I had been an educational technologist for seven months when Covid-19 hit.
I’ve been joking that the main thing keeping me going is my intention to keynote #OER40 with that opening line (I like a small, manageable dream), but I think about the insanity of this career move in this moment a lot. In my old gig, I would be finishing up my four courses, helping my colleagues navigate the new reality, probably being looked to for guidance — but I would also be anticipating a rest. I am not currently anticipating a rest.
I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
One month ago today, March 18th, was my first day working from home. It has been a complex and difficult time. I can’t find a Tweet I saw the other day that said the only way for those of us in my position — parenting small people while working full-time, all of us a morass of Sesame Street and peanut butter sandwiches and videoconferencing — to respond to questions of how we are holding up is, “Lucky to be so miserable.” I’m so grateful to be working, so grateful to have my kiddo close, and also so profoundly tired, an exhaustion rooted so deep in my bones that I can’t imagine myself to the other side of it. I sleep in two-hour chunks, I do nothing with my whole brain, and I wonder how long I can continue at this particular pace.
We don’t talk about the body in the academy; we are, of course, reliable brains-in-jars. But embodied stress in the climate of a pandemic is terrifying. I scared myself the last day we worked on campus: I could not keep food down and could not stop trembling. The desire to appear normal and in control, to absorb the panic and anxiety of those who are looking to you for care, help, and leadership: this, too, has a toll. It was over a week before I could eat or sleep reliably, before I stopped feeling manic and panicked and completely out of control.
I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
The role of a forward-facing educational technologist is care work. I say this and I say it again. We regularly recognize the care enacted in faculty development work, and I think when educational technology is handled poorly it can be failed care work, certainly. But so much of my daily work is about absorbing the worries and fears of my colleagues: will this tool fail, have I done this correctly, I am panicking and scared and I do not like technology, I am so angry at the institution and here you are to listen. When people say they feel so much better after we talk, I am so glad. And also, I wonder where that panic and anxiety goes. Do I absorb it?
And still more of my work is helping faculty to understand the care implications — for themselves and for students — about the choices they want to make with technology. I’m the last line of defence between your dreams of virtual reality sword fighting and the student who lives an hour outside of the city and gets her internet access from the digital equivalent of two tin cans and a long string. And I want to explain this to you gently and forcefully, and I want you to see the better option, and I want you to end the conversation thinking that dropping virtual reality sword fighting is your idea, because then I know you will care about the choice you’ve made.
Friend of the blog (ok, just friend of me) Hannah McGregor wrote recently for Hook & Eye about this moment and how care work functions within the university and who it serves, and I can’t stop thinking about it:
We might also ask: who does the burden of care fall on, and how might a depoliticized call for empathy be invisibilizing the very real inequities this crisis lays bare, particularly the urgency of the many forms of underpaid, precarious, and often gendered and racialized front-line work, and care work, that has been declared urgent and essential? Is our care being leveraged to ensure that the university maintains its institutional and imaginative force in the midst of this crisis, rather than being exposed as a site of neoliberal profiteering?Hannah McGregor, “What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Care?”
I feel acutely that I am called upon to enact care on behalf of the institution; my dogged persistence about what is good for students and what is ethical in the way we handle data is not, from my perspective, about the institution at all, but it is deeply useful to the institution — whether that utility is acknowledged and recognized or not. But because care within the institution is the work of individuals, it is never systemically enacted. I am reading student surveys tonight and I am absorbing their anger, their grief at having been so badly served by such an unwelcome situation.
Part of what is so hard about all of this for my hamster-wheel of a brain is that we are constantly reacting and responding. How do you get out in front of something like this? You can’t. We try. We’ve built some incredible resources, mostly internal-facing. We’ve helped everyone who has asked for help; we’re working hard to figure out how to reach the people who don’t ask. I’m inordinately proud of our Pivot to Digital community resource, which came to life over a weekend, right before the lights went out. But none of it feels like enough for what is coming.
We look toward a summer semester unlike any before, and I’m reminded of another Samuel Beckett quotation: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
The failure feels inevitable. I hope we fail better. I don’t know how to make sure we do.
I can’t go on, I’ll go on.