One of the great difficulties of teaching and learning in 2020 is that students, teachers, and their families are facing enormous strains. From the global pandemic and record unemployment, to ongoing state violence and what Angela Davis has referred to as the most intense period of antiracist activism the country has ever seen, we are living in the midst of historic upheaval.
What does it mean to teach right now, especially when many of us cannot be physically close to our students? How can we achieve a feeling of connectedness with our virtual classrooms, and perhaps more importantly, create the type of community that is crucial to our emotional and intellectual well-being?
In spite of the challenges, Xenia Walker’s essay for this edition shows us how using VTS online can be a powerful tool for creating this sense of community. The very structure of VTS may provide some comfort, but perhaps even more important is what Walker calls its “quality of affirmation.”
Personally, I think the importance of this quality cannot be overstated. VTS honors students. It neither enforces participation nor encourages false praise, but instead offers what Walker calls “deserved space.” It does not assume that students have a deficit that needs correction (or a debt that needs credit, to borrow a phrase from Stefano Harney and Fred Moten). VTS doesn’t say, you don’t have anything, here is what we think you need to know, but rather, you know things, so let’s spend some time working on this together. Let’s talk.
In so doing, VTS provides participants with opportunities to be heard and feel heard—both are important, but they are not the same—and a model of what Walker calls compassion. I like this term compassion even more than respect, because respect can end up reinforcing notions of coercive authority—i.e. respect can be transactional, it can be granted or withheld. But compassion is not something you grant, it is something you do; compassion is feeling with.
VTS encourages compassionate listening. It may not teach students how to listen, but it does create a situation where one might come to value such compassion and practice this kind of listening. And that, I think, is the key: VTS is not pedagogy, at least not in the traditional sense, it is practice. It is not an end, but a means, a process, a way of being together. Practicing ways of being together, practicing compassion, might be one of the things we need right now. —Madison Brookshire
Special thanks to Kabir Singh, peer reviewer for this edition.
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