I have always used small-group discussions and active learning as interlinked and key parts of my pedagogy. I feel comfortable with these teaching strategies and even though I encourage and require my students to reflect on the attitudes, values, beliefs, resources, and norms informing their preferred teaching strategies, I hadn’t really reflected about my own reliance and ‘comfort zone’ around these teaching methods. I realised that my approach to enacting these strategies very much relies on assumptions and habits I hadn’t actively questioned before COVID-19 and the sudden (and, for me, very unsettling) shift to entirely online teaching. Even with the online aspects that I have previously incorporated into my teaching (such as a discussion forum), I was unconsciously presuming a foundation and underpinning scaffolding of a pre-existing culture of embodied interactions happening during face-to-face sessions, the ability for me and the students to move around physical teaching and learning spaces, and a physical environment and flexible seating which supports small-group cooperation and collaboration. I had to rethink and adapt my teaching during March to May and I am still reflecting and rethinking and attempting to disrupt the many conscious and unconscious biases I have had and still continue to have about my perceptions of the value and potential of digital pedagogy and how I might better live my values and create more effective, inclusive and democratic blended learning. I’ve been reading scholarship and educational blogs around ways to stimulate and support online communities of practice, peer discussion, engagement, reflexivity, and criticality in virtual spaces and how I might better support and deepen my students and my own personal and professional learning.
I’ve also been reflecting about my engagement with and application of the pedagogy of discomfort. The pedagogy of discomfort addresses the role that discomfort plays in teaching and learning about ‘difficult’ issues such as racism, oppression and social injustice. I’ve long been inspired by Megan Boler’s call for this purposeful way of examining uncomfortable emotions we (and our students) might otherwise resist or deflect, such as “defensive anger, fear of change, fears of losing our personal and cultural identities” as well as guilt and the discomfort produced when we are forced to question our beliefs and assumptions (Boler 176). I was excited to have the opportunity through the DISCs project to further explore my understanding and implementation of this approach to social justice education but this journey has been more unexpected and challenging than I anticipated. For me, pedagogy of discomfort is a powerful pedagogical tool able to produce action because teachers and students can collectively utilize their discomfort to construct new emotional understandings into ways of living withothers.
Yet a question I hadn’t explicitly or consciously confronted for myself is that an equally important part of this potential transformation and call to action is the educator’s discomfort. While the pedagogy of discomfort provokes complex ethical questions around realities of how epistemology, emotions, and ethics are closely entwined both within and beyond our classrooms shaping who, what, where, why, and when we can see, these ethical issues have been amplified by the impact of international activist movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and the continuing ripple effects of COVID-19 on society, the higher education sector, my students’ lives and educational experiences, my own life, and my understanding of my professional role. My own discomforts inhibit my development and opportunities for transformation in so many ways that I haven’t and haven’t wanted to recognise or own. These discomforts can mask my biases and agendas and prevent me from taking risks, and they also maintain the comfortable and complacent assumption that I, as an educator, am an authoritative yet somehow neutral conveyer of neutral information. I’ve been thinking and talking with colleagues and reading about what constitutes a productive, safe, yet challenging educational experience in online spaces and how I might develop a more inclusive and supportive pedagogy. The main principle that is emerging in these readings, conversations, and reflections is respect. While I’ve always tried to empathise the importance of respect and mutual respect, as part of my exploration of pedagogies of discomfort, a key aim I have for making my curriculum design and teaching strategies more democratic and meaningful is to better navigate the tensions between helping my students feel comfortable enough to share and participate in discussions (both face-to-face and online) while also encouraging and enabling them to develop their critical enquiry and move out of their ‘comfort zones’.
Reference: Boler, Megan. Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. New York: Routledge, 1999.