During my time as a grad student at Chapel Hill, I once found myself driving on 15-501 behind a rusty old Ford Pinto. I was mesmerized by that car, which scraped its dangling exhaust pipe behind it on the asphalt, spewing sparks and copious clouds of blue smoke as it chugged stalwartly along to its destination.
Teaching during Covid has sometimes felt like driving that Pinto.
How does one—how do we—move past that experience of jerry-rigging our classes, the dystopian dismay of teaching to silent black squares, the eyes-without-a-face weirdness of a room filled with masked students whose every fifth word is muffled? In this context, the invitation to read and discuss Kevin M. Gannon’s Radical Hope could not have been more fortuitous.
Philosopher Jonathan Lear’s definition of radical hope provides the foundation for Gannon’s call to arms: rather than focusing on predetermined metrics for success, hope “is directed toward a future good that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.” In Radical Hope, Gannon explores ways of converting radical hope into praxis: “Our most quotidian practices—even and especially in environments of adversity—are a constant assertion that through our work with and among students we are creating a better future . . . a pedagogical practice centered in radical hope is one that fosters openness and inclusivity, critical reflection, dialogue and conversation, and a commitment to making higher education accessible and meaningful for all of our students” (5).
Our discussion group, both faculty and staff, found Gannon to be strikingly in sync with the way we think already think about teaching and interacting with our students. For instance, in a past blog post on a CfT/OG panel discussion, CfT co-director Mark Hopwood wrote, “it became clear that taking a non-judgmental approach may be one of the most powerful things that faculty can do to improve communication with students.”
The non-judgmental approach does not mean the absence of accountability or standards: rather, it might mean, as our Radical Hope reading group discussed (alas, over Zoom), giving struggling students an on-ramp to re-engage by allowing them to help decide what concrete steps they will take. (Here, the distinction Gannon insists on between equity and equality is a relief: since all students do not need the same sort of help to succeed, it follows that you need not contact your entire class with “on-ramp” options). It might mean engaging students in discussion about what is or is not working with particular assignments and empowering them to help us figure out a (literal) course correction.
Offering a “tangible practice that consistently affirms hope over cynicism,” Gannon says that teaching with radical hope requires us, among many other things, to “treat our students as active agents in their learning, and respect and value them for the full and complicated humans that they are.” As Gannon emphasized in our follow-up Zoom conversation, Covid has only made the imperative to embrace radical hope over cynicism all the more urgent.
Kelly Malone, Department of English