【by Sundar Sarukkai, Dec. 2021】
Like most others, I transitioned into online teaching without much problem although in the beginning I felt that this mode went against certain basic tenets of teaching and learning. For me, teaching philosophy is not about the content but about ways and forms of thinking about something. Thus, my teaching tends towards using questioning as a way of learning, of finding ways to let the students discover and articulate on their own through thinking, moving from one level to another. Given this mode of exploration, physical presence seemed essential. So when I had to do philosophy courses online, I did face a profound challenge in finding ways to communicate and practice these forms of thinking without being in the physical presence of the students. However, I soon discovered that teaching online did not bother me as much as I had thought it would. I found a kind of rhythm and a way to use Powerpoint (which I would not normally use in my regular classes) to try and teach philosophy.
But as I did more and more of these classes, and began to get more complacent about this mode of teaching, I also began to realise a major missing element in my experience of teaching. There were many pointers leading me to this realisation. First was the simple fact that it was far less tiring to teach online compared to teaching in a class. This did not have to do only with the physical aspect of movement that is part of teaching in a class. It had more to do with a kind of mental engagement which also tires a teacher. Secondly, I was trying to make sense of this ‘dissocialized’ (like disembodied) experience of teaching where it seemed that more often I was teaching and talking to myself than to others. Cognitively, I knew that there were others listening to me but my experience of teaching was as if I was the only person in the room and I could as well have been giving a lecture to myself. Thirdly, the way the students entered into any interaction during the class was again disembodied in that they were reduced to only voices and in some cases, hazy pictures in tiny frames. This reduction of a person into a voice and/or a tiny picture also reduced teaching to a transaction of language. While it is true that much of teaching takes place through the medium of language, being present in a class physically produces other forms of interaction which include all the other senses. Ironically, teaching in the online medium shifted the hegemony of sight that has become so important in our teaching practises to a more balanced hegemony of sight and sound. It thus shifts the way we listen, the way we hear and brings into play new experiences of the aural.
Fourthly, the disembodied action of my teaching also removed the important experience of bodily motility that is essential to teaching. This motility is the way we as teachers orient ourselves in a class when we teach. Our body responds to various stimuli in the class and we use our body and gestures in many different ways to communicate and reach out to the students. In so doing, we create a sense of tactility that brings the teacher and the students together through a different sensory experience. These practises define the very act of teaching as much as verbally teaching content in a class. Finally, a teacher’s act of teaching is moderated by the experience of seeing the class and being-seen by the class. As teachers, we develop a fine-tuned antennae that can sense the mood of the class. We know when the students are getting bored or restless, or when they get a spark thinking through something we have said. We read cues from the way students sit, from their glances or even from the way they stare at you! There is a surplus of information that we get from non-verbal communication in the classroom. These non-verbal cues are not merely indicative of the moods of the students but they are also about the processes of learning – whether they are ‘getting’ what we say, whether they disagree with something or whether they are trying to make sense of a particular idea.
Online teaching completely eradicates all these features – disembodied, dissocialized, bodily motility, non-verbal cues – and becomes a very reductive mode of teaching. What is the consequence of the loss of these elements? One might say that in reality little is lost but this would be true only if teaching is seen as a transmission of some content. The content can anyway be transmitted through slides and powerpoint. But this method of teaching makes the teacher redundant and one could as well have given the students the textbook to read. So even in courses, such as in the sciences, where content has a greater importance, the online mode of teaching misses out on these crucial aspects of being-present as a teacher. In the case of the social sciences and humanities, the loss of these aspects of embodied teaching can have lasting consequences.
The most important element of loss in online teaching – an element that also unifies many of the points I mentioned above – is the element of caring. I would argue that the idea of care and the act of caring are the most important components of teaching. In a rudimentary sense of the word, care is the disposition that characterises the act of teaching and the notion of caring defines the practises related to teaching. As teachers, we care for students in a most general sense of the term. This idea of care includes taking care that the students learn what they are supposed to, that they learn the skills needed for them to do well in their coursework and related issues in learning content. But this notion of care is more than practises related to the caring of the intellectual well-being of the student. The teacher cares for the student in that the teacher cares for the well-being of the student over and beyond the subject matter that is taught by the teacher. Competently teaching the subject matter is necessary since to do that is also to care but only focussing on the subject matter does not fulfil the conditions of caring that is required by the act of teaching.
