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Teaching in Liminal Space: Decentering History in a Global Pandemic

Alex Mizumoto-Gitter
Hawaii Tokai International College

In spring 2020, we watched as our students grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic as well as with increased xenophobia, both of which thrust issues of race, gender, and socioeconomic disparity into the forefront.1 At the same time, the unique liminal space of the virtual classroom underscored ways in which different loci of power impact individuals in drastically different ways. Since we cannot teach the history of the early modern world (or any history at all) without decentering our students’ preexisting assumptions, we might consider how the changes in our own lives and a decentering of the traditional face-to-face classroom can help us challenge their unspoken assumptions about the early modern and modern world.

This was my first semester as a lecturer. One of my classes was a 300-level course on European History from 1300 to1600, attended by about twenty students ranging from sophomores to seniors. The class, like many at the university, was largely nonwhite and not dominated by any one gender. A couple of students spoke English as a second language. Some were openly LGBT+. Another wore Hawaiian shirts that exposed, in Proud Boy fashion, prominent white power tattoos.2 It was clear that many students in my class were already aware of how to engage with public understanding and consumption of their identities. The shift to online learning changed the landscape in which these identities were being projected and perceived, resulting in different kinds of interactions than those that had occurred in the physical classroom.

Feminist theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw have long argued for the importance of analyzing “intragroup differences.”3 Recognizing that we are all part of the group of people who have been impacted by the pandemic is one important step. Addressing the stress of moving to online learning and the upheaval that brings is important.4 Part of this is acknowledging that the pandemic has affected people in different ways. A student might also be a first responder, suddenly need to provide childcare, or be unable to reliably access the internet while also obeying stay at home orders. I did not talk to my class as a group about how the pandemic was affecting them, although I did encourage them to reach out to me if the new online class could be adjusted to better meet their needs. I did speak with many students individually about challenges they were facing. We already know that the idea that all students can equally pull themselves up by their bootstraps and succeed in the classroom is flawed, as students face different personal and systemic obstacles in their pursuit of higher education. That said it felt as though any lingering remnant of this myth of meritocracy evaporated as students returned to their own homes. When I talked to students, it was more starkly clear than ever that their ability to access education was dependent upon larger societal factors like the gendered division of household labor or the availability of mental health services.5

Teaching early modern history gives us the opportunity to challenge unspoken assumptions about what it means to be modern and how the present world came to be. Doing so means seeking out ideas naturalized to the point of invisibility and encouraging students to look at them anew. I have made it a goal to have students think about our social fictions of race, gender, and sexuality by leading them through how these ideas have evolved over time and the kinds of roles norms have played in policing populations.6 For example, in our first full class, I had students describe what they thought were men’s and women’s roles in the time period of our class. Once they had done so, we talked about how these were constructed ideals and about what kinds of social and cultural influences had affected them.

Similarly, I enjoyed encouraging students to think about how expressions of sexuality changed over time, such as by asking them to think about the prevalence of homosexuality in early modern Florence and Venice. As with our discussion of gender roles, we discussed why certain behaviors were more or less accepted and what that said about the ideals promoted by many in society. It is important to show diversity in history in order to allow students to see themselves in the past. Narrower versions of history have traditionally excluded everyone but white Christian cis-heterosexual men, who often need to be wealthy as well. People outside of and often violently excluded from this framework deserve to see themselves reflected in the past as well in order to validate their experiences and realities. It is important for students to see professors discussing these other identities, as this creates a more inclusive space in the classroom and encourages intellectual rigor and curiosity as new historians.

One example of the benefits of modeling inclusivity occurred earlier in the semester, when we were still meeting in person. One of the students had done an in-class presentation on an article about early modern Spanish encounters with Islam in the Philippines. I had specifically chosen to put that article on a list of peer-reviewed papers students could pick from to read and teach their classmates about because of Hawaii’s large Filipino population. My guess that students would be interested had been correct. On the first day of class, she had raised her hand and asked to be assigned it before I had even finished going over the other options. When she presented, it was complete with a detailed PowerPoint and outside research, far above where I had set the requirements. She had been so excited during the reading, she explained to the class, because the paper had focused on the island her mother was from. It turned out that a variety of modern businesses and locations that the student was familiar with were named after one of the women discussed in the article, and she had enjoyed sharing this discovery with her mother. She had never realized that these place names had cultural or historical significance, she told the class, and she was obviously thrilled to be unexpectedly included in our course material. Decentering assumptions about European history had created a richer experience for this student in particular and a more nuanced understanding for the rest of the class.7

