Dr Anthea H M Jacobs  | PhD
Academic Developer / Advisor: HE T&L
Centre for Teaching and Learning
Division of Learning and Teaching Enhancement
e: jacobsa@sun.ac.za

Experiencing an insightful teaching and learning moment recently reminded me about Judith Butler’s work on ‘mutual vulnerability’ (2016), where both teacher and student have to feel ‘safe’ for a humanising teaching and learning context to exist. It awakened a need to reflect on this incident, especially since I believe in the value of humanity in our teaching and learning relationships. Relating this incident and reflecting on it, I believe, could contribute to social justice in a number of ways by, for instance, making the sometimes-limiting norms that frame teaching and learning practices, more visible. This is especially important in the challenging times we find ourselves in as a result of COVID-19 lockdown. 

I am writing against the background of my work as academic developer in a higher education teaching and learning context. Ever since lockdown, we have been overwhelmed by the large-scale shift to remote learning forced by Covid-19. One of the many things we did in reaction to lockdown was to develop a ‘Lecturer Support for Teaching Online’ Site on our learning management system. We have also developed a series of webinars on different teaching and learning related topics, to which lecturers can tune in. Furthermore, we have been working on putting together a searchable database of assessment methods, a set of frequently asked questions, as well as more information on a variety of teaching and learning related topics. Throughout all of this madness, our main focus has been the development of the webinars, to assist and support lecturers in the process of moving their teaching online. And whilst the focus is on lecturer support, we do address potential challenges that students may experience, for example access to online devices, connectivity, software and data, but we do so in a rather superficial way, I believe. On the one hand, we are demonstrating social awareness, but on the other, do we really know what it means for a student to experience any of these challenges?

Dawns Tuesday, 07 April 2020, my turn to present a webinar on the topic of ‘Preparing for online assessment’. It was a grey autumn morning with a slight drizzle outside. I was ready and confident because I had worked hard to prepare, even giving up much of my weekend lockdown downtime activities. Besides, we had an online dry run of my presentation, during which no major problems emerged. There was therefore no reason to suspect any potential troubles. The webinar started, all went well and there were more than 90 participants in attendance. Just about halfway through my presentation though, I had to hand over to a colleague on stand-by, because of sound issues. The sound was really bad and breaking up most of the time, a function of unstable connectivity. I felt devastated, as if I failed the participants…

This was, without a doubt, an extremely valuable learning experience. Even though I knew about the risks of failing technology, I learnt that we can never tell when it may confront us. Even having an Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) is no guarantee for online interruptions. Most importantly, this experience highlighted an awareness that this must exactly be how students feel when they experience challenges with online connectivity. It has been such a massive revelation. We become so caught up in ensuring that we have plans in place for migrating to the online space that we sometimes forget about the ‘humanity’ aspect of teaching and learning. We do not devote enough time to deep engagement with student challenges, and fostering relationships of trust and safety with our students.

I highlight a couple of powerful reminders, which emanated from this experience. Academics and academic developers alike are under immense stress trying to cope with the novel coronavirus pandemic, but students are especially vulnerable. We need to maintain solid relationships of trust with our students, because if our relationships with our student weaken or lapse in the shift to online learning, many students could flounder. We do not want that. We would like all our students to be successful. So try to be compassionate, even though it is difficult in the online space.

In conclusion, as mentioned in the introduction, this experience reminds me about Judith Butler’s notion of ‘mutual vulnerability’ (2016) when we are confronted by challenges. Instead of feeling let down or defensive when we stumble during the scramble, it could help to open a space for dialogue or discussion. This, in turn, could lead to greater understanding and empathy. If we claim to teach towards social justice, reflections on and sharing of experiences such as the one I described here, are meaningful to inform our teaching and learning practice.


Butler, J. 2016. Vulnerability in Resistance. Edited by: J. Butler, Z. Gumbetti and L. Sabsay. Durham: Duke University Press.