Between Us: Practicing the Future in Uncertain Times

Between Us: Practicing the Future in Uncertain Times

I enrolled in Engaged Teaching and Transformative Learning in the Humanities and Social Sciences led by Profs. Cathy Davidson and Eduardo Vianna because I hoped it would help me build a stronger, more theoretically grounded, transformative/activist agenda through my scholarly, pedagogical, and administrative work at the helm a platform for publicly-engaged research addressing societal urgencies through tangible, practical, and artistic activities. I hoped to learn (and teach and learn to teach) in order to support conditions for greater social flourishing and justice and I wanted to do these things in the company of people who were also moving through university systems as though sites of higher education can be – already are – instruments of individual and collective change, centering care, civic responsibility, creativity, and not a small measure of joy and collegiality. 

The class had barely begun when COVID hit home in New York City.

As an aside, but an aside significant enough to me to warrant the detour, I’d like to dwell for a moment on a recent Zoom gathering of nearly 100 administrators of humanities centers from around the country and across the continent that I took part in. As we discussed reopening protocols, I found myself suddenly and stunningly aware that those of us working in New York City – and at CUNY in particular – had undergone traumatic experiences distinct from those of our counterparts elsewhere as a result of our literal, physical proximity to the pandemic’s (always-shifting) epicenter. This is absolutely not to say that my fellow administrators haven’t encountered significant trauma of their own. They have. But students, faculty, and staff at CUNY have been more immediately touched by the virus SARS-CoV-2 than many – though certainly not all – working in more rural or less dense areas, and our personal and institutional responses to the pandemic and lockdown reflect that reality. 

It was a profound reminder that we can never take for granted that experience is shared, unless we have shared our experience. I took a moment to tell my colleagues that as of May 6th, 14 faculty, 10 staff, and 3 CUNY students had died of COVID, and that during a recent meeting hosted by my center, 2 members of our small team of publicly-engaged scholars had lost close family members to the virus (myself included). After I had spoken, a prolonged silence was broken by a center director who responded in tears that they had only just felt the massive and intimate scale of death in NYC for the first time. And it hit me anew too, in the way the shock of trauma is revealed over time as a wave of recursive firsts. 

I mention this Zoom meeting here, in part because telling people that CUNY has lost 27 colleagues, and that my husband’s mom died of COVID after three week’s in isolation at a hospital in Queens, has become a kind of PSA I feel compelled to share about the severity of the virus in circles where folx may feel more insulated from its impact, but also because it helps to sketch out the wider context in which we gathered as a class this spring.

So back to class. Over the next months, the work accomplished by our community of learners – also a community of fate, changed forever by knowing and being together (however distantly) during a crisis – grew exponentially progressive and responsive. We accepted and rejected received knowledge, artifacts, tools, and affordances typically associated with traditional and ed-tech learning environments through a process of collaborative, value-driven inquiry, trial, and conversation led by “the people who were students in our classroom” and nurtured by “the people who were professors in our classroom.” (Thank you Dr. Kandice Chuh by way of Cathy Davidson for this phrasing. And for many other things besides.)

For me, rejecting the dialectical relationship between people narrowly defined as either learners or teachers in a classroom while also embracing the fact that our colleagues’ complex lives vastly overflow the container of the classroom in all directions, drastically altered my expectations of and contributions to the class and to the university writ large in what felt like really liberating ways.

Our community denaturalized notions of individual learning in favor collective belonging and support during a time of intense fear and upheaval. While learning in extreme social isolation (or extreme social intimacy/proximity, should you happen live with a large family in a tiny NYC apartment, or with a very tiny child – like I do – who doesn’t yet get the concept of personal, emotional, or temporal boundaries), the value of individual accomplishment diminished even while our individual subjectivities grew in significance as part of a collective effort to establish meaningful protocols and work/life practices for learners to come together as custodians of a certain kind of energetic, intellectual care during a crisis.