In contrast, in the online classroom, students’ intersecting identities may flatten out on the surface especially if they choose to turn off their cameras thereby erasing many visible markers of identification. By moving the space of the classroom to students’ private residences, however, these identities are also pushed to the forefront.8 Allowing the public to permeate into their private rooms—for many students, the bedroom was the only practical space to work in—brings with it understandable anxieties over perception and judgment even as it parallels the anxiety over the permeable community boundary made vulnerable by disease from outside.9 The pervasive gaze of online learning forces students to expose truths about their personal lives in a less removed environment than the physical classroom. Students no longer have the comfort of being one of many at identical desks, but are now giving a window into their homes. The structure of online learning lines them up for passive consumption, like passport photos or mugshots, largely immovable indicators of their private lives exposed in the background.

Even if students chose to use a digital background, this still allows for scrutiny. One of the students in my class used an image from Pokémon after realizing that we were both familiar with the games. This was a playful way of building a connection with me and making a statement to his classmates about what his interests were. In theory, this would have also opened him up to ridicule if his peers saw it as childish. Other students chose to make their backgrounds a blank screen or to turn their cameras off altogether. As virtual meetings became more common, commentary spread online asserting that people who chose to do so were really just advertising that they lived in circumstances that were less than picture perfect. The gaze penetrates even when there is ostensibly nothing to see.10

Similarly, although we cannot see the spread of disease, we can imagine the danger to the community and in so doing become hyper aware of how we are viewed and how we view others. Students in class already knew at least in general of the existence of the Black Death. Many of them knew that it was a major event in the 1300s, that it killed a lot of people, and even that it led to social upheaval. I told them that the European Jewish population was often accused of poisoning food and wells, and the idea of a scapegoated group stuck with them.11 I wanted to specifically focus on antisemitism in a historical context considering the rising antisemitism in our current moment and its visible presence in our classroom.12 We eventually spent three weeks total covering Muslim Spain, the Reconquista, and the Inquisition, and students were quick to identify anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment in the state-building process of early modern Spain in contrast to the imperfect accommodations made during the Convivencia.13 Furthermore, they were able to talk about how this expulsion reflected a fear of the Other and a belief that homogeneity brought strength. I had them discuss reasons why this might not be true, especially as Spain struggled to grow its urban economy after the expulsion of religious minorities. The fear of contamination during periods of anxiety and upheaval caused very real problems in the future.

In another, linked, challenge to the gaze, online learning also forced many students to share information that they had previously kept close to their chests. I had tried to design the online class to be as accessible and asynchronous as possible by anticipating in advance that students might not be able to access our Zoom sessions for various reasons. I had decided to record these synchronous meetings and upload them to our class site so that students could view the material later. In addition, I told them that I was no longer going to take attendance and instead would upload weekly discussions that they could participate in for attendance credit and in lieu of our regular in-person discussion on Fridays. I had not realized that for some students even this was a challenge. After I chased down one student who had vanished once we went online, she told me that she was overwhelmed by watching her younger siblings and making sure that they kept up with their own online work. Another student reached out to me to explain that she did not have a personal computer with which to access the materials, a socioeconomic barrier to learning that had not been as restrictive when she could take paper notes in an in-person class and temporarily borrow a laptop to write papers.14

These compounding challenges and anxieties can lead to outbursts made easier by the distance created by online learning. This is a liminal space, outside of the normally bounded time/place of work and school. It therefore is a space of greater stress and greater slippage, encouraging the kind of behavior that would normally be clearly unacceptable and limiting the ability of the instructor to respond adequately and in real (immediate, ordinary) time. The pressure of the gaze further adds to this instability.

