Behind the Screen: Lessons from Online Learning

by Keziah Abigail

The recent transition to online or distance learning has undoubtedly posed multiple challenges to the education system at large. The abruptness of this transition has left many, including myself, thoroughly perplexed, as physical classrooms have always been an integral site for critical thinking and practice. While the success of online classes has been evident in higher education, my familiarity with a feminist classroom had originally deprived me of recognizing the potentialities that online learning can offer. My recent experiences with online learning have certainly challenged previous ideas of what a feminist space should look like. As a student who has been situated in women’s gender and sexuality studies for quite some time, I asked, What would a feminist education look and feel like without the convenience of a tangible space and the spatial proximity that I have familiarized myself with and seek comfort in? Or, put simply, what does a feminist education entail? To answer such questions, I refer to bell hooks, who asserts that feminist education entails the “practice of freedom,” stating that “the classroom becomes a dynamic place where transformations in social relations are concretely actualized and the false dichotomy between the world outside and the inside world of academia disappears” (1994, 195). Here, the essence of hooks’s “education as practice of freedom” comprises a commitment to radical social transformation, which extends beyond the classroom itself. In this sense, a physical space, or lack thereof, does and should not determine the integrity of a feminist education; rather, it is what one does in a given space that cultivates the feminist thinking and practice necessary to incite social change(s).

In an online learning environment, feminist knowledge production occurs primarily through media and technology, which in recent decades have become common driving forces for the dispersal of information; however, they are not without limitations. In my previous experience, it was evident that online learning posed several difficulties, such as technological and connectivity issues, a decrease in student participation, and the inability to concentrate due to an increase in screen time—among others. However, I also realized that certain aspects of what I understand to be a feminist education can be actualized online: the intimacy and vulnerability—often present in a physical classroom—can be maintained by deploying small breakout rooms; critical dialogues about social, political, and cultural issues can be achieved through discussion questions that allow students to reflect on and engage with the readings alongside their peers; students’ agency can be supported by encouraging them to post critical questions before class so discussions can address their queries. While instructor-created PowerPoint presentations have their merits, centering students’ voices in class discussions becomes important for the purpose of collective knowledge production. I contend that physical distance should not negate such an urgency, especially considering the decline in student participation I noted earlier, which makes it difficult to sustain a dialogue. As a recent graduate and current instructor, I now recognize that online learning has affected my physical and mental health; sitting behind a screen for more than twelve hours a day, coupled with the multiplicity of issues that emerged during the pandemic, have certainly consumed me and left me unmotivated at times. Therefore, being in classes where students are able to engage with the reading materials in ways other than PowerPoint presentations or mere lectures were greatly appreciated.

As I previously stated, although media and technology have their limitations, I now contend that they can be used in revolutionary ways. Films have been helpful to supplement reading materials, as they present ideas in assigned text(s) in a more animated format. With the demands of online learning, assigning films as course materials can be a break from Zoom meetings and scholarly articles, one that still allows students to engage with the complexity of the topics and/or issues at hand. In this regard, posting a few guiding questions or key terms may be helpful to assist students and encourage active engagement as they watch the film. Additionally, certain scenes from films can be incorporated in a PowerPoint presentation to allow real-time discussions on issues presented in both the film(s) and text(s).

Furthermore, given that learning in some degree of isolation can be intimidating or dull at times, a creative project may be a way to motivate students. An assignment that allows students to engage with a topic or issue that resonates with them and to display it using a creative expression of their choosing may generate some excitement in their learning process. As students create, they deal not only with the issue they must examine but with a world they are asked to imagine. In asserting the radical potential of a classroom space, hooks writes, “in that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress” (1994, 207), and I contend that the pandemic should not negate the pressing need to imagine and transgress but, rather, push us to find new ways to reaffirm it.

In conclusion, a feminist classroom has and will always be a site of radical possibilities; and while I cannot deny the different learning experiences provided by online and in-person classrooms, I contend that the “practices of freedom” (hooks 1994) can be realized anywhere. In this sense, technology should not be rendered intimidating but used as a tool to assist in social transformation projects.

Works Cited

hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Keziah Abigail (she/hers; currently teaches in the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Department at University at Albany, SUNY. Originally from Indonesia, she graduated with a master’s degree in women’s gender and sexuality studies in 2020 with a thesis titled, “Intelligible Genders, Imagined Others: Interrogating ‘Third Gender’ in Indonesia’s Past and Present,” which comprises a critical discourse analysis that investigates contemporary Anglo-American research on gender variant subjects in precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial Indonesia. Her research interests include postcolonialism, queer and feminist theory, critical geography, and temporality—among others.