By Marilù Ciabattoni / Staff Writer
Communications Professor Donatella Della Ratta, who recently wrote an essay for the Institute of Network Cultures titled Teaching Into The Void, also calls it “blended learning,” and she has a lot to say about it. She defines the moment we are living as “a crisis of education, embodiment, and alienation,” which incorporates elements that a year ago were almost exclusively associated with YouTubers, Influencers, and TikTokers: from the self-reflecting gaze to plastic surgery and ring lights.
Back in November 2020, I interviewed Professor Carlos Dews about JCU’s transition to remote teaching told from the point of view of the professors. Now, after the remote teaching experience, our Community has had the chance of witnessing first-hand the pros and cons of hybrid classes.
Professor Della Ratta, where does the idea for this article come from? What inspired you to write it?
I am a media ethnographer. In the method I use for my research, when I was working in Syria, which is the background of my media ethnography, we are used to dealing with the field. Now my field is no longer Syria because of the circumstances—but it’s digital. I look at the world of the digital as a media ethnographer and find inspiration from what’s happening. Having this background in ethnography is important to write about this experience of blended teaching/learning. I have a professional collaboration with Geert Lovink, an internet theorist who is the founder of the Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam, and we enjoy talking about what’s happening, especially in the time of the pandemic where the digital is becoming completely hegemonic—the new black, as we would say. We were discussing about my experience and he told me, why don’t you write something for the INC website? They have this very beautiful format that is called longform, and I thought that was the right time to do it. I thought of using my personal experience as a teacher and integrating it with my students’ experience. I also involved the Student Government to spread the message: that I’m looking for people to gather opinions about the semester and this is how it was made, pretty much.
Do you think John Cabot’s decision to have hybrid classes was better than having the university closed altogether as many other Italian universities did? If you could have decided, would you have made the same choice?
As a teacher, I would always prefer to work on-site. Even if I had to go to campus for one student, I would go. This is my personal opinion, though. I think John Cabot’s decision was a good one because we have large enough classrooms to accommodate this hybrid mode. The problem with being online is that not all of them want to be online, but many are forced to do so because we have degree-seekers who are stuck in countries like Serbia, for example, and they cannot travel because the border is close. So, it’s not their own decision to not be able to come to campus physically. We have to give this opportunity. It’s a pretty different situation from Italian public universities, where they have hundreds of students, more classrooms and the students are all pretty much local students. I think it’s incomparable. When it comes to JCU, I think this was a good decision. Of course, it put a lot of burden on us because we have to teach for two different audiences, we are like “doubles,” jugglers who have to look at every corner around us. But still, even if it requires much more labor, I’m still in favor of this as an emergency measure of course. What I’m not in favor of is asynchronous. As long as we keep them live and synchronous it’s fine, but if we become on-demand, I think we lose sense of what university education means.
In your essay, you state that “blended learning has put us in the awkward situation where we have to not only sit in constant confrontation with our facebut find the best way to check (and adjust) our expressions to make them convey a certain deliberate emotion.”While, at the end of your essay, you suggest to “make the best, make maximum awkwardness, make shameless fun, of this one massive ‘awkward moment’ that we’re living in.” Since this is your first time with online teaching, did you feel awkward during your first online class? And did that awkwardness ever go away?
Of course, us professors don’t have the choice to keep the camera off as you guys do, and this contributes to the feeling of awkwardness. Usually, when I teach, I don’t look at myself. That’s very important. I look at people who are standing in front of me. I look at their expressions, at their eyes to understand if they understood it or not. So usually, I create a relationship with another human being. But when I gaze at myself because I’m doing this weird hybrid format, then of course I’m distracted as it’s a human thing. You are distracted by your own self, by your own self-grazing. You’re thinking, “oh my god, is this really my expression when I teach? How can I teach this way?” So, instead of focusing on the other, you start focusing on yourself, which creates awkwardness and is also deeply problematic as a teacher because you have to create a connection with the other, you cannot just focus on yourself.
For example, in my teaching method, I ask a lot of questions to encourage participation. I ask whether they understood or not, and it’s a back and forth between them and me. However, when I’m alone with my computer, that’s what makes the situation very awkward. The asynchronous mode isolates me from everything else, there is nothing relational upon which to build a healthy student-teacher relationship, so that’s what I find very awkward. But also, it’s awkward when everything is great, and you have a great PowerPoint, a great camera angle and the technology doesn’t work, which happens all the time.
So why do I say awkwardness? Because there is so much burden being put on us professors and on you students as a result of this pandemic. I wanted to say that it’s not our fault: this situation that is happening is much bigger than me, my PowerPoint, my camera angle, or you, your kitchen, your roommates, and release the pressure because this is the neo-liberal narration that always blames it on individuals. But how many times Teams doesn’t work? And this is Bill Gates, not Donatella Della Ratta. So why should I blame myself and not blame Bill Gates? We live in this narrative that technology is amazing, but it’s often not true. So, we should relax—us, teachers, and you, students—because otherwise we risk burning out. This situation of the pandemic really leads to social and individual burnout. This was my way to give myself and also others a heads up about this danger.
You write, “in the physical classroom we might have a live performance crisis, but in the hybrid environment surely the experience of crisis is one of the gaze—not of the Other, but of the self.” You also take the chance to define cameras as a mode of oppression. Do you find hypervisibility exhausting?