Just as imagining a distinction between the Self and the Other can lead to discriminatory and violent behavior towards those in the out group, the isolation of the online classroom makes it easier for students to give voice to sentiments they would be less likely to share when sitting in the midst of their peers. I had asked students frequently during synchronous online lectures if they had any questions or concerns about the way the course would be structured going forward and the class as a whole had been structured from the start to try to avoid an “add women (or substitute in here any other marginalized group) and stir” approach.15 Even so, it was not until given the illusion of anonymity of the asynchronous discussion board that one student unleashed a tsunami of pent-up anger.16 He raged in turns against the new requirements of the online class and what he felt was the undue attention given to women and Muslims who, he added, were either incapable of contributing to our current society or actively dangerous to it. The COVID-19 pandemic ratcheted up the pressure and simultaneously gave it an outlet, providing this student with the means in the form of our abrupt move to the online classroom to vent his anxieties about a complex society that does not match the overly simplified version of history he had been seeking in our course.

I do not think he would have chosen to make vocal this outburst if we had remained in the physical classroom under ordinary circumstances for the rest of the semester. The most pushback I had received from him previously was an oblique dig at a noblewoman whose portrait I was displaying and an open refusal to do the readings or often even remain in the room past the first fifteen minutes. Perhaps the pandemic introduced the fear of contagion and a threat to a sense of self-sufficient masculinity as the state unemployment rate spiked virtually overnight from 2.4 to 23.8.17 The remote learning environment also allowed him to attack the shared public community of our classroom from the privacy of his own home, where he could simply launch his diatribe and close the window, winning for himself a sense of autonomy over the gaze turned at him through the screen. Furthermore, it also indicated that students were having preconceived and internalized ideas about the importance of more diverse actors in the early modern world challenged by exposure to a broader narrative, and that they were linking this challenge to their understanding of the world around them.

As Michel Foucault wrote, power “produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production.”18 The upheaval brought about by COVID-19 encouraged more dramatic expressions of power and production and is continuing to outside of the classroom. The student’s post was an attempt to enforce a violent reading of history. It was a show of power, however limited.19 It was a view of the past that did not line up with the one the class had created. He understood both what I had taught as well as what he believed to be narratives that ultimately structured our understanding of our tumultuous present.

When I saw the post, it had already been up for several hours. I froze the discussion board. I sent out a reminder about our agreed-upon class rules and emailed him with an explanation of why his content and tone were unacceptable and a list of more appropriate resources if he wanted to file a complaint about the class. To my great relief, even after I unlocked the discussion board none of his classmates responded, opting instead to discuss the assigned readings among themselves by commenting on one another’s posts while completely ignoring his. The attempted production of reality had fallen flat.

Teaching early modern history in the era of COVID-19 encourages us to more directly address the intersectional and systemic challenges our students face. Online learning has underscored the inequity in access that shapes students’ ability to learn. The discriminatory rhetoric of our fraught political environment predates the pandemic and has only become more extreme over the past few months, underscoring even further the importance of active inclusion in the classroom. Addressing these inequities and encouraging students to make connections between the early modern and the present day go hand in hand.

Alex Mizumoto-Gitter is currently an adjunct instructor at Hawaii Tokai International College and has worked as a lecturer for the University of Hawaii. They received their doctorate from the University of Kansas in May 2020, with a dissertation focusing on patronage networks, gendered family roles, and memory in the early modern Mediterranean.

1Covid-19 Fueling Anti-Asian Racism and Xenophobia Worldwide: National Action Plans Needed to Counter Intolerance,” Human Rights Watch, 12 May 2020; Maria Goody, “What Do Coronavirus Racial Disparities Look Like State By State?,” National Public Radio, 30 May 2020; John Hanna, “Kansas Paper Owner: Sorry For Equating Mask Rule With Holocaust,” The Denver Post, 5 July 2020; Bruce Y. Lee, “How COVID-19 Coronavirus Is Uncovering Anti-Asian Racism,” Forbes, 18 Feb. 2020; and Emily Willingham, “The Condoms of the Face: Why Some Men Refuse to Wear Masks,” Scientific American, 29 June 2020.

2Proud Boys,” Southern Poverty Law Center, accessed 10 July 2020; and Jacob Gallagher, “Why the Extremist ‘Boogaloo Boys’ Wear Hawaiian Shirts,” The Wall Street Journal, 8 June 2020.