This focus on caring is not to reproduce the image of teachers as doing the work of parents. The act of caring by the teacher is very different from the act of caring by the parents and family members or even friends. The teacher is not a member of the family but performs an important function of a family. The teacher does not continue to remain in the lifeworld of the student after the student leaves the class but nevertheless brings an element of caring in the short period in which she interacts with the student. The teacher is a disinterested ‘carer’, somebody who cares not because of family connections or for utilitarian purposes. A student once told me that while he appreciated the work we were doing as teachers, he also felt that we were anyway being paid for it. He was right in that there is a transactional element in teaching. But this transactional, utilitarian element of teaching is for the most basic, core expectations of teaching. So we could argue that teachers get paid to teach the student the core content but anything else the teacher does is done out of a commitment to the act of teaching, to the act of caring for the student over and beyond the teaching of the core subject matter.
It is difficult to clearly define what care and caring really means. The growing field of care ethics illustrates the problems in these definitions. However, we have a better grasp of how to approach these themes without sentimentalising them. An introductory essay on care ethics shows the various difficulties in producing these definitions such as care’s relation to labour, values, responsibility, attentiveness and so on. I am using these various characteristics of care and caring to show its essential relation to teaching and to suggest that the greatest loss in online teaching is this aspect of caring. The loss of the physical presence, the disembodiment of the teacher, the dissocialization of the teacher and other factors discussed above all contribute to the loss of caring that is essential for meaningful education. In the case of education, one could argue that the core purpose of a teacher is to provide an atmosphere of caring in the act of teaching. What the teacher brings to her presence in the class is the possibility of caring. In online education, it is this aspect of caring that is so drastically lost. It is no wonder then that students from poorer communities as well as marginalised students in a class have dropped out or have lost ‘contact’ with the class. Online education for so many of them became a statement of uncaring, of being indifferent to the multiple difficulties they face in these systems. Caring is not guaranteed by the presence of the teacher as many of these students will attest when they go in person to class. However, physical presence becomes a necessary condition that is required for a meaningful sense of caring.
Caring is also what is common to both matters of health and education, and particularly more so in the very ideas of public health and public education. The online system of teaching and medical practice have to find ways to incorporate this most essential aspect of health and education. Public health is as much a statement about the act of caring by an anonymous public (including the State) as it is about health parameters. Similarly, public education is as much a statement that emphasises the act of caring by an anonymous society. When public money is used to give good education to the deprived, then we are actually extending an aspect of care to these children without even knowing who they are as individuals. This is an act of caring that comes not from people around you but from those who are not part of your family – this feature captures an important sense of the meaning of the ‘public’.
What this analogy also reminds us is that teaching is primarily about making students healthy. If we reduce the meaning of health only to certain physical parameters we are forgetting that the essential aspect of health is the health of the cognitive and the emotional, and not just of the cognitive alone. That is the reason why teaching as focussing on content alone has bred a large number of students who cannot be decent, caring citizens in our societies. Teaching as caring is the only way to create healthy students. The recognition that the process of learning is exactly like the process of healing is what should define the act of teaching today. We all know that in today’s technologicalization of medicine, in which machines and machine-logic do the work of doctors, what is most crucially lost is the aspect of caring. Reducing education to such techno-logics of various kinds also does the same violence to children, once again emphasising the point that public health and public education are conjoined to each other, and harming one does equal harm to the other.
(Note: This article was originally published as “Teaching and Caring” as part of the series titled Still Online: Higher Education in India edited by V. Madhurima, Sujin Babu and Ram Ramaswamy for Confluence, an editorially moderated discussion forum of Indian Academy of Science.)
Sundar Sarukkai, Indian Institute of Science, India