As we step forward, we must stand still: Critical digital pedagogy and the praxis of taking time

We have come upon a watershed moment for digital education. As we climb our way out of the pandemic and the necessary turn to online and remote learning that resulted, we are faced with an opportunity: to remodel our digital pedagogies.

As we step forward, we must stand still: Critical digital pedagogy and the praxis of taking time

On 11 May 2021, I was invited to speak to faculty and staff at Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) University. The following is a transcript of that talk.

Thank you, Vice President Langill for that introduction, and thank you, Cary, for inviting me to speak today. LIkewise, I’d like to thank Jess Mitchell for moderating the Q&A portion of our time, and for the last minute late night encouragement she offered me yesterday. It’s a real pleasure to have this opportunity.

We have come upon a watershed moment for digital education. As we climb our way out of the pandemic and the necessary turn to online and remote learning that resulted, we are faced with an opportunity: to remodel our digital pedagogies. What will be needed now is not a rush into new strategies and practices, but instead a pause. A moment where we can consider what we didn’t know before and that we do know now, and where, as Paulo Freire writes, tomorrow is possibility, one which will require as much imagination as compassion to produce.

As I’ve watched us work our way into and through and out of pandemic teaching and learning, I’ve had one primary concern—and I think this is your concern too: how to sustain a human and humane connection between education and students during this time. I have advocated for teachers to “teach through the screen” and to be gentle with students who were struggling under the multiple traumas of a global pandemic, unemployment, food insecurity, and the threat of poor health or death in their families.

Here in the States, the pandemic was made more difficult by a president and federal government that wouldn’t act, and by the aggressive police state that occupied our cities and continued to threaten Black lives. The confluence of violence, trauma, and the sudden disappearance of students from our classrooms made one thing clearer maybe that it ever has been: We do not know the stories of our students. And as progressive and inclusive as we would like to be, those stories—and the communities that sustain those stories—are what need to impact our pedagogies and design going forward, whether online, hybrid, or on-campus.

Now, as I am wont when I give keynote presentations, I will start with a story. When I speak, I tend to weave around a bit, to find my way in and out of the matter I’ve been asked to address. So, I thank you for your patience and attention as my method unfolds. The “praxis of taking time” which I speak of in the title of this presentation means this is going to take a little time.

I came out of the closet shortly after my 26th birthday—26 years ago. In 1995, there was no Will and Grace, Ellen DeGeneres hadn’t come out, LGBTQ people couldn’t get married, but they could be fired from their jobs. There was no internet, and the iPhone was more than a decade away, so there were no apps to help gay men meet each other; which meant that the club and the bar and personal ads in newspapers were the way we stayed connected. And Pride celebrations. That first year of my gay life, 50,000 people converged on Denver and for the first time I realised how really vast our community was.

Community permits us certain freedoms. When women are with women, Black men are with Black men, Mexican grandmothers with their Mexican grandsons, gay men with gay men, and people who share disabilities gathered together, voices become more articulate within each of their cultural contexts. No one is in a closet, and politics of respectability can be left at the door. At that very first Pride event—but also at the club and in the bar—I discovered a language for being gay that I didn’t need to practice, and that allowed me to shed the splinters of the closet that still clung to me.

But on every normal day, and in every environment outside of the bar or the club or the little table situated out of the way for a first blind date, I walked about unmarked by my sexuality. I look straight, I act straight, I have a heteronormative fondness for the idea of marriage, and a guilty love of romantic comedies. No one needed to know I was gay, and so I usually didn’t tell them. I didn’t talk about my weekend at work, or my social plans, even though my coworkers would, on the regular, regale me with theirs. This didn’t make me feel oppressed—I had a good job, good friends, people liked me. I was already a private person, so not talking about being gay didn’t seem problematic.

But the truth is that any omission of character in favour of a dominant paradigm is oppression, even when it’s a voluntary omission.