I happen to believe that under capitalism we are all always more or less – or more and less, depending on a suite of “risk indicators” from geographical location to racial and economic identities – in crisis, and that crisis is the “new normal” society should be preparing to return to in the coming months. The capacity to learn (and unlearn) is key in a crisis. Community is key in crisis. Learning to be and know community, to feel held by and responsible for community, to be held to account by your responsibilities to your community, is key to hanging onto a sense of hope and agency and survival in crisis.   

Our class gathered weekly both synchronously as asynchronously on widely available digital, commercial platforms including Google docs, Zoom (utilizing the chat feature), Webex, Slack, and of course email to share thoughts about being learners tasked with reaching a provisional consensus about how best to embody a transformative, activist agenda during a pandemic. (For more about our critical relationship to weaponized ed-tech elements here.)

Because different platforms were differently accessible to different people for different reasons, we platform-hopped, allowing ideas to evolve in continuous flow across media. Rather than feel disjointed, the ideas surfaced through this method reflected the way thoughts crystalize in real life through an interplay of internal and external activity, mental work and material affordances, forgetting and remembering, cultural tools and tools to overcome the status-quo, and individual and collective input. Student-involved and student-led decision-making were the cornerstones of our activity together. 

In one of the first couple of in person sessions, Cathy said something like, “community is the most valuable thing the classroom has to offer.” And in our class, community was created and sustained through the transformation from individual to collective ways of knowing and being. 

The previous semester, in a class on “il/liberal aesthetics,” Kandice Chuh frequently urged colleagues in the classroom to ask “what else,” after a nascent thought had resolved itself into some kind of stable theory.  Over the course of the succeeding months, “what else,” became my shorthand for the way my toddler gathered knowledge about our world. It made me think that learning is a biological quality of human life – as well as a social and cultural one. We’re born asking “what (else) does this do” as we try to answer both practical and mystical riddles that unfold in material form before us. How does a lock work? What is a key? What can flowers do? What can I do to a flower? What is a ledge? What else is a ledge? A fall? A pain? A pronouncement of the body’s vulnerability? An introduction to gravity? “What else,” quickly lands us in complexity. 

As my toddler pondered an object, its affordances and operations, asking “what else,” became a bridge he traveled from one plausible function to the next, occasionally landing on the correct usage but more often inventing a series of alternative ones. “What else” is prescriptive and creative. “What else,” I think, is an ontological-epistemological approach to learning. What do I mean by that? Something like: knowing and being are inseparable. The thing we research becomes what it is through the way we research it. Similarly, we are becoming who we are through research and who we research with. What happens when the thing we study is our hopes for the future and the way we research that future is – provisionally – trying it out between us?

“What else” does a class do? Other than transmitting and/or creating knowledge, “what else” happens in a class, in this class?

This semester we read about and discussed theories of education and practices of decoloniality, we practiced self- and group- care, shared recipes, we made our work feel light in heavy times, in spite of the fact that our work has serious heft. We did acquire knowledge: we became more familiar with existing cultural and technological tools, critiqued them for reifying societal inequity, and invented (or at the very least, repurposed) tools that met emerging needs more subtly and supplely than those we had ready at hand. We gave each other respect and space around an evolving trauma that we each experienced individually and collectively. We greeted each other with genuine warmth whenever and however we showed up for class. We were assigned less reading because the non-negotiable aspects of our lives that are always present were more visibly impinging on our performance as professional scholars. We wrote less. We wrote more clearly when clarity was possible. We read fewer carefully selected texts that dropped like anchors into the depths of our inquiry. 

I ask myself, did the class feel more like a triage or a place of prefigurative politics, where we reflected the mores and values we hoped to find in future university settings? I think the latter. If cultural tools and knowledge are made available to learners in part through envisioning their future application and relevance, how do we learn in times when the future is so uncertain? Then again, maybe the future isn’t exactly uncertain. Maybe the future doesn’t exist in front of us, but between us, and we can move toward it by refining our relationship to community.