the Gays’, some blame 5G masts. Feminist analyses argue that the pandemic and the way societies and states react to it reveals both the historic genealogies of letting-die and killing, and the dismal failures of current capitalist structuring of life. Across the world, this unevenness in access to healthcare is matched by an exacerbation of existential inequalities. This is part of our lives, and of students’ lives: Who was able to continue to study, who needed or wanted to return to hometowns and home countries? Who had the means to have a stable internet connection, and a computer or at least phone to manage the downloads? Crisis and violence affect us differentially, as Danielle Cadet writes: ‘The likelihood that your Black colleague lost a family member to COVID-19 is painfully high. The chances that your Black colleague was triggered by the viral video … because a white woman used her race and privilege and weaponized it against him is incredibly likely…. On behalf of your Black colleagues: we’re not okay. And you shouldn’t be either.’

Accessibility is not (only) a box to tick

The elation of managing to move classes into a digital space on short notice is real and valid – I do believe we did well there. We maintained some simulacrum of normality, providing structure to students’ lives and, hopefully, avoiding trouble with student loans and unfinished programs for many. (Also true is that we kept the machine running; German scholars and teachers had suggested to delete and start over, to allow teachers and students, with continued salary and student benefits, to dedicate this term to new and extended care obligations and needs, and for serious reflection and learning-with-the-crisis.) I learned on the go, with the help of colleagues more experienced with the format. Yet, the nagging thoughts about students who for many reasons might not be able to access this (new) format haunt me.

What can we take with us into the fall term, and beyond? I admit I have been sceptical of distance learning before, though I know that it can have its advantages in terms of accessibility. For people with limited mobility, for people with social anxiety or depression, but also for people with care responsibilities, distance learning can make studying possible. During the last weeks and months, Crip activists and scholars have pointed out that their limited mobility, socially enforced, is a life-long experience, when many of us muttered about not being able to leave the apartment for a few weeks or months. Ableism is a structural problem, argues scholar Christine Bylund, briefly highlighted, and then again brushed under the carpet. Niklas Altermark is critical of how the riskiness of corona/covid-19 has been discussed as mainly affecting ‘less-normal’ Others:

‘The fact that Covid-19 is a greater threat to some groups easily lends itself to the reproduction of risk as a mark of otherness. Against this, we need to refuse the individualisation of risk and insist that we carry it together. We need to acknowledge the political constituents of risk and ground our responses to the pandemic in mutuality. And we need to reject the idea that “normal” people are safe and that “risk groups” will die and the implicit presumption that this is kind of ok.’

In a feminist classroom (IRL or online), we can never be ‘kind of ok’ with some of us being more at risk than others. This is a time to rethink and unlearn underlying assumptions of ability in our classrooms. The Swedish-language ‘funktionalitet (functionality)’ hints that we are to function and be productive. How can we reframe learning so that it centres on learning and intellectual exchange, rather than the given structures?

We know that distance learning can be a way to make learning more accessible. A recent report by the Swedish Council for Higher Education states that a format with uploaded pre-recorded lectures can make learning more accessible for many students. Yet, during the cause of this term, students contacted me to let me know that they are feeling stressed and depressed. That is not an unusual occurrence in itself. I wonder, however, if the possibility of meeting co-students and teachers would have made it easier to ask for help earlier, or to see that other students also struggle at times. In the classroom, I can see when someone is struggling with social interactions. We teachers are not infallible, and we miss seeing students; I know that. But the classroom does afford us another kind of interaction than an online forum.

In one of the many related articles and posts I read this spring, anthropologist Susan D. Blum discusses how the format of online learning can make us more tired and more stressed:

‘In regular classrooms, we notice heads nodding, distracted, gazing in one direction or another. …  On Zoom, people may generally nod, but eye gaze can’t be tracked. We seek “joint attention” – that confirmation that everyone is sharing the focus. We get stares, or looking down or away, or watching the image on a screen, which may not even be in the center. What does it mean? We always want to know. Why did they do that?’

This is not merely about online etiquette. We are trying to communicate with central parts of the puzzle missing, and the brain tries to make up for it. This spring, we have acknowledged that regular online meetings have made us more tired. I have to assume that the same holds true for students.

As feminist scholars and teachers, we also know to analyze society and experiences intersectionally. How does an online seminar, where eye-contact might be necessary or at least expected, be experienced by neurodivergent students and colleagues? Alyssa Hillary’s recent article gives a clear understanding of the challenges of communications between and across differing modes of communication:

‘Take, for example, social stories that claim we look at teachers to make them believe we are paying attention. For an autistic person who cannot simultaneously pay attention to what is being said and make eye contact, this reason for eye contact is patently absurd. Understanding this story requires a much larger leap to the perspective of someone significantly unlike ourselves than a story in which someone looks away from the teacher to pay better attention and avoid overloading the teacher!”

Hillary discusses this in the context of being bilingual. What does it mean to teach or learn in more than one language, mode or culture of communication? I teach in two languages that are not my first language. While I use my ‘broken’ Swedish as a pedagogical tool to encourage students to ask for clarifications, that does not translate into a recorded video. Neuronormative teachers need to take differing communication patterns and needs into account. For me, this is as yet much easier (though I am in no way proficient) in the classroom than online.

How can we take such knowledge with us into the coming term and beyond? What do we need to learn to make it work on many levels intellectually, practically, socially?

Return to an analysis of vulnerabilities

This might have seemed like a detour – I began this text with stories of grief, pain and violence, and then discuss accessibility in online settings. For me, this is all part of an intersectional conversation. Indeed, in an interview in June 2020, Angela Davis reminds us of the genealogies of police violence against Black women with non-normative abilities and mental health. At the current moment, Davis continues, ‘What we are offered is the possibility of re-imagining and re-creating of the future.’ Somewhat more ambivalently, feminist political economist Alessandra Mezzadri asks ‘Will we learn, will we change? Will the next regime of social reproduction adopted by capitalism be more compatible with sustaining life even during crises?’

As a teacher, I hear this also as a pedagogical task. Alexis Shotwell’s beautiful reflection of corona/covid-19 as relational refers to knowledge created in HIV/AIDS activism. ‘And each of the vectors of recognizing who is made to be vulnerable teach us something about what sort of world we want to be in relationship with, not later, but now.’ Crises or violence will not just go away; but we can learn from them to create a somewhat better world, a somewhat better classroom. Not when everything goes back to a violent pre-pandemic normality, but now, when we are planning for the fall term. Learning from trans scholar Z Nicolazzo we can do ‘trickle-up education’ that ‘[frames] all education we do for those who are most on the margins. … In centering those who are most vulnerable, we create educational environments, and invest in educational epistemologies, that see liberation as a collective process.’


Dr. Irina Schmitt works as senior lecturer at the Department of Gender Studies in Lund. Irina’s research engages queer- and trans-feminist scholarship and activism, currently with a study centering young trans and non-binary people’s experiences of and demands for change in school in Sweden.

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