There’s another omission I voluntarily live with, and that is my disability. It’s invisible to all but those who know me very well, and I leave it out of conversations because my experience of it is generally unrelatable; and when I have revealed it, I have received back soft eyes and sympathetic cheeks and quiet “oh”s of compassion. Softness, sympathy, and compassion are all good things, but they also are the signs of being marked. Marked by my disability. Just as talking about dates with men would mark me as gay.

And the problem with being marked as gay is that your idea of gay or my colleagues’ idea of gay is not likely aligned with my experience of being gay. You see what you think is an accurate communication or description of my gayness, but you only see what I am able to communicate or describe using words and terms for gay that are necessarily heterosexual.

In the essay “Have We Got a Theory for You: Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism and the Demand for ‘The Woman’s Voice’”, María C. Lugones writes:

“We and you do not talk the same language. When we talk to you we use your language: the language of your experience and of your theories. We try to use it to communicate our world of experience. But since your language and your theories are inadequate in expressing our experiences, we only succeed in communicating our experience of exclusion. We cannot talk to you in our language because you do not understand it.”

So, even while I’m here looking as white and male as a person can look, I have under my skin an experience of life which I cannot speak to any who have not been gay, to anyone who does not share my disability. I can tell you, but I cannot tell you.

Because I have told you I’m gay, now you will always know that I am not a perfect fit for the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that bell hooks speaks of. The dominant paradigm. The hegemony. I have also told you I’m disabled, and now you will see that on me, too; and if I told you my disability, you might have questions, you might feel you have more access to my experience, you might say to others, “Sean Michael Morris lives with…” and the wisdom of my story might become partly yours.

And of course, I am not alone in this, nor is my story the most complicated of stories. That I can walk unnoticed for my sexuality and my disability is as much a privilege as it is oppression, but it is a privilege. I am not Black, I am not indigenous, I am not a person of colour. I am not trans or a woman, or visibly disabled. I can go unmarked if I want to. And those who cannot, those whose bodies out them as marginalised, they can tell me their stories, but they cannot tell me their stories.

In part, this is because I do not or cannot listen because the language of my own experience has limitations. But this is also because I have adopted the language of experience that doesn’t belong to me, that belongs to those non-gay and non-disabled white people who have tried to tell me how to talk about my experience. This has made it so I do not have ears to hear, if you will—because when someone Black or indigenous or trans tries to tell me, they must use my language, which cannot express their experience except as one of exclusion.

This reminds me of a conversation I was having with a colleague a couple of weeks ago. She’s putting together a leadership course focused on equity and, as a white woman, she did not want to be the only voice speaking during the course. She asked me for recommendations for guest speakers.

She said, “How do you find BIPOC people doing this work? Are they just not as well known?”

“You have to go looking,” I responded. “Not because they’re hard to find, but because we white people do not have the training nor the apparatus for hearing and seeing them.”

For the last several years, I have run an event called Digital Pedagogy Lab. The Lab is billed as “an international professional development gathering for educators committed to issues of diversity, equity, antiracism, critical digital pedagogy, and imagining a new future for education.” As part of the foundational ethos of the Lab, I have always sought to put at the front of the stage voices which are not usually heard at educational events.

The idea behind this is that education has been for too long voiced by heterosexual, cis white men; and so, if we are going to imagine a new future for education, it stands to reason that listening to the same voices will only lead to repetition, a future less about possibility, and one narrated instead by reified practices. Practices like behaviourism, evidence-based teaching, a reliance on learning outcomes, and more.

Those reified practices are what Digital Pedagogy Lab resists, even seeks to dismantle. The method to that Quixotic madness is critical pedagogy, or critical digital pedagogy: approaches that emphasise imagination, problem-posing education, and inquiry, and that situate both students and teachers as learners in that process. In relationship with educational technology, critical digital pedagogy applies that same methodology of asking questions and imagining new possibilities to both the platforms and the practices we employ to deliver digitally-inflected teaching and learning.

To be perfectly straightforward about it, critical pedagogy and critical digital pedagogy are not approaches with best or even predictable practices; but rather they are responsive to the situation, the technology, the classroom—and most of all the human being involved in trying to learn or teach in that situation. These are humanising pedagogies. And liberating pedagogies. And the pedagogies which I try my damnedest to proliferate in the world.

