Pandemic Pedagogies: Remembering Emotion in Doctoral Education

November 2020

I was recently asked about my experience of the ‘online pivot’ on a panel dedicated to exploring pandemic pedagogies. My excitement about the opportunity to speak on this panel as a PhD student was met with a sensation of discomfort during the session. Especially during the Q&A period, I realized that the content of my talk was utterly disconnected from what the faculty-dominated audience wanted to know about, i.e. online course delivery. As I awkwardly signed off of the zoom call I wondered: Was anyone really asking me? To what extent are my senior colleagues and mentors thinking about pandemic pedagogies for doctoral education? We need to make more space in the conversation for meaningful engagement with how to respond to the needs of PhD students amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and particularly if it is exacerbating pre-existing issues with the teaching and learning environment that we build for doctoral education. 

Reflecting on my experience as a 4th year PhD student has led me to understand my experience as one of intensification. I have found that the pandemic has not changed anything so much as it has exacerbated pre-existing anxieties I hold about my life and identity as a doctoral student. 

I will focus on what seems like one of the most seductive values of higher education for PhD students, productivity. COVID-19 seems to have teamed up with neoliberal rationality, and my own anxiety, to offer new form to all too familiar, self-deprecating, and toxic narrative that not only values productivity but associates it with free time. Unlike some of my peers, I’m child-free and have no other dependants to take care of while I work from home. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing to do. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be more productive now than I’ve ever been. I should see this as an opportunity. I should be advantage of the time I have to invest in myself by learning new skills. I can finally finish my dissertation proposal. I can get several more pieces out for publication this year. I can register for more professional development opportunities. I can finish my teaching & learning certificate. I think, ‘here’s my chance to get ahead,’ but as I’m thinking, I worry that I have spent too much time thinking, and that I need to ‘get back to work.’ I’ve had to work really hard to pull myself out of something that is reminiscent of Mark Mason’s “the feedback loop from hell.” 

Productivity is a good example but it isn’t the only one. The hypermobility that academia expects moves us far away from our family and friends, now only to feel that separation more deeply. Our isolation is no longer a feeling but actively enforced. The lack of training we receive in teaching before we move into our roles as Teaching Assistants and Instructors, now thrown into sharp relief by the need to adapt to online course design and delivery. In addition to concerning ourselves with an ‘online pivot’ I propose that we should be considering how to make teaching & learning spaces pivotal for us in reclaiming our mental wellness, motivation, and sheer enjoyment of learning during what, despite what our top health officials have been telling us, has been more than a ‘difficult time.’

I have been fortunate in my own department to encounter approaches that take anxiety, fear, anger, uncertainty, grief, and other affects and emotions that we are collectively feeling as a result of the pandemic as a starting point. This has certainly been the case, for instance, in regular meetings with my supervisor, which always involve a judgement-free, collaborative, validating, and encouraging discussion of how I’ve been feeling, the extent to which that’s been impacting my work, and how I might use this feeling generatively. This space, and others that are informed by a similar approach, have been cathartic, putting me at ease, and sometimes even leaving me feeling re-energized, so that I have the capacity to go on to more freely and meaningfully engage in other parts of my learning. Far from casting public emotional expression as personal and unprofessional, I have found immense value lately in pedagogical approaches that not only acknowledge the existence of our emotions, but call us into conversation about their collectivity and their power.   

Based on my experience, I wonder if others are experiencing the learning environment re-shaped by an ethics of care, and rather intuitive turn to the practice of emotion pedagogies. We’re all in a moment where we see ourselves implicated in accounts of public grief, sadness, fear, anger, and are maybe more acutely aware of the centrality of affects and emotions in shaping our professional lives. The pivot to online opens up an opportunity for us to work together – students and faculty – not only to think about our pedagogy for the classes we teach, but also to think deeply about students’ experiences and approach transforming the teaching and learning environment as a whole.

I want to take a moment, however, to note that I don’t think all emotion pedagogies have this potential. Some of these approaches can actually reaffirm neoliberal subjectivity. This might look like teaching students to ‘manage’ their emotions or ‘overcome’ their emotions so that they can be productive and progress through their programs. They locate the source and manifestation of emotion in individuals, and consider emotions barriers that prevent us from doing our work. This certainly isn’t an approach that I find helpful, and in fact I think it can be quite harmful. Instead, the kind of emotion pedagogies that have the most transformative potential are those that ask us to sit with our emotions and understand them, to reflect on how we got to them – or how we’ve been affected – to recognize that affects shape our movement and that emotions are always a part of our decision-making. Most importantly, the kind of emotion pedagogies that I find helpful and perhaps transformative are those that ask to us how we can use those emotions generatively to open-up new sites of resistance, new ways of thinking, new ways of understanding our identity as students, our relationship to the university, and our responsibility to one another.