I’m tired of looking at my computer screen.
I dread logging onto yet another Zoom session.
I have had almost daily headaches and blurry vision.
These are just a few of the end-of-semester comments that students expressed to me following the transition to remote learning. I immediately empathized because this was something that I too was experiencing.
In addition to visual and mental exhaustion from staring at screens, students experienced physical discomfort from sitting at a desk for prolonged hours.
Again, I could relate.
As I prepare for another semester of online teaching, I am taking to heart the above feedback and adapting my pedagogy in response to screen fatigue and inactivity.
To do so, I draw from two practices that have gone hand-in-hand for millennia: learning and wandering.
The virtues of walking around
Friedrich Nietzsche held walking as vital to the task of philosophy, writing:
Only thoughts which come from walking have any value.
This esteem for walking extends back to Aristotle, whose disciples formed the Peripatetic (“given to walking about”) School. This concept relates both to the columned walkways of the Lyceum where Aristotle taught and to his storied reputation for walking around while teaching.
Walking has also been important in my discipline: Latin American literature.
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, for instance, penned “Walking Around” in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. With surrealist images, Neruda’s poetic voice confronts the violence of modernity and the desperation of the human condition while walking through an urban setting.
Wandering is more about moving through space than walking per se, and its benefits go far beyond aesthetic inspiration.
After months of self-isolation, we could all benefit from some fresh air and wandering.
Learning in the time of COVID-19
When classes were moved online in mid-March, my principal goal was to avoid deploying new technologies, as I worried that students were learning new apps and platforms for multiple classes.
To that end, I recorded brief lectures over PowerPoint presentations and asked students to participate in discussion forums. This solution closely mimicked our prior in-class format.
I also sought student feedback.
One student suggested that I allow oral reflections instead of written responses for the discussion forum. Students noted that this would allow them to record on their phones — away from their computer screens — and to practice spoken Spanish.
Little did I know that this would be valuable in other ways.
Permitting recordings opened up a different form of reflection that was closer to the freewheeling discussions we had held in class.
While still rigorous, students’ oral observations had a creative, meandering quality that was often more spontaneous than written responses.
As I prepare my courses for the upcoming academic year, I plan to encourage similar creative meandering that also allows students to reflect on course material away from screens.
Wandering and/as learning
Because I am familiar with the sound editing software Audacity, I will use this skill to prepare lectures as podcast episodes, which will be available for streaming and download on Canvas.
I will encourage students to listen to episodes outside, away from their screens. Doing so will allow students to combat screen fatigue as they learn on the move.
It also opens up possibilities for fieldwork.
My fall course relates to Indigenous foodways in Latin America, and two assignments ask students to take observational strolls, during which they consider local foodways in relation to readings and lectures.
These assignments make the best of the exceptional situation wrought by the coronavirus. Given that students will be spread out across the world, their observations will be uniquely distinct in a way that could not occur if we were together on campus.
This task of “wandering” may look quite different for each student, as they may have disparate physical capabilities, surroundings, and social distancing measures.
I will encourage students to meet with me to discuss what “wandering” looks like for them, and I will be flexible with students who prefer or require an adjusted assignment.
As Rebecca Solnit observes:
[walking] is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.
My approach to online teaching seeks to facilitate such thoughts, arrivals, and experiences through a semester of wandering, both aimlessly and purposefully.
Equitable and inclusive learning
Similar to many podcasts, I will prepare a landing page (like this one by 99% Invisible) for each episode with images and links to resources. While students may get away from their computer screens to listen to the podcast lecture, this differentiated instruction style will be more equitable for myriad reasons.
First, asynchronous lectures will be equally convenient across time zones and will allow students to take in information at their own pace.
Furthermore, students with complicated home situations — those with small children or many roommates that share common spaces — may access recordings when it is optimal for their learning.
Second, the scripted nature of a podcast means that each lecture will already have an accompanying transcript, which will be posted on the landing page. The transcript will facilitate learning for visual learners as well as students with hearing impairments.
Third, without campus Wi-Fi and computer labs, students will have widely different technological resources. Typing assignments, downloading hefty PowerPoint files, or viewing streaming lectures may not be equally feasible for everyone.
Podcast lectures and mobile-friendly landing pages will be more accessible for students learning on smartphones.
Finally, leveraging podcasts as a pedagogical tool will allow me to incorporate Indigenous voices.
For instance, I will include the Toasted Sister Podcast interview with Neftalí Duran in the unit on Indigenous migration and diaspora. In this way, students will hear from a Mixteco chef and be prompted to consider course topics alongside the lived experience of Latin American people.
The humanities moving forward
The shift to remote teaching due to the pandemic has not always been smooth. However, in many cases, it has encouraged instructors to experiment with diverse technologies and to purposefully revisit pedagogical strategies.
These fresh pedagogical practices allow humanities scholars to become nimbler at incorporating new technologies and disseminating their research in a meaningful way.
We come out better equipped to convey scholarly findings across different media and in different registers.
Ideally, these practices will also allow researchers to train humanities students in new technologies. Humanists will then graduate with greater digital literacy to complement the rigorous training in critical thinking, literary analysis, language proficiency, and research methodologies that we already Nprovide.
Neruda, Pablo. “Walking Around.” 1938. Translated by Robert Bly. Poets.org. poets.org/poem/walking-around, Accessed 5 June 2020.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Aphorism 34.” Twilight of the Idols: or How to Philosophize with a Hammer, 1889, translated by Duncan Large, Oxford UP, 1998.
Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Penguin, 2001.
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