But there’s a problem, isn’t there? I am gay and I am disabled, and I can speak at those margins; but how, from my place, my social location, my own intersectionality, can I presume to create an event, an environment, a stage where, for example, a Black voice might be heard? How can I when I have no Black experience of my own? Isn’t the stage I provide, the stage they walk onto, necessarily a white stage, a cisgender stage, a male stage? There’s a question even as to whether my being able to provide that stage is a mark of my own privilege.

Liberating pedagogies for those whose teaching or design is supported by their privilege are pedagogies which give marginalised people access to a relationship to privilege. In other words, we who stand at or nearer the centre can give others access to that centre. This, though, doesn’t change the fact that we who stand at the centre are in control. Paulo Freire writes, “The oppressors use their ‘humanitarianism’ to preserve a profitable situation. Thus they react almost instinctively against any experiment in education which stimulates the critical faculties and is not content with a partial view of reality” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed 54-55). In other words, marginalised people are free to join the center but they should not ask too many questions or try to change what they find there.

Additionally, freedom to join the centre is not the freedom which critical pedagogy advocates for. For bell hooks, for example, there is power at the margins, and again and again her invitation is to question assumptions about the need for the marginalised to be absorbed into—to be included at—the centre. For the white supremacist patriarchal institution—or teacher, or instructional designer—the idea of freedom resolves in freedom to explore the centre, to take part in the benefits the privileged can impart.

Freedom to the privileged is privilege, to have what they have. People with privilege can give marginalised people what we want them to have, which is the same as what we imagine they want to have. This is precisely the assumption that critical pedagogy and critical digital pedagogy interrogate and seek to dismantle.

Let me try to put this more concretely. If we look at the learning management system, for example, what we find is an instrument designed to mimic components of a teaching environment. We have a place for content, a place for a syllabus, a place where video lectures can be posted, a place where discussion can happen, a place to hand in assignments, a place to post grades. These structures which surround our ideas of formal learning are coded into the digital environment. But what else is coded in?

A list from Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed provides some insight:

(a) The teacher teaches and the students are taught;
(b) The teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;
(c) The teacher thinks and the students are thought about;
(d) The teacher talks and the students listen—meekly;
(g) ...The teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the teacher;
(h) The teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it… (54)

Most importantly, what has been coded into our digital learning environments is an assumption about the linear direction of learning. A linear direction that moves chronologically and by subject across the term (aka the curriculum); but also, the linear direction which is the pipeline of information between student and teacher—a pipeline that originates at the teacher and terminates at the teacher.

Even the most beautiful, valiant attempts at student-centred teaching find their end in the teacher. The teacher evaluates, the teacher grades, the teacher decides whether a student has achieved what they should achieve. Imagining otherwise can be confounding, because the teacher represents the act of learning more than the students themselves do.

Our digital environments for learning, and our strategies and designs within those environments are grounded in one way of knowing, a linear, decidedly European way of knowing. And the location of knowledge always finds its seat in the teacher.

What this means is that students, marginalised or not marginalised (though within education students always stand poised at the margins), are invited to partake in the privilege of knowledge which the teacher is willing to share. Students must return to the teacher again and again to validate their place in the university, to receive the blessing of belonging.

For the teacher, freedom means having the freedom to know what he knows, to have what he has. The teacher devoutly committed to his students hopes they will learn his knowledge—and he imagines that’s their hope, too.

