by Kalyani Menon-Sen
When the pandemic hit and India’s draconian lock-down kicked in, I found myself abruptly grounded, with no idea of when travel curbs would be lifted. My initial reaction was black despair. What would happen to my work commitments – the action-learning workshops with IDRC partners, fieldwork in Kerala for my study on child sexual abuse, review and reflection meetings ……
After a few days of desperation, I decided to follow the advisories and scratch all travel plans for at least the next six months. I agonised about time-lines and budgets as I scrambled to cancel air tickets and hotel reservations. When I finally took a breath, I realised that this was the first time in 20 years that I was going to have such a long spell of uninterrupted time at home.
But what would happen to my work? There were mournful conversations in professional communities about what we were losing out on by moving from real to virtual learning spaces. It would be goodbye to hugs and horseplay, heart-to-heart moments with colleagues and the liberating sense of being outside one’s usual zone of thinking and being. Learned papers with dire warnings of the neuro-psychological effects of pixellated images on affective responses in learning situations added to the gloom.
But with no other options, I plunged into online mode. I was very nervous going into my first online workshop but came out of it smiling. It was not a complete disaster as I had feared, and I got better at it as I went along. Day-long sessions were impossible to sustain, but I realised that workshops could be re-designed as a sequence of three-hour sessions over three or four days.
My greatest anxieties were around connectivity and low bandwidth, but it turned out that most if not all of the time, participants were able to keep their videos on and we were able to see and hear each other. This came as a huge relief, but it was only after I settled into the new routine that I began to think about the fact that we were seeing and hearing each other differently in these online spaces.
The shift in the optics was gradual. As the lockdown progressed and working from home became the default condition for most of us, more and more of the participants in my workshops gave up on “dressing up for work”, People we had only seen in their workspaces – formally dressed, impeccably groomed – now shed the professional carapace, letting their hair down literally and figuratively. Comfortable-looking T-shirts and baggy pants became the new uniform. Wild curls, beards and unexpected strands of silver softened the contours of familiar faces.
The “office illusion” was the next to go. In the early stages, many participants created the sense of a workspace by joining meetings from a separate room or, if that was not possible, creating an office-like atmosphere by cropping their screens and placing themselves against blank walls or generic virtual backdrops. However, as the lockdown dragged on, more and more people gave up on these illusions, which could be shattered in a moment by the sudden appearance in the frame of a child’s inquisitive face, or a pet’s whiskery snout.
I was not the only one who welcomed these interruptions – their relaxing effect has been noted by others as well. Like all good things, it has now been monetised – I hear that some enterprising people in the US are now hiring out their pets (and possibly even their children) to make guest appearances at tense moments in corporate meetings.
It finally dawned on me that these virtual learning spaces were creating cracks and chinks in that ancient keystone of patriarchy, the private/public divide. My theory is that, confronted with the stress of living and working through an endlessly prolonged state of emergency, we have realised how much of our time and energy goes into policing our own private/public boundaries. Letting go of our anxieties on this score is allowing all of us to bring our whole selves, with all the complexities of our lives, into the learning space.
This line of thinking has sparked a host of questions. What new possibilities are created when people enter the learning space in their wholeness? How does our engagement with the learning process change when we no longer feel compelled to block out a large part of our life experience? What new insights might we uncover, that were invisible to our divided selves? Would this bridging of binaries, however brief, inspire us to question our accustomed ways of being and doing?
Inviting people to enter the learning space in a way that acknowledges their personal lives and concerns has always been a part of my practice as a feminist learning facilitator. The difference now that we are online is that we are not just hearing about each others’ lives – we are getting glimpses of these settings for ourselves. We look out at the view from each others’ windows, see clotheslines and bookshelves and children’s toys, pictures on walls and bric-a-brac on tables. We are no longer embarrassed to grab a quick bite during meetings. Our conversations pause while people answer doorbells, take in groceries or see children off to school, and resume smoothly when everyone is back. People who have worked together for years without visiting each other at home are noting that seeing colleagues in their homes makes for a much more personal feeling of connection.
