Forum, October 2021

Pandemics, Pedagogy, and the Unsettling of Everything


  • Reece Auguiste

An unsettling contemporary thought is the new propensity to characterize our collective existence in terms of life before COVID and life after COVID. It is the presumptuous after that is profoundly troubling.

The after proposes a utopian vision returning to a pre-pandemic existence in which we can all continue with whatever it was we were doing in our public and professional lives.

It is now evident that COVID-19 is not going to magically disappear to allow a return to a business-as-usual mindset. COVID and its mutations will be around for far longer than anyone had anticipated.

Figure 1. COVID 19 Delta Variant.

The coronavirus upended this utopian vision because viral mutations are disruptive forces. They are weighty, messy, and extend the dystopic arteries of this pandemic in which closure is not guaranteed.

In the arena of public opinion, the paradox of this pandemic is that nobody really knows what life will look like in a post-pandemic environment. We can speculate but that is about all we can do.

COVID-19 is writing the narrative of the future in a cold, non-discriminatory way. Meaning, COVID’s global reach has upturned every nation-state on the planet while simultaneously unleashing havoc on the most vulnerable and disenfranchised communities within and across the boundaries of nation-states. There is a strong possibility that COVID and its variants will co-exist with humanity for a long time, maybe forever, as it becomes endemic.

The exponential growth of its political weaponization by the philistines in our midst are helping to craft a narrative which can only fortify COVID’s existential threat to life and to the institutions of civil society.

So, how do we live with this virus? How should we structure environments of learning in the context of pandemics? The universal options of in-person, hybrid, or remote teaching tend to focus on how to deliver existing curriculum effectively.

These teaching modalities address faculty’s moral obligation to deliver the programs with which they are charged. As such, these modalities constitute one side of the equation. The other has to do with the structure, form, and content of the curriculum that is to be delivered.

Recently, a provost at a Research 1 university asked the question: What is a degree? This wasn’t a rhetorical gesture or slip of the tongue. To the contrary, it was a poignant question posed in the context of the pandemic. The implication of this question is yet to be addressed. If the predictions of virologists are correct, then future pandemics will make this question even more urgent.

Beyond the familiar social disruptiveness of pandemics are immense possibilities for new ways of thinking and doing in the academy. Why? Because the pandemic has systematically broken everyone down and proven conclusively that it can disrupt institutional arrangements such as traditional methods of in-person classroom teaching and related modes of curriculum delivery that currently exist on college campuses.

It should be noted that COVID’s disruptive force has traversed beyond institutional arrangements, in the sense that it has negatively impacted the institutional foundations and fiscal certainties of most universities and colleges. Those institutions that have not been completely undone by COVID will most likely survive, but survival is contingent upon a reset. This means that in the future colleges and universities will have to reconfigure, reconstitute, and reinvent paths of structural and epistemic renewal.

Now is an opportunity to rethink institutional frameworks, documentary pedagogy, and environments of learning to allow faculty, students, and administrators to be better equipped to work in pandemic environments.

This requires strategic interventions by faculty because we are the agents charged with developing curriculum content and structure. Designing new course proposals or modifying current courses—things that faculty were constrained from doing because of bureaucratic proclivities or epistemic hostilities—are now a greater possibility.

COVID has positioned faculty to initiate radical transformation of their documentary curriculum through the lens of decolonizing knowledge production and approaches to teaching critical thinking and media production. A central tenet of this decolonial effort is the principle of co-creation, of teaching the ethics of collaborative practice in the shifting contexts of moving image production.

Figure 2. Website for on teaching production during the pandemic.

Propelled by the pandemic, this initiative to decolonize the curriculum is predicated upon faculty commitment to transform the classroom around questions of production practices and to introduce new ways of being and knowing in a rapidly changing environment.

The opportunity offered for a transformative future has arisen because COVID has revealed the weaknesses of the neo-liberal frameworks that have driven pedagogy in universities and colleges.

This pandemic and future disruptive viruses will be the key determinants of the form and structure of future curricula, teaching methods, classroom arrangements, and ways that faculty can utilize digital platforms to deliver innovative ways of knowing. Faculty must develop pedagogy capable of transforming their students’ mindset to upend the false expectations that students are often taught about the so-called film industry they wish to enter.

The “industry” will not disappear but will likely cease to operate along the same set of configurations as in pre-COVID-19. At the time of writing, it is evident that producers, directors, writers, performers, and other industry members are thinking about ways to re-invent the landscape of production practices.

The actor Brian Cox declared in the pages of the Chicago Tribune that “a new paradigm has to be created” for the “post-pandemic” film industry. Though it is not clear what this new paradigm will look like, it is nonetheless certain that educators of the documentary form will help to shape it.

Figure 3. Chicago Tribune article on Brian Cox and changes in the film industry due to the pandemic.

But first, faculty must reinvent themselves. They must develop new pedagogical models in the context of pandemics, encourage students to explore new epistemic territory, and develop their own models of creative practice.

Co-creation is already a reality, but it must move from the margins to the center. Its presence exists already in single-channel documentary productions and recent developments in augmented reality and virtual reality productions.

It is incumbent upon faculty to make bold and innovative propositions, advocating for transformational pedagogies capable of responding to the demands of this moment and future pandemics.

If there was ever a time to decolonize the curriculum and to position co-creation at the center of pedagogy, now is the moment.

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Reece Auguiste is Associate Professor of Critical Media Practices and co-founder of the Department of Critical Media Practices at University of Colorado, Boulder. He was a founding member of the critically acclaimed Black Audio Film Collective. His films are Twilight City, Mysteries of July, Duty of the Hour and Stillness Spirit. His writings have appeared in several journals and books including Journal of Media Practice and Education, The British Avant-Garde Film 1926-1995, Questions of Third Cinema, and The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective. He is a recipient of the Josef Von Sternberg Award.

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