Designing for Connection and Belonging: Productive Discomfort — Oliver Baez Bendorf

This is the third of a three-part series

Productive Discomfort 

There were certain poems that I did not understand… but going on the discussion forums really helped me understand [those texts]. I liked the element of responding to two different responses from students each week because it was the closest thing we can do to make it seem (almost) like we were back in class again

(Advanced Poetry Workshop)

Boler (1999) introduced the idea of a pedagogy of discomfort in her book Feeling Power: Education and Emotions. This principle is one around which I design my classes; I believe learning happens best in a zone of productive discomfort, and aim to enlist my students in embracing and engaging such discomforts as challenged assumptions, self-doubt, perfectionism, confronting a “shitty first draft” (Lamott 1994), fear of receiving feedback, interrogating one’s relationship to language, etc. Yet I had not prepared for teaching amid the profound discomfort of a global pandemic. When in spring 2020 the details of what we were facing crystallized, magnifying existing precarities and generating new ones to worry about, the baseline teaching condition changed. Discomfort, yes. But productive? How? How to recalibrate the writing workshop? I have tried to describe some possible approaches, and because the pandemic conditions continue, I continue to tinker.

As a poet myself, I was eager to engage my students about what changes they noticed to their writing practices under the conditions of pandemic, quarantine, social movements, etc. Many of them lamented the absence of unexpected sensory stimuli on campus. They missed being able to write a poem inspired by intriguing snippets of conversations in the dining hall, or a few bars of a song from the window of a car passing down our red brick hill. They missed writing quietly in the same room as other writers. They were tired of the view out their window. I shared their longings and laments. So I held some optional synchronous sessions just for writing alone/together (and plan to do even more of that this fall). We discussed how to find the muse on YouTube, and we read Pablo Neruda’s poem “Horses,” a poem full of figurative language, based on observations looking out a window. “I was in Berlin, in winter. The light/ had no light, the sky had no heaven.// The air was white like wet bread.” Reading that poem and writing our own “window poems,” students found solace and connection with a writer from across time and space. Who doesn’t love the feeling of “being together” with characters on a page when reading details so vividly rendered? In a writing workshop, connection and learning are intertwined; there is hardly continuity of one without the other. In the profound discomfort and dis-ease we continue to face, I hope to offer my students co-presence in this long winter.

There, in silence, at mid-day,
in that dirty, disordered winter,
those intense horses were the blood
the rhythm, the inciting treasure of life.

I looked. I looked and was reborn:
for there, unknowing, was the fountain,
the dance of gold, heaven
and the fire that lives in beauty.

(Pablo Neruda, “Horses”)

Resources for Further Reading

“A pedagogy of belonging” by Mitchell Beck and James Malley (CYC-Online)

“How to teach online so all students feel like they belong” (Berkeley) by Becki Cohn-Vargas and Kathe Gogolewski (Berkeley)

“Cultivating belonging online during Covid-19” by Carey Borkoski and Brianne Roos (American Consortium for Equity in Education)

“A place of remote belonging” by Emily Boudreau (Harvard)

“Designing for care: Building inclusive learning communities online.” by Jesse Stommel (Hybrid Pedagogy)

“Unsilencing the Writing Workshop”  by Beth Nguyen (Lithub)

“Camera on/Camera off?” by @FirstGenLatinxEducator

“Critical Response Process Resources” by Liz Lerman

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