“This is not business as usual”: Belonging in the teaching team

Online by Our Design provides a platform for teaching and learning resources that are centred on the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences pedagogical values. Themes of Belonging, Agency, Engagement and Equity all emerged when I talked with Ivan Cerecina, awarded the Dean’s Citation for Tutorials with Distinction in 2021. Ivan teaches in the Department of Art History and Film Studies and holds a PhD in post-war French film.

Leanne Stevenson: You initiated two practices in 2021 for your teaching teams, can you tell me about your Zoom support group for tutors?

Ivan Cerecina: The Zoom support involved getting the tutors together and getting everyone comfortable with the platform we will be using, and talking about some of the things we can do on Zoom, given that remote teaching will be the case. A lot of it was to begin with, logistical, how do breakouts work, basic things. And then it developed into discussions about ‘what can you do with this and what are the some of the things that this allows you to do,’ how could we think about, for example, bringing in other teaching platforms and things like that. It did not start as well thought through or in a sustained manner, it was more of a response to the situation, it came out of our dialogue about what was going on.

hands on table

This has been an isolating time for people so having some sense of sustained cohort around you, whether that is the students you teach or the teachers you teach with, is important and so it made sense to do this with friends. And we were a cohort of tutors with various levels of teaching experience and digital literacy more broadly. Zoom was a new technology for a lot of people, and I thought this needed some reflection, what this change means and whether it is meaningful. And it was not just about getting through the logistical changes, but also thinking through ‘what does this actually mean for students and what does it mean for teachers to make this transition online?’ That is the way we started thinking about it.

Leanne: And tell me about co-teaching – I love this idea!

Ivan: I had a bit of experience with it in first semester (2021) when I sat in on a couple of colleagues classes, and again, it came as a response to anxieties about this change to online: ‘something might go wrong, would you mind sitting in?’. And they ended up being interesting experiences because one of the odd things when you are a teacher, is you have no idea how other people do it. I have been teaching with some of the people for a long time, and I can guess what they would be like a teacher, because I know this guy, and they seem like a nice guy. But otherwise, it is a bit of a mystery how people do it, and that was quite revealing to see how some people teach, these are the questions they ask, this is how they approach the same material.

In the lecture for FILM2000 we would have a co-teacher every week; I divided that responsibility between myself and the other tutor on the course. And that was a response to thinking about what it is like for students to be on a Zoom lecture. And how difficult that is. Or how difficult it can be. Something we spoke about was that on Zoom your attention is quite distracted, and there are a couple of things that contribute to that. One is that a lot of students are just working from their bedroom, and I was teaching for my bedroom as well, so that distinction between the space in which you learn and the space in which you do other stuff disappears. But also, people go on the computer to procrastinate. Sure, they go on there to do work, but the way people use a computer is in a necessarily distracted fashion, you have one tab open, but you also have another window open, you have this up, and you have that up.

The prospect of listening to someone talk for two hours (on Zoom) is a difficult one, not because of the speaker and not because of the subject matter, but because of the format.

We had one person monitoring the Zoom chat, which is really difficult to do by yourself when giving a lecture. We would pose questions while the lecture was going, checking-in to see that everyone is keeping up, running some exercises, which are based on the material that was being spoken about in the lecture. The co-teacher would act as a conduit between the lecturer and the student cohort. We would synthesise some of the discussion that has been going on in the chat. Having a teacher in the chat also drew attention to some of the questions that students were asking or discussion that was interesting and we could get the lecturer to elaborate. That was the most useful way of responding to the questions that students might not otherwise pose as well, previously it be something they jot down in a notebook, or it might be something that they think of at the time but then forget.

Leanne: It is interesting on Zoom, because if there is someone to facilitate the chat, there are two different modes to work in and it can really enrich the dialogue because we do not get to know what everyone is thinking necessarily in face-to-face settings, people are more forthcoming in a Zoom chat.

Ivan: It made sense to do something with that parallel behaviour, which for the students, can be a more private ‘what am I thinking.’  Because we all have thoughts when we listen to lectures and form questions based on that, it seemed like that was a good way of using the chat productively.

Leanne: And you also practised co-teaching in Zoom tutorials?

Ivan: Yes, it was completely voluntary and really came out of a more informal conversation with tutors about what do you think would help you right now. For people who were in lockdown, it has been an isolating couple of years, and with students and teachers that I was working with, I was always trying to figure out a way to make it less isolating and make it social in some ways. At a certain point, it is a little bit beyond what makes good teaching, it is also about what can you do to support people in a difficult time.

It is one of the strengths of having a larger teaching cohort is that we can share with one another and learn from one another.

This experience has been helpful in making whole teaching processes seem more open, and open for discussion between other teachers. I found this to be valuable in terms of my development as a teacher. I also really appreciate the other tutors who wanted to do that, teach their classes despite it being awkward to have someone watch you do your thing.

Leanne: How did fostering this support and collaboration within the teaching team affect the cohort as a whole?

Ivan: The course is undergoing a transition, and this is a broader scholarly question in Film Studies and Art History about how we can best do visual analysis now that we have these technological tools at our disposal. Our students were encouraged to make video essays instead of written essays, so all the analysis is done visually. There was a sense in which we were still working out this new format of audio-visual analysis, and the strictures that exist about essay writing are no longer shaping the outcomes, they are being worked out by us because they are being worked at by everyone. So, in the course more broadly we were predisposed to be a little bit more open to questions from students, questions about methodology, there was already an open forum for discussion about what we are doing here, what is this and that. Co-teaching helps continue that because it takes away the sense of authority. In film, we often talk about voice over as being this authority on what it is that we are seeing and in the same way, the lecturing format, the traditional one, is about an authority speaking to the things that we are learning.

The collaborative approach of co-teaching takes away from some of that authority because it’s based on dialogue, rather than a single voice and I hope that for students it encourages them to ask questions because we are asking questions of one another as well.

It takes away from the approach of ‘here’s the answer, here’s the thing, here’s the information for you to jot down.’ I hope that it proved us to be a little bit more fallible and, in that way, encourage them to ask questions.

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