Writ badly, this is inclusive pedagogy: the drawing in toward the teacher students of every kind. Diversity in this case is not counter-hegemonic, but rather a broader audience for an institutional way of knowing. Institutions in the U.S. which are designated “Hispanic-serving” or “AAPI-serving” are congratulated for bringing people identified by those margins to the seat of knowledge which is the university, and the teacher. But the expectations around learning don’t change, the primary tenets of instruction don't change. Just the color of the faces in the classroom changes.

bell hooks writes at the opening of “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness”:

“Those of us who would participate in the formation of counter-hegemonic cultural practice [must] identify the spaces where we begin the process of revision … Do we continue to stand in political resistance with the oppressed, ready to offer our ways of seeing and theorising, of making culture towards that revolutionary effort which seeks to create space where there is unlimited access to the pleasure and power of knowing, where transformation is possible?” (15)

Part of what we must do when we are thinking of stepping forward and instead choose to stand still is to do this work of identifying the spaces where we must begin to revise our work, our approaches, our ways of thinking. When we talk about decolonising the university or education, for instance, we are inviting ourselves to participate in a radical realignment of power in order to provide access to knowledge, and in turn transformation, for everyone. However, we cannot decolonise education by inviting indigenous students to campus; we must be willing and ready to unseat the teacher and to evolve a university where learning isn’t necessarily always linear.

See, even when we welcome marginalised people to our institutions, our classrooms, our conversations, we usually ask them to shuffle off enough of their identity as marginalised in order to adapt to the expectations we will inevitably have for them: which is not just to blend in, to practice respectability, but—at a liberal institution concerned with a practice of freedom that emanates from that institution—to preserve enough of their marginal identity to remain marked as ‘other’ even as they are welcomed by us, the compassionate privileged. In other words, an Hispanic-serving institution not only needs students to identify as Hispanic, it needs Hispanic to be a category of otherness (never mind that many Hispanic-assigned students don’t use that term to identify themselves). Without that marker of difference, diversity cannot be achieved. Without that marker of difference, there is no institutional show-and-tell.

Now, the markers of identity which do not mix with the markers of hegemony must be shed. Students whose cultural backgrounds include learning through storytelling and sharing, or whose cultural norms do not include Western ideas of punctuality, or the five-paragraph essay, these students must learn to get along with those expectations nonetheless. And yet still, the markers of difference, of where they came from, must never be erased. If you are Brown you are Brown, if you are deaf you are deaf, if you are trans you are trans. Too often, that is liberal inclusiveness. The liberal white supremacist wants a marginalised friend to be different enough.

hooks points out:

“Often this talk about the ‘Other’ annihilates, erases: ‘No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still the author, authority. I am still the colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my life.' (“Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” 22)

What is happening here, when those from the margins join even the liberal centre, is worse than silencing. It is the oppression of omitting some part of one’s character and then the amplification of a rewritten story, a stolen voice. White ventriloquism.

We cannot allow our work to become this. We cannot allow our inclusive designs and pedagogies to write or rewrite stories that are not ours, to enforce a normative language for speaking about difference. We cannot put everyone in the same box and give them the same knowledge and call it equity.

Shortly after I came out, I discovered in my neighbourhood a coffee shop where the gay community gathered. Walking in there as a young and still glowing gay man, I was greeted by eyes and voices, chatter and glances, flirtation as much as welcomeness.

Flirtation, see, is part of gay parlance. We speak to each other with the once-over, our hellos are as much greetings as they can be hints of seduction. Gay men are as willing to invite each other to brunch as to breakfast the next morning. This is part of our charm with each other, but it doesn’t necessarily translate that well outside of the community of gay men.

Part of my identity is wrapped up in those glances. Part of my identity today is formed by greetings on dating apps—”Hey handsome” among the most common. I know myself in part because of how I flirt and am flirted with. At my first Pride event, I was hugged and winked at and jibed and propositioned by a dozen or more men, and all as part of the celebration of our community. Outside of that context, this behaviour would be harassment, but within my little marginal group, this behaviour is an affirmation for all of us.

Within what design for digital learning can this particular way of knowing—knowing through joyful flirtation and happy encounter—find purchase?

Do our universal designs for learning allow Black people to gather with Black people, to speak to each other and learn from each other in the ways that are most relevant and real for them? Can indigenous people gather together with indigenous people? Trans or lesbian or gay with others who share their voices? When we design for digital learning—whether online or hybrid—we design for a specific class, a set of content, a semester’s worth of teacher-student relationship. We don’t design for community; and when we don’t design for community, we are not designing for diversity.

