This post is by Brenna Clarke Gray.
I am just so tired.
Eight months ago, I started a new role as a faculty educational technologist. It didn’t occur to me that within the year of starting I would be a key member of a small and scrappy team leading a university-wise pivot to digital in the midst of a pandemic.
Good thing I love my job.
And I do. Really. But I am also just so tired. I know we all are. I know many of us wrestle with an anxious privilege around acknowledging our tiredness: we are so, so lucky to be working; those of us who caregive are so, so lucky to have our loved ones close. We know these are deep, profound privileges, that the peanut butter smear occluding the videoconferencing camera is really a gift. And yet.
I tell you these things as context for who I am and how I come to talk about care and educational technologies. I’m not sure how aware most people within the university are of the work of educational technologists; a lot more aware now than eight months ago, I would reckon. What has surprised me in this role is how easily I took to it as care work, and how that phrase means something very differently all of a sudden as we enter this strange new moment in the life of the university.
Educational technology is care work on a number of fronts. When I support faculty, I absorb a tremendous amount of anxiety, anguish, fear, and stress. I don’t actually know how to do this. I feel ill-equipped for how sad and scared my colleagues are, and I feel ill-equipped to be their first line of defence. But I do it anyway. And while I help them digitize their course content, we chat about their families and their students, how to manage their stress levels, how long this all might last. Like anyone who seeks out instructional support work, I love solving problems and I work hard to be approachable. I want to be seen as caring and competent, and if I’m honest, it’s in that order that I hope those characteristics are seen.
But more importantly, I want to help faculty make teaching and learning decisions around technology that enact care for students. That has never been clearer to me than in this pandemic, where my key role has been to advocate against synchronous, timed exams; against lengthy video lectures; against requirements of synchronous participation; for asynchronous participation options; for reflective writing and other open-book assessment strategies; and for generosity and compassion in course design. I spend far more time discussing pedagogy than I do pushing the buttons, and the pedagogy I work hard to enact is one that acknowledges the once-in-a-century shitstorm we are living through and asks for compassion. It is a pedagogy rooted in an ethics of care.
This work, in this moment, is infinite. For the first few weeks, I answered emails and phone calls and video chats and support tickets twelve or fifteen hours a day and never found the bottom of it. I don’t do that anymore, most days, but I could. There are more questions than answers, more people to help than helpers, and every time we think we’re at the end of it — that we’ve levelled off or are gaining ground — we find out we’re wrong.
As Hannah McGregor rightly points out, this labour serves to protect the institution; because individuals care, the institution itself doesn’t have to. Our care and goodwill allows the university to go on. If individuals take on this work, the institution can continue to ignore issues of care, or to present the difficult labour of individuals as the united mission of the institution. Neither option is sustainable for the human beings on the ground. Increasingly, in the intellectuals circles within which I move, I hear repeated calls to “let it break,” to refuse this labour. Pencils, pens, and emotional labour down.
And yet, I have no idea howI am supposed to do that. The university cannot love, but I can. And I do. Because the individualization of care within the university means that I know and love the people who will pick up this fight if I drop it, and I know and love the people who will be most impacted by a failure of support. I work on a team of individuals trying desperately to enact care in an increasingly hopeless-feeling sector-wide climate. A choice to resist calls for my emotional labour is also a choice to kick the ball down the road to someone else, someone who may not have the privileges of security and academic freedom that my faculty position — tenure-track only, to be sure, and thus precarious in its own way — affords me. Those of us who work in universities are hearing about the imminent budget crises that will befall the institution in the wake of Covid-19. Is there an ethical way to refuse to undertake this labour of care, of activism and agitation, from my position under these conditions? And if no one else continues the fight, if we do all revolt, is there a way for that to happen that doesn’t leave students and truly precarious faculty as collateral damage, left to flounder without adequate supports? I cannot see one.
I am not saving lives. I tell myself this every night as I fail to clear my brain enough to meditate, as embodied reminders of unanswered emails circle through me viscerally, jolting me into alertness over and over and over. I am not saving lives. I am not a frontline worker. I am not intubating patients or keeping the grocery store open or keeping vulnerable populations alive. There are so many more important ways actual lifesaving care is enacted, and I think too about the institutions that structure and obfuscate and absorb credit for that care, too.
But this work of mine is still urgent. It is urgent because we have no evidence that the institution, left to its own devices, will enact an ethic of care without the individuals who take on the labour. And the people left in the wreckage are real people. So then what? I am really asking. Because until I figure it out, I am trapped between an intellectual awareness of my own exploitation (I can’t go on) and an emotional need to enact care on behalf of those who are owed it from an institution that cannot pay its debts (I’ll go on).
I am so tired. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.*
*The author confesses that she previously tortured Samuel Beckett in an earlier blog post collecting some of these thoughts.
Brenna Clarke Gray (MA Carleton, PhD New Brunswick) is a literature scholar by training, a comics scholar by practice, and an educational technologist by trade. Her research interests include open pedagogies and ethical approaches to educational technologies. She is the Coordinator, Educational Technologies at Thompson Rivers University and is currently at work tracing the history and imagining the future of open tenure processes.