Yes, sure. I do think that this culture of extreme visibility, outmost transparency, is a culture of outmost control and surveillance as well. I don’t like surveillance CCTV cameras that are put on campus, and I say this in the article. I say that it would be much better to give us the ring lights. We would look much better. I feel all of us are fluent in global visual culture: you students because you grew up in a generation who’s used to social media everywhere, myself because I teach media studies and communications. I think we understand that, shot as surveillance shot, is a matter of control. This is not good because what is at stake here is the student-teacher relationship and not being able to control the setting. Camera angles do carry a grammar and a language, and we should be aware of the type of language that these shots implicitly suggest and the meanings that are connected to them. This is my take on the gaze that doesn’t help connecting with the professor because it’s top to bottom: you don’t see the face as many of us use facial expressions and gestures to communicate. It’s very important to have a close-up instead of having that surveillance gaze that you have with the CCTV camera.
When it comes to students, I also think that imposing the cameras on is problematic. I know some of my colleagues do not agree with me, and they would likely enforce the use of the camera as a part of participation and attendance grade. I do not enforce the use of the camera because it’s a discriminatory device. We assume that people have the same housing conditions, the same infrastructure but that’s not true. So, I don’t want to impose a student with difficult conditions to be on camera all the time—and also because of the problem of the self-gaze.
In the interview, some participants said that, when their cameras are on, they’re distracted because, instead of looking at the professor, they look at themselves. I don’t think it’s up to the professor to decide whether the camera should be on or off, I don’t think the learning process becomes necessarily better if you have your camera on. There are other ways like the audio dimensions which would be much more interesting and powerful than the visual dimension, as we’re seeing in the development of social networks such as Clubhouse that really show that the audio dimension is growing in defiance of the predominantly mainstream visual culture. Sometimes people don’t understand that Teams is a heavy platform. So how can we impose the camera on, on such a heavy infrastructure?
Do you think that, because many professors at JCU never had to be remote learners, they do not fully understand the struggles of today’s students?
I think the issue is with technology. Us professors of the Communications Department should understand the issue with technology. Of course, a professor in Communications would understand technology much better than a professor in a field completely disconnected from media and technology. And, of course, there are also generational issues: it’s more likely that younger professors will understand this better because they use more video-sharing platforms as opposed to older generations. But I don’t think they’re biased towards students. I think it’s either a matter of generation or something related to the field of study.
I think it’s fair to state that COVID-19 is a crisis of communications. In your views, will we ever be as social as we were before? Has this pandemic caused an irreversible void inside of us, needy of people?
There was a trend before the pandemic of switching towards digital. Slowly but surely. And the pandemic has accelerated this. I do think there’s something like a paradigm shift. Not irreversible, but definitely a shift in which the digital becomes hegemonic, taking over domains of life that were previously completely untouched, like teaching/learning. I do feel that, after the crisis is over, a lot of universities will disappear, for example, because they cannot bear the infrastructural cost of having on-site teaching. There are a lot of infrastructural costs in having face-to-face teaching these days. And there will also be a fiercer competition with other universities that are now offering online MA’s or Undergrad classes or events, which previously were more difficult to join because of the distance. Now you can take a Master’s Program at the New School in New York while being in Rome, for instance. I think this poses a lot of problems of how life is going to look like afterward, but there definitely are domains in human communications, creating relationships with people, dating. All these things are interestingly shifting towards the digital. I think people working in Communications and Media Studies already understood before the pandemic that there was this slow but sure trend towards the digital becoming the new black, so we are aware of what is going on now. Also, regarding students, I think it’s a strategic path to take for the future because to understand society and business and family you need to understand technology. Not necessarily the coding part of it, but what the infrastructure implies on a human and business level, a humanities approach to technology.
Will these changes be permanent in the education world? Will the future look like what we’re living right now?
I think part of the demand of a teacher’s job is to be familiar with technology, which, now that there are so many tutorials on the internet, is not just about how to use technology, but how to understand what’s at stake, what it means to use a platform instead of another, how the platform makes money, how it protects data or not. There are so many issues that revolve around the humanities approach to technology. I think this will be increasingly demanded professionally in the future, not just in university domains as we are but also in high schools. Teachers will have to be more familiar with technology because this will be inherently part of the learning process whether we want it or not. Especially us Italians: we are stuck in an idea of writing on billboards. It doesn’t work like that any longer. We need to understand platforms if we want to be teachers in the future. And, in terms of competition, I think there will be many businesses that will shut down in the educational section and also others that will impose themselves as a result of the pandemic. But I think that the competition between educational institutions will be fierce because of the digital availability of the offers that become massive on the one hand, and on the other hand, the increasing cost of running face-to-face learning businesses.
Any last comments, Professor?
I would like to thank the Student Government and the students and professors that have participated in my essay. I interviewed them in a very busy period, between finals and Christmas, so I owe my gratitude to the people that helped me, and I do hope that in the future we will have more discussions within our community at JCU, with the Student Government, the Administration, faculty, and staff, in order to dig into these issues. I think that there is so much to explore about this hybrid learning/teaching format because we are all stakeholders in it, so I wish we can have more meetings with the different stakeholders involved in the process.
Donatella Della Ratta holds a Master’s from ANICA/Scuola RAI and a Ph.D. from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. During her career, she has contributed to notorious media outlets such as Al Jazeera English, Hyperallergic, Internazionale, and Il Manifesto. Among her other recent publications, she wrote “Shooting a Revolution: Visual Media and Warfare in Syria” (2018). You can also find her on Twitter at @donatelladr.