See, this moment is about much more than what we do next with digital learning. Because the pandemic didn’t just teach us lessons about how inadequate our digital approaches have been in the past, and how desperately we need to improve them; the pandemic also taught us that when the classroom disappears, too often so do students. They disappear from sight, yes, and they disappear from our physical knowing of them. But they also disappear into the lives they lead that are not academic, that are only shades and shadows when they are in our classrooms, but that possessed them entirely when they had to turn around and go home.

They disappear into communities we don’t see, we don’t know or understand, and for which our instructional design makes no room or even acknowledges. Because one disabled person in my class does not an understanding of disability make. Access and inclusion are not necessarily liberating. Our very best efforts at inclusion will always fall short if we don’t begin to see that being disabled, or being gay—and, I’d wager, being Black, indigenous, a person of colour—is a communal experience, an experience informed by and dependent upon others who share those characteristics, others with whom one can have language and play and empathy and understanding. And so when we “include” a marginalised person in the learning our institutions provide, we are inviting them to participate in the privilege we see as freedom, but which may not be freedom in the language they speak.

We must look at what our designs are—our designs on education, our designs on students, our designs on design itself. And we must look at the font from which those designs spring. Are these the designs of indigenous voices heard? Are these the designs of Black voices listened to? If that’s what they are, they are not adequate. Because they must be indigenous designs. They must be Black designs. They must be the designs of the disabled, not for the disabled. Designs of LGBTQ folks, not for them. They must not be the designs of soft eyes and sympathetic cheeks and quiet “oh”s of compassion. They must not be designs that mark bodies and minds as other, as different, or designs that respond to the margins. They must be designs of the margins, and they must relocate our understanding of learning and knowing to those margins.

Put another way, the one really big mistake that universal design for learning makes is presuming that there is a universal anything, and that we designers can comprehend what that may be.

Now, I want to be careful here, because there are a lot of good people listening right now, and you have done a great deal of hard, deliberate work to create open spaces and opportunities for unheard or undetected voices. I have long admired the work that OCAD does, and am practically sycophantic about the brilliant Jess Mitchell, who will be reining me in during our Q&A very soon. But I also want to be careful to not be too careful. Because the work that we’re doing, that you’re doing, the work that needs to be done, is not a halfway work. It’s not partial work. It has to be complete work, and it has to be stunningly wrought so that it dismantles what needs dismantling.

Which includes me talking right now. I am so grateful to have been invited here. And please do not invite me back. Please do not ever invite a cis white male like me back to speak. We have spoken enough. And our voices drown out the voices of practically everyone else. I am gay, and disabled, and so I have done my speaking at the margins. But here on this screen, you cannot see my gayness, you cannot detect my disability… you see a bearded white male speaking. Again. How many times does this need to happen?

The work we need to do must happen outside of our comfortable walls of academic dialogue, outside of our being used to seeing white men speak. Outside the walls of our institutions. In places where we feel more vulnerable, stripped of our books and rhetoric. We cannot dismantle white supremacy if we are only ever looking to include people in its privilege; we white people cannot expand our ways of knowing and doing and being and relating until we stop thinking about expanding, including, making accessible our way of doing things.

Going forward, what we need to learn the most has nothing to do with digital technology, but also everything to do with digital technology—everything to do with who digital technology omits, what omissions it requires. The silences so deafening we never heard them before the pandemic made them relevant to all of us who haven’t gone unheard.

And so as we step forward, we must stand still. The opportunity before us is not technological, is not simply curricular, even if it must be grounded in the frantic and bewildering experiences both technological and curricular which we have endured during the pandemic. The opportunity before us is one of humanizing education to a degree and at a depth which we have not attempted before. And we may discover by standing still that it is someone else who will step us all forward, a voice speaking a language we don’t yet understand but must be humble enough to learn. A speaker at the margin refusing to come in where we are comfortable, calling us instead to see, hear, and know an education that we thought we’d tamed in an entirely new way.