Learning in Solidarity

by Natalia L. Walton

I’m sitting on my bed because I don’t have a desk, my laptop across my lap, and I’m wearing my pajamas. My camera is off. My mic is muted, and I began to scream at the screen of white faces, “Fuck this class!”1 We have been going over philosophy, theory, and ideology that pertains to an era in time that has nothing to do with me or the here and now. Undoubtedly, no one could have planned for a semester of learning through Zoom. But, as great thinkers, my liberal arts professors must have known that this form of teaching needed to be modified with some innovative practices. They are always telling me to do so on assignments while pumping the same theories, philosophy, and historical jargon they’ve always taught down my throat. Don’t get me wrong; I have taken online classes before, but they didn’t have any video interactions. I posted my assignments online, wrote my discussion on the discussion board, and continued to live my life. And I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. It was a different time. This is a different time. Professors are trying to teach during a pandemic and civil unrest. Meanwhile, I’m still the only Black girl in class, and suddenly this really matters and is bothering me. I don’t want to discuss or elaborate on theorists of the past. They are not talking about the anger, confusion, sadness, loneliness, or solidarity that I am feeling, having to learn online, during a pandemic, in my pajamas, while wondering who is an advocate of Black Lives Matter in my Zoom classroom.

Philosopher Richard Rorty once wrote that, “continuing to inculcate the conventional wisdom amounts to betraying the students” (1999, 116). I think the betrayal I am feeling is that this pandemic—this online learning situation—is bringing light to institutional learning behaviors that I’ve already seen with in-person classes. Perhaps I just was oblivious, or it didn’t matter because before I was just grateful to have the privilege of a college education. Civil rights and social inequality, COVID-19, and the contentious 2020 presidential election have shed light on already existing problems. In the majority of my classes I have been the only Black individual. In many of my classes I have been the only woman, as well. This is not nuanced to me. Yet, looking at a screen with only white folkz or mostly men makes my stomach hurt these days. I find it hard to focus with the looming elements going on outside of my door. I feel disconnected from the issues that fill my social media feed. Learning in a classroom, being the only Black woman, is lonely. Now, learning online in a virtual classroom, I am more alone than ever before. Yet, learning in solidarity has opened my mind to be able to critique the spaces, lessons, and foundations of Academia. I now realize that learning the conventional way isn’t conducive, and it excludes identities.

One professor tells me, “be an innovative thinker,” yet her syllabus is the same from when we had in-person learning. My other professor has been teaching the same class with the same exact materials for the last ten years. These classes are centered on ritualistic thinking patterns and are oblique to say the least. We have to be taught differently during this time because things are not the same. I have already been learning white women’s feminism, and the narrative is boring, dull, and non-inclusive of my identities. While we students are alone in our pajamas, reading white men of the past like Rorty, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, and Sigmund Freud, hiding our alcoholic beverages in glasses that look innocent on camera, turning our cameras off during presentations to smoke weed and cigarettes, using critical analysis to relate the past to the present, I can’t help but think, “this is bullshit!”

None of my teachers wants to talk about present-day issues. They dance around COVID-19, and they impose more work because they think that being at home means you have all the time in the world for classwork. I haven’t been able to find a job in months. I have to figure out how to pay my rent and have a virtual meeting with human services to get assistance. Professors need to be holistic and think about the identities they have in class. I was not able to go to my parents’ house in the Hamptons and focus on schoolwork while Mommy and Daddy paid my bills. I am struggling emotionally, psychologically, and financially, and Freud doesn’t know shit about that! These social inequalities are present in our learning. The economic injustices are here in something as straightforward as accessibility of materials for online learning. And there is yet another binary created by a Zoom screen and technology. As a student I long for what bell hooks called “new models of social interaction” (2015, 19), which must incorporate the new confines that we face as a society with COVID-19 and the longstanding social inequities embedded in our educational and other institutions. Learning and teaching should incorporate not only innovative thought but unique creativity and technology to support and help bring folkz into community while also respecting the need for physical distance. There has to be recognition of different identities, and there must be innovative thought in what is being taught and how.

My last day of class during the fall 2020 semester was December 3. I was Zoom exhausted, my eighteen-page paper still needed to be written, and I said goodbye for the last time to the white faces in my screen classroom. My professor asked if we thought we learned anything from his class, and while all the white folkz began to say a resounding “Yes!” I told him with complete transparency, “I learned something but not from class. Not from what you were teaching.” He asked me to explain. I sat up and began to speak about the inequalities in learning online. I told him that the class needed to change—hell the whole university needed to change, especially with a pandemic. I got on my metaphoric soapbox and began to preach about the non-acknowledgement of identities and the lack of resources for People of Color during online learning. When I was finished, I sat back and breathed deeply. He pulled up a power point of Rorty and began to screen share. I felt defeated and began to talk shit in my own head.

Was he not listening?
I hate Rorty by the way.
Class is over, so why are we looking at this crap again?

He began to read, “These teachers do their best to nudge each successive college generation a little more to the left, to make them a little more conscious of the cruelty built into our institutions, of the need for reform, of the need to be skeptical about the current consensus” (1999, 116). He smiled at me while I leaned back on my pillows, and he said, “So, Natalia, you did learn what I was teaching.”

1 As a Black woman and author of this work I refuse to capitalize white or caucasian. This is a deliberate rejection of white supremacy and systemic oppression of myself and my people.

Works Cited

hooks, bell. 2015. “Feminist Education for Critical Consciousness.” In her Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, 19-24. New York: Routledge

Rorty, Richard. 1999. “Education as Socialization and as Individualization.” In his Philosophy and Social Hope, 114-26. New York: Penguin.

My name is Natalia Walton. I am a recent bachelor’s degree graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU). At MSU I majored in gender, women, and sexualities studies while minoring in an individualized degree program called “Black Women’s Social Legal Studies.” I am currently a graduate student in the Social Science and Humanities Department with an emphasis on women’s and gender studies at the University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver). I am the Graduate Assistant Coordinator for the Center for Identity and Inclusion at CU Denver. I am responsible for training, events, and inclusion. I am a single mother of five amazing children, and I am the grandmother of two adorable fantastic kids. I plan to continue my education and obtain my JD/PHD. Eventually I want to utilize my law degree to become an attorney and represent People of Color for whatever they have in their pockets.