3 Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991): 3. See also Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1 (1989): 139–67; Chanda Talpade Mohanty, “‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles,” in Women’s Studies for the Future: Foundations, Interrogations, Politics, ed. Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Agatha M. Beins (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 72–96; and Anna Carastathis, “Intersectionality, Black Feminist Thought, and Women-of-Color Organizing,” in Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), 15–68.

4 Mays Imad, “Trauma-Informed Pedagogy: Teaching in Uncertain Times,” Magna Online Seminars, presented 29 Apr. 2020.

5 See for example Patrick W. Corrigan, Benjamin G. Druss, and Deborah A. Perlick, “The Impact of Mental Illness Stigma on Seeking and Participating in Mental Health Care,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 15, no. 2 (2014): 37–70; Sandra Harding, “Just Add Women and Stir?,” in Missing Links: Gender Equity in Science and Technology Development, ed. Betsy McGregor (New York: UNIFEM, 1995), 295–307; Gillian M. Marcelle and Merle Jacob, “The ‘Double Bind,’” in McGregor, Missing Links, 243–66; and Michael Rodríguez, Jeanette M. Valentine, John B. Son, and Marjani Muhammad, “Intimate Partner Violence and Barriers to Mental Health Care for Ethnically Diverse Populations of Women,” Trauma, Violence & Abuse 10, no. 4 (Oct. 2009): 358–74.

6 See for example Theresa Earenfight, Queenship in Medieval Europe (London: Macmillan Education, 2013); María Elena Martínez, Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008); and Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

7 Isaac Donoso, “The Philippines and al-Andalus: Linking the Edges of the Classical Islamic World,” Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints 63, no. 2 (June 2015): 247–73.

8 Nicole Daniels, “College Made Them Feel Equal: The Virus Exposed How Unequal Their Lives Are,” New York Times, 4 Apr. 2020.

9 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 71.

10 For more on the gaze see Michel Foucault, “Panopticonism,” in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Random House, 1978), 195–230; and Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (Philadelphia, PA: Routledge, 2008).

11 Samuel K. Cohn Jr., “The Black Death and the Burning of Jews,” Past & Present no. 196 (Aug. 2007): 3–36.

12 Jane Coaston, “The Proud Boys, The Bizarre Far-Right Street Fighters Behind Violence in New York, Explained,” Vox, 15 Oct. 2018; and Jonny Diaz, “Anti-Semitic Incidents Surged in 2019, Report Says,” New York Times, 12 May 2020.

13 Norbert Rehrmann, “A Legendary Place of Encounter: The Convivencia of Moors, Jews, and Christians in Medieval Spain,” in The Historical Practice of Diversity: Transcultural Interactions from the Early Modern Mediterranean to the Postcolonial World, ed. Christiane Harzig, Dirk Hoerder, and Adrian Shubert (New York: Berghahn Books, 2003), 35–53.

14 See Doug Lederman, “Low-Income Students Top Presidents’ COVID-19 Worry List,” Inside Higher Ed, 27 Apr. 2020 https://www.insidehighered.com/news/survey/presidents-biggest-covid-19-w... Edward J. Maloney and Joshua Kim, “The Challenge of Equity in Higher Education Under COVID-19,” Inside Higher Ed, 21 May 2020 https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/learning-innovation/challenge-equit... Gail McCormick, “The COVID-19 Pandemic Affects All College Students, But Probably Not Equally,” Phys.org, 19 May 2020 https://phys.org/news/2020–05-covid-pandemic-affects-college-students.html.

15 Heather E. Bruce and Emma Walker, “To Do More Than ‘Add Women and Stir’: Women’s Studies in the High School,” Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy 11, no. 1 (2000): 90–108; and Joan Kelly-Gadol, “The Social Relation of the Sexes: Methodological Implications of Women’s History,” Signs 1, no. 4 (1976): 809–23.

16 For more on the upending of social norms through the use of liminal space, see David D. Gilmore, “Carnival, Ritual, and the Anthropologists,” in Carnival and Culture: Sex, Symbol, and Status in Spain (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 26–36.

17 “Economy at a Glance,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9 July 2020. https://www.bls.gov/eag/eag.hi.htm

18 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 194.

19 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 94.

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