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Crisis Pedagogy Starts With the Human Touch

By Annette Finley-Croswhite

For months we have been discussing the challenges posed to teaching during a world pandemic. Colleges and universities throughout the nation scrambled during the spring to get their courses online, and currently face tough decisions for the fall semester. And now we find that we are also teaching during a period of protest and deep societal unrest. The emotions felt throughout the nation over the killing of George Floyd last week are heightened by the fact that we witnessed it on television. We are all witnesses to his death, and with that comes a certain moral responsibility, even more so because we are educators.

The racial disparities that exist within American society were already amplified by a pandemic that revealed racial discrimination in medical testing and treatment and unequal access to health care, making minority populations particularly vulnerable. Continuous demonstrations in the wake of Floyd's killing threaten to expand the impact of COVID-19, further amplifying the dangerous connections between pandemic and protest.

As scholars and teachers, we have always been at the forefront of creating meaningful change. Floyd's killing, one of many, and the resulting chaos will have an impact on all college and university communities but will especially touch our African American faculty and students. In critical ways, the images we see on television today are about the horrific legacy of slavery in this nation, a history that doesn't conform to the American ideal of liberty and justice and equality for all. We are living in a watershed moment as we face the painful truths our history so often elides.

Floyd's death will have an impact on many disciplines across the campus — criminal justice, psychology, history, and political science, to name a few — and lead to varied and essential conversations. When COVID-19 sent us home to shelter in place, we encouraged faculty to check on their students and assess how they were dealing with fallout from the pandemic. Once again we encourage those teaching this summer and in the fall to use weekly check-ins and create safe spaces for students. It is important that we communicate with our colleagues as well. Francie Diep, a staff writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, encourages white faculty to reach out to minority faculty. She states, "You shouldn't assume that your colleagues think that you support them. You should tell people that you support them." See her article here. Bridget Anderson, associate professor of applied linguistics at ODU, states: "We must stop prioritizing our own (white) comfort, the comfort of the privileged, and tend to the comfort of the traumatized."

Researchers at Berkeley have argued for the importance of "human touch," which they view as a language unto itself and critically important for making moral connections. In an institutional setting, human touch is never physical, however, but usually comes via electronic transmission or personal conversation. Communication is key as the process of healing begins with expressions of shared humanity. Infusing our pedagogy and campus culture with human touch by talking with students and colleagues about their well-being is an excellent way to show support during difficult times. Dr. Narketta Sparkman-Key, ODU's Academic Affairs Director of Faculty Diversity and Retention, adds: "It is important that we specifically support our black colleagues and students. These events are traumatic; they excite fear and trigger trauma among blacks. Support can be as simple as providing comfort, being genuine and using your position of power to speak against racist actions."

As members of the Monarch community, let's remember the words of President Broderick from last Friday:

Dear Monarch Community,

I know our Monarch community joins me in expressing our collective outrage regarding the horrific and senseless killing of George Floyd. We send prayers to his family as well as our hopes that his tragic death will create not just a nationwide conversation, but a commitment from every member of American society to say "No more" to what we observed in Minneapolis or, before that, in Georgia. As a diverse and inclusive campus, we must continue to do our collective best to demonstrate for the world that at Old Dominion University we strive to learn from differences, leading to a greater understanding of one another.


John R. Broderick

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