The blurring of the personal/professional boundary is having a palpable impact on the way we check into meetings. Most often, the issue of care work is on top of everyone’s mind. Instead of a breezy “Fine” or “All well”, the casual question “How are things?” leads to long conversations about the difference between working from office and working from home. There was surprise when some women said they preferred going to office, because working from home meant being at one’s children’s beck and call all of the time. Weren’t women supposed to enjoy working from home? Some men were amazed at how complicated life became when there was a child to care for. Some women who had gone part-time at work to be able to give more time to the family found themselves having to juggle official meetings to accommodate online school-times, when children claimed priority access to all digital devices in the house. Everyone noticed how difficult it was to negotiate sharing of domestic spaces. Women admitted that they were losing patience with their partners’ clumsy attempts and were taking back control of cleaning and cooking. I remember one meeting where one man casually said that he was unaffected by the shift to working from home. There was an immediate reaction from the women. Forgetting their usual concern for “keeping to the topic”, the group dived into discussing the political economy of the household and the dynamics of housework.
In many instances, these conversations have also connected with “the topic”. I remember a workshop to review a research proposal on the situation of women workers in the platform economy. I invited the group to go through the proposal and list all the assumptions they had made. Even before I got to the next step – revisiting each assumption from a feminist standpoint – the researchers, fresh from the check-in conversation about their own experiences of working from home, began questioning their assumptions without any help from me. Why had they assumed that women preferred to work from home? How was the family dynamic affected when women started doing paid work at home? How would men’s attitudes to women’s work affect women’s productivity? Wouldn’t the experience of work be different for women in different family situations – single or married, with or without children, main earners or secondary earners. The shift in the way these seasoned researchers was looking at their work was perceptible not only to me but to them, even if they were not sure that it counted as “feminist analysis”.
My feminist heart has been gladdened by other such moments when researchers have made the connection between their professional and personal lives in a compelling and here-and-now way. As one participant put it, “I have been a researcher for 30 years and only now have I realised what I have missed by not turning a critical eye on my own life.”
Despite my eagerness to explore the possibilities of turning virtual workshops into binary-bridging spaces, I am becoming more sensitive to the risks embedded in this enterprise. Being invited into someone’s home is not the same as barging in. I am rethinking my rule about leaving the video on throughout the meeting, and am learning to take the occasional blank-outs with equanimity. I am noticing that some people prefer to turn off their cameras during the few minutes of “bodywork” (a mix of mindful breathing, movement and visualisation) with which we open our workshops. It strikes me now that people might feel more comfortable doing these exercises in the privacy and safety of their homes rather than in a group with others. After all, I myself am much happier in my teacher’s online dojo than I was when training with his other students, all of whom seemed much more easy and accomplished than me.
When I’m leading the exercises in online workshops, I have to stand well back from my camera to make sure that everyone can see my whole body. This means that I can’t see the faces of individual participants on my small screen. This has freed me from worrying about how people are reacting to the exercises, so that I am able to experience my own body-mind connection more deeply than I have ever done in face-to-face workshops.
Despite the questionable politics of digital technologies, I now recognise that they can enhance learning spaces in surprising ways. For instance, virtual whiteboards like Jamboard, where users are automatically anonymised, can create a sense of freedom and safety and allow participants to be more forthright with their views. Participants feel in control – they can go back to an earlier board to add a fresh comment or edit an earlier one without feeling that they are being watched or interrupting the flow of the conversation. Some people draw or paste in images that convey their feelings more powerfully than words. The deck of filled-up boards at the end of a workshop have the authenticity and unfiltered power of the participants’ thoughts, expressed in their own words.
My motivation to continue experimenting with destabilising the private/public binary as part of my feminist pedagogic practice is sustained by the magical moments along the way. I’m remembering an early-morning call with a GAL participant in Nairobi, who excused herself for a minute to attend to something. She left her connection open, and I found myself looking out of her window as I waited. As the light grew brighter, a cascade of musical trills and whistles suddenly gushed from my speakers – Nairobi’s famously diverse bird choir in full voice. For that moment, I was standing at Sophie’s window soaring with the music as it brought all my scattered fragments together in perfect harmony.
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