Practicing Virtual Compassion: Feminist Pedagogy and the Online Sphere

by Ashley Casale

As a graduate student in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies (WGSS) and instructor for the undergraduate course Introduction to Feminist Pedagogy, I am familiar with the narrative, and at one time believed it myself, that feminist pedagogy and the online sphere are inherently antithetical. How can a field that grew out of intimate face-to-face discussions, collective knowledge production, and challenging the hierarchical norms of professor-knows-all, lecture-based education be suited to the virtual space? Unexpectedly, as both professors and my own students have adapted to the online realm as a result of COVID-19, they have challenged my preconceived notions about the conditions under which feminist pedagogy can thrive.

At the University at Albany, I was part of synchronous online courses for the second half of the spring 2020 semester (beginning with the shutdown in March) and the fall 2020 semester. One teaching technique that worked particularly well was in the Research Seminar in WGSS class, in which the professor had us use a class wiki (think: Wikipedia) to compile information on a topic we were collectively researching. I recommend this tool because it allows students to easily access and build off of each other’s work, enabling the co-creation of knowledge—or as Nancy Chick and Holly Hassel wrote in their appraisal of class wikis, students can “negotiate meaning-making with their classmates” (2009, 305)—which is the soul of feminist pedagogy. I also experienced this ethic in Anthropology of Gender, when students had several opportunities throughout the semester to share the progress of our individual research and make recommendations on our peers’ bibliographies using the screen sharing feature in Zoom. Despite the physical distance, we were “carried along” in others’ research stories because of the way the professor paralleled our research with assigned course readings and discussions.

In addition to being a full-time graduate student, I am also a single mother to an elementary-school-aged child impacted by school closures, which added a whole new dimension to learning from home during a pandemic. One strategy I used to carve out my own learning space was to slip on a blazer when I was in a Zoom class and take it off when the class ended so my son could differentiate when I was simply working at my desk and when I needed uninterrupted silence (spoiler: it didn’t always work). In the class I taught during the fall, one of my students had a little brother who popped on the screen, and I was able to relate by sharing that my son was the same age and it would just be a matter of time before he made an unsolicited appearance. Instructors in the age of online learning should be aware that students may be parents or may be filling the role of primary caregiver to younger siblings, nieces, or nephews, scenarios that potentially affect their ability to give the screen their full attention. And just like college students have different learning abilities, these school-aged children have different needs and capabilities as they figure out how to use computers and other devices to navigate platforms like Google classrooms and Kahoots.

In my experience, graduate professors showed compassion during the pandemic by loosening deadlines and making allowances for revised and resubmitted work, which enhanced the learning experience by making it more process oriented and less deadline oriented. In my own classroom, I imitated this practice by being mindful about when deadlines were unattainable and students needed leniency, or when mental distractions were getting in the way of assignments. When I noticed that not all students were able to keep up with the reading, I used some class time on Zoom to read key passages out loud. This seemed to be a way for them to benefit from the readings while also creating the feeling of a feminist space, kind of like an intimate feminist reading group or discussion circle. I also felt it was part of what Janell Hobson calls the movement from “punitive pedagogies to liberated learning” (2016). Students may have bigger things on their mind, may be focused on intensely personal protests and social justice movements, may have become sick or been displaced, or may have uncertain financial, academic, and health (including mental health) futures. When you don’t know where you’re going, it can be really hard to focus on the here and now.

I think of bell hooks, who wrote in Teaching to Transgress “in my classrooms, I do not expect students to take any risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share” (1994, 21). At the heart of feminist pedagogy is relating to our students and equitable power distribution between students and instructor—resisting the impersonalization of what students now call “Zoom University” (Aratani 2020; Anderson 2020)—and COVID-19 gave us an opportunity to materialize this in the virtual realm and to practice compassion as the guiding force of feminist pedagogy. This may be the moment when channeling the old feminist adage “the personal is political” is more important than ever.

Works Cited

Anderson, Nick. “College Students Are Weary of ‘Zoom U.’ But They’re Also Trying to Make the Best of It.” Washington Post, October 26.

Aratani, Lauren. 2020. “‘Zoom University’: Is College Worth the Cost without the In-Person Experience?Guardian, October 6.

Chick, Nancy, and Holly Hassel. 2009. “‘Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Virtual’: Feminist Pedagogy in the Online Classroom.” Feminist Teacher 19 (3): 195-215.

Hobson, Janell. 2016. “From Punitive Pedagogies to Liberated Learning.” Academe, November-December.

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

Ashley Casale is mother, activist, and graduate student in the University at Albany SUNY Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department where she coordinates the department’s teaching collective. She teaches Introduction to Feminist Pedagogy in the fall and Feminist Pedagogy in Theory in the spring. Her research interests include heterosexuality, citizenship, and the state; discipline, control, and surveillance of bodies; and activism and feminist pedagogy as resistance.