“Zoomed Out”: Teaching & Learning During a Pandemic

by Shamethia Webb

As a graduate teaching instructor and full-time doctoral student, I find myself constantly juggling an assortment of texts, trying desperately to keep pace with a heavy reading load, and always privately worried that the various reading assignments will begin to blur into one long, incomprehensible stream of text. But in March 2020, when COVID-19 struck, and students and educators alike scrambled to orient themselves to distance learning (or “Zoom University” as some beleaguered students have begun to call it), I found myself bypassing my customary stack of reading material to focus on two texts in particular. These texts, on the surface, seem to have very little in common: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Becky Thompson’s Teaching with Tenderness (2017). Butler is a legend in the science fiction world and, based on the world she creates in Parable, which was first published in 1993, some might even consider her a prophet (Aguirre 2017). This novel draws eerie parallels to current events and depicts devastating disease, widespread social unrest, and a charismatic politician who promises to “make America great again” while the survivors of this global catastrophe do their best to eke out a living and rebuild their war-torn communities. The novel is a sobering read that is absent the traditional bellicose protagonists who dominate the standard apocalyptic/superhero story. Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly to the readership of this journal), it is educators who take center stage in Parable and who lead change efforts and world-building. And it is teaching—not skilled combat or sorcery or supernatural ability—that becomes the prominent strategy that the indefatigable protagonists deploy to rebuild the world.

In short, Parable paints a picture of what it’s like to teach and learn during a global disaster.

Becky Thompson’s Teaching with Tenderness offers wholly different subject matter. There are no plagues or wildfires. No predictions of class warfare or governmental breakdown. Still, Thompson recognizes that students (hers, yours, mine) live in a world that regularly threatens their well-being and that prioritizes their minds at the expense of their bodies and spirits. Calling on educators to reimagine and restructure the way we teach, grade, and build relationship with our students, she ultimately asks that we take a holistic view and recognize that learning has a material impact on students’ bodies and their lives more generally. Says Thompson: “We are in need of a pedagogy that takes into account students’ whole selves” (2)—a herculean task, of course (or Xena-ian task since I prefer the warrior princess), but one that is worth pursuing, especially during this “COVID era” when many students are struggling with chronic illness, financial hardship, housing insecurity, and mental health emergencies.

This past semester, for example, I had a student who “dropped off the grid” and missed several classes in a row. When I finally made contact with them, the student admitted that they’d relapsed and that it was difficult to focus on class participation while struggling with chronic depression and chemical dependency. Another student’s entire family was diagnosed with COVID, and they had to complete the bulk of their schoolwork from a hospital waiting room, trying to type out 300-word discussion posts on a cell phone before the class’s 11:59 p.m. deadline.

Unfortunately, these stories are not unique. Nor are they limited to higher education. Teachers, students, and parents in a variety of settings (college, K-12, home school) are figuring out, on the fly, how to teach effectively, how to teach technically (or, I suppose, technologically), and how to teach tenderly during this period of uncertainty.

So how do educators combine these lessons from Butler and Thompson? What would it take for us to teach with tenderness and teach for survival? Additionally, how do we enact such radical work from the confines of our living rooms and keyboards? Is it even fair to task educators—who are notoriously and regrettably short on time and energy—with extra labor when they, themselves, could benefit from a little tenderness?1

Perhaps we start by listening to our students, by asking them what it’s like to learn in these newfangled digital classrooms. What advice do they have for instructors to improve the online learning process? How has a pandemic and social unrest, and all the accompanying uncertainties and questions, affected their ability to learn? Films for the Feminist Classroom presented these questions to students and shaped this special feature around their responses.

We anticipated that students would offer constructive critiques of online classes and several did. Jake Balthazor describes online classrooms as impersonal and “claustrophobic,” and he notes that these feelings of depersonalization and isolation are compounded by students’ tendency to switch their cameras off during class. Faith Nkansah-Siriboe worries that extensive screen time will have long-term impact on her posture and vision, and though she discusses these concerns with recognizable humor, it’s clear that the overreliance on digital interfaces, while expedient, even fun, is not without consequence. Says Nkasah-Siroboe: “We arose to screens and went to sleep with screens. To take a break from screens we used more screens. Each day felt like a never ending Cyberchase marathon.”

Others call for a responsive, compassionate pedagogy that resonates with Thompson’s Teaching with Tenderness. Natalia L. Walton and Ashley Casale remind educators that students have unique needs and concerns that may complicate, even hinder, their ability to adhere to deadlines or give screens their undivided attention. We find such a model of compassionate pedagogy in Brianna Davis’s essay as she commends a professor who was able to successfully transition from in-person learning to distance learning with very few hiccups. Finally, several contributors discuss more practical aspects of teaching in a way that meets students where they are: Cat Brooks surmises that student success might depend on educators’ ability (and willingness) to embrace mixed methods; Jessica Weise recommends that educators incorporate novelty and excitement in their online classrooms; and Keziah Abigail agrees and asks instructors to consider adding creative projects and films to their curriculum.2

With this collection of essays, we hope to give educators a better understanding of what it’s like to learn when a screen is a student’s primary educational interface. Centering student voices not only expands the limited space (and often formulaic questions) on a course evaluation form but also attempts to practice a more holistic, generous, and critical pedagogy shaped by Butler’s and Thompson’s insights.

1 Educators might also be interested in exploring womanist pedagogy. See, e.g., Beauboeuf-Lafontant (2002),

2 It might be meta to point out that Films for the Feminist Classroom is an excellent resource for educators who wish to utilize film in the classroom.

Works Cited

Aguirre, Abby. 2017. “Octavia Butler’s Prescient Vision of a Zealot Elected to ‘Make America Great Again.’New Yorker, July 26.

Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Tamara. 2002. "A Womanist Experience of Caring: Understanding the Pedagogy of Exemplary Black Women Teachers." The Urban Review 34, no. 1 (March): 71-86.

Butler, Octavia. 1993. Parable of the Sower. New York: Four Walls, Eight Windows.

Thompson, Becky. 2017. Teaching with Tenderness: Toward an Embodied Practice. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.