Collecting COVID-19

Contributions from Italy

Scattered reflections on an online course, the pandemic and the two things together

Author: Sofia Venturoli teaches Latin American anthropology and political anthropology at University of Turin in Italy, her main research interests include social and cultural changes among Latin-American indigenous groups, ethnogenesis, indigenous political struggles in urban areas.

Fieldsite: teaching digitally in Italy

In a post that has recently created a lot of debate on social media, the Canadian online teaching guru Stephen Downes writes that online education should be “fast, fun, crazy, unplanned, and inspirational. It should be provided by people who are more like DJs than television producers. It should move and swim, be ad hoc and on the fly.”

I have just finished teaching a course in Political Anthropology at the University of Turin that started just at the dawn of the COVID-19 emergency in my country, Italy. On the threshold of the COVID-19 emergency, what happened was not only a national health emergency but an emergency that spread to all sectors, shattering millions of small emergencies of different types in many other areas. At our university, one of the largest in the country, in more or less a week, some 4,000 courses had to be placed online for 80,000 students. From my kaleidoscope, getting up early to have a few hours of calm, before my little ones of 4 and 6 years got up, I had to solve a series of occurrences, being part of several committees at department and university level. In addition, it was necessary to share the “good practices” among colleagues, since more than anything, what saved most of the situations in universities – as was also the case for the school sector – was the personal initiative of teachers. Improvisation, the ability to invent and build something “fast, fun, crazy, unplanned, and inspirational” was, for many of us, the most important impulse. The strength of waking up every morning to invent something with a lucid mind and having time in the rest of the day for all the work and problems, not forgetting cooking and a chat with my children, was what made it possible to always stay “on the fly” (It must be remembered that this period will have important repercussions in our academic futures, since if there is always been a gap between male and female academics, after that season a chasm will open between the scientific production of women and men who found themselves working with children at home, see for example here).

A screenshot of the padlet we used during the course

If I look at it now, it appears that the course somehow took advantage of the urgency and the precariousness that provided a certain degree of fluidity (or perhaps drunkenness). With the students, we reflected a lot on what we were living together, crossing thinkers and experiences: from Foucault and Gramsci to Angela Davis and Loïc Wacquant going through the Bolivian militant comics, Pink Floyd and the feminismo comunitario. At the same time, we tried to move away from the contingent situation to also maintain a feeling of normality.

In the last class of the course, we looked at ourselves through the mirror. The teacher and the students through the computer screen. I proposed a meta-reflection on the course and, more broadly, on distance learning in the situation in which we had found ourselves, as an expression of a paradigm shift – not only pedagogical but socio-cultural. I asked them to share their thoughts on this approach, in relation to the learning methods and contents we used, as well as in relation to dealing with teachers and with the university institution. I also asked them how that part of their life, moved on to the web, would have produced reflections and changes at the individual and collective level (if it does still exist). Many questions came up in that hour and a half: it was absolutely evocative to hear their voices and, obviously, extremely electrifying to me to know that they had found the course “stimulating”, “interesting”, “captivating”, and “fun”. However, what amazed me was that the course for them was something that had a “calming” function, they thanked me for the “serenity” that I transmitted to them. The moments of discussion, throughout the hours we spent together, served to them to feel part of something, to share daily questions and issues that the political and social emergency situation placed before us. The online classes with the possibility of interaction, unlike those recorded and uploaded on the university learning management system, allowed them to meet and cement collective moments of which the lack was very great. So much so that the self-managed act of the last class was concluded by the creation of a WhatsApp group among the course participants.

In this looking at the mirror in the last class – apart from the practical questions of content management and didactic methodologies – I spoke with them about my lack of classroom ritual. A spatial ritual, of gestures within spaces, spaces full of people and physical things, which creates physicality although without contact. The spaces full of words, noise and sounds that our collectives create, from which rituals, sometimes almost daily, are formed. Is that what the students lacked? The idea of the collective, of meeting together in a space, of sharing spaces? Did they find that feeling again, during the course, even only for moments and virtually, to be a collective again?

Within online teaching you surely do not have to replicate what is done in the physical classroom, that’s the first sacred rule of e-learning! However, I think there are times when you have to keep in mind who you are talking to, where your audience is and in what conditions they are. That always applies, inside and outside a physical classroom because that shapes the relationship with them, which is a commandment even more sacred than the previous one. If our first purpose is to move and build critical thinking we need to light a spark of passion in them.

Following the well-known adagio for which Italians work well under the emergency and “on the fly”, Italian universities had to move their teaching activities online in little more than two weeks, and two months later they are taking stock of the experience. The Conference of the Rectors of Italian Universities and the Ministry of the University made their first assessments. They seemed very excited from the first months and defined the online teaching of Italian universities as a “success”: more than 1,2 million students were reached out of the total 1.5 million population, with 64,000 online courses set up and launched in a month and 26,000 students graduated.

Based on those results, now universities are planning the implementation of new infrastructures and new activities to improve and increase distance education in the country. My fear, as well as that of my colleagues, is not only that the excessive love for distance learning is expressed by people who do not know what it means and do not have a real implementation experience; but also that this recipe, born under the emergency, risks becoming the daily menu. Well, if it has worked now why not make it work normally? Also, this could become the solution to the problem of the lack of personnel in the Italian university system. With a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 39 on average, with peaks of 1 to 100 in some cases, we are one of the countries with the fewest university teachers per student in Europe. Since the university reform carried out in 2010, governments have in fact been cutting university funds (as well as school’s). In recent years, the teacher-student ratio has been one of the few elements to initiate small steps of change. On the other hand, online teaching now risks sounding like an easy solution to the problem: Zoom lessons of 500 students or more, each at home in front of the screen, with a single teacher, or even worse, recorded lessons uploaded on the platform, seamlessly accessible by thousands of students. In such a scenario, will the teacher-student ratio still be an issue?

Also in my course, we have been taking stock of the experience. Two dense concepts, among several, made their way in our reflections: the intersectionality of the pandemic and the further demarcation of the borders. Education and health appeared to us in all their fragility, as questions of class, census, education, age, race, gender and disability. The pandemic brought out, even more, the differences, the hierarchies, amplified the power dynamics and showed those subalternities already present that, nevertheless, in the emergency were revealed in all their harshness. Contrary to the current narrative about the strengthening of our community in such a tragic situation, the European system was not activated to protect, reconstruct and solve those situations, but made the borders even more consolidated. Those borders that – at least internally – were hidden by the fluidity of the circulation in the postmodern metropolises, now were materialised in quarantine, in the red zones, in the neighbourhoods, in the houses, in the fears towards an invisible enemy that in reality was hidden within ourselves, but for which a culprit was sought from the beginning. Insecurity, disorientation and bewilderment were fought by erecting, emphasising and sublimating clear boundaries, not only geographically but in terms of class, religion, race, gender, sex, political boundaries. In that delicate period, some European governments tried to enact laws against abortion and against LGBTQ+ communities, we heard the Pope speaking against abortion, we saw several political leaders manipulate the situation, even hospitals that were organised to accept people on the basis of age, disability, sex, etc., not to mention the management of migrant centres, refugee camps and the margins of the empire …

Paradoxically, now that our lives have moved onto the web, in a virtual world that has the potential to camouflage boundaries and differences, those boundaries are manifested even more tangibly and powerfully than ever, and those are the boundaries that, as teachers, we would have to teach to overthrow.