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23 — Love
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Teacher of the Ear 023 — Love

With Martha Fay Burtis

This is Teacher of the Ear: a show presenting conversations of learning, teaching, and technology, listening for ways to empower educators and champion student agency. It’s the aural side of Hybrid Pedagogy. I’m Chris Friend from Kean University.

On the 28th of October, 2021, the University of Michigan hosted a panel discussing Critical Digital Pedagogy. Moderated by Jesse Stommel, the panelists included Sean Michael Morris, Ruha Benjamin, and today’s guest, Martha Fay Burtis.

In that discussion, Martha made a comment about wanting to say she loves her students, but that she’s not always comfortable using that specific term. But rather than me trying to rephrase this, let me just let Martha explain.

Burtis: I think what I said was that you, you know at the heart of what we do. Is this idea of care and that when I'm feeling brave I will sometimes use the word love and and that there's and and you picked up it correctly that there's attention there. In those words, there's also a great deal of power in those words, which is why I think it is at the heart of what we do. But there's also. And and this is personal to me. Uh, a sort of still a sort of hesitancy about when I can. Talk about this work with a word like love and when it's safer to talk about it with a word like care which is interesting and I love to talk about that more with you. But the other piece of this that I think is at the heart of all of it, is what does that mean for us? When we say we care for our students or that we love our students and why is that so important?

Friend: I'm I'm really interested though in that concept of safety because what I hear from you is that it's not even safe to use the word love when describing a teacher's relationship to a student.

Burtis:  Yeah, I don't even know. I'm trying to put myself right back in the mindset of where I was and I. Think when I said that in the in the panel and I think that Ruha in in a response. You know shortly after I spoke. Really probably drove home what was going through my head, which is that and this is colored in in large part by my own personal experience as a woman in who works in higher education, but also as a woman who is not what we would call like credentialed in the ways that are often. Understood and expected for those of us who teach. So I do teach as part of my job. I've taught as as part of my various jobs for about 10 years now. It's always been kind of ancillary to my work and faculty development or my work in instructional technology or digital pedagogy. Uhm, and you know I don't have a doctorate degree. I don't have, you know, the formal credentials that that are often. Uhm, expected and so for me, teaching has always felt a little bit umm. What's the word I'm looking for? Or a little bit like I'm like I'm breaking the rules, right? Just by being me in the classroom that I'm breaking the rules and so then when you inflict that additionally with being a woman and then what Ruha was talking about was the way.

Friend: Interesting, yes.

Burtis:  In which. We have to be very mindful of describing education as care work. Just as care work right, so even just using the word care because that 10 care work tends to be gendered and it tends, you know. People who identify as women very often are expected to perform care in particular ways and to take care of people in particular ways that people who present as manner identify as men do not. And that's not. Obviously, that's not a black and white, but I I think. Most people would who work in in education would acknowledge that they've seen evidence of that. And so even just talking about care sometimes for me, working in faculty development, it feels transgressive. Sometimes in conversations with faculty when they come to me and what they want to talk about is content or modality or tools right tech. And what I want to talk about is care and and as a woman I'm very like aware that it would be easy for some people to say, oh, that's just because of the identity that I. That I am.

Friend: It's fascinating.

Burtis:  So then to push even further on that and say no. No, I actually. Want to talk about this as love? Really starts to feel a little really transgressive. That's sad, like I absolutely feel love for my students like this isn't what's in me. Is love how I can share that or or talk about that with people. Uhm, both in my role as an educator, but also in my role as a faculty developer. Sometimes feels like it's a little bit of a minefield. And you know it's worth pointing out, too, that like the other piece of this, that I cannot relate to as well. But that educators who identify as male do relate to. Is that for male educators talking about love for students? Presents other kinds of really complicated nuances that can not feel safe.

Friend: Yeah, yeah.

Burtis:  My husband was a college educator for, you know, over 15 years, and while he would privately probably talk to me about those that that feeling of love for students, he would be very careful. About how he would talk about it and show it both in the classroom and outside of the classroom beyond the walls of, say, our home.

Friend: As you were explaining that you know people who identify as women usually are expected to perform care. I was also thinking that when we think of teachers versus professors, we generally there's this this. Social stereotype that a teacher of K12 is female and a professor of higher Ed is male.

Burtis:  It's bad, yes.

Friend: And I think that's because of the the expectation of care work at the lower grades. But by the time you're in higher Ed, you're expected to be focused on the content and you're exposed expected to be an expert in something. And the experts socially are male, yeah?

Burtis:  Expertise is.

Friend: And then as you were talking, I kept thinking about my experience as a high school teacher. Male gay high school teacher in a conservative district.

Burtis:  Right?

Friend: I would never express physical affection of any kind like I would never make physical contact with the student, ever. Even putting a hand on a shoulder if someone was having a problem that was just never a thing that I would do because then I was able to say I have never laid hands on anybody, so nothing is going on, right? Just because there was that. Fear that something would be misread. Misunderstood, Missheard and I would have problems.

it's fascinating to me how gender—You use the word inflects and I love that word, so it—how gender inflects our experience of care and of love with and around students, and that in both cases there's danger involved.

Burtis:  Yeah, I mean when you think about it like. Love is dangerous, right? I mean. I think that's love in all forms. Love is about vulnerability, right? And vulnerability feels dangerous. It that danger feels different in different contexts, right? So like the danger, the vulnerability you feel in a romantic relationship when you're expressing love that feels dangerous. But it's different than the vulnerability you feel expressing that in the work. Place or in the classroom. So it's not. It's not surprising necessarily that that that danger exists, but I do think sometimes it goes unacknowledged. And more importantly, I think because of our concern about that danger, we shy away from conversations about what it means, why loving care matters in these relationships and and what it looks like. Because the reality is that like love is. Life is like 1. Complex concepts, right? There's there's no one kind of there's so many kinds of of love and care and and what we really should be doing is unpacking that and talking about what that means for us as educators, and how we do show it it. It was really striking to me. You know, obviously over the last year and a half the world of like faculty development has been. On fire.

Friend: Sure, the whole world has been on. Fire, so you're not that special there.

Burtis:  The whole word exactly right. So I was gonna say like it's been on fire in all the bad ways but also on fire in the way that like your brain is on fire because there's so much to think about and like kind of. Grapple with and and. You know one of one of the things so many of us working in this field we're hearing again and again echoed by faculty and by teachers, was that you know, online virtual spaces didn't work because they could not build community, right? Like community wasn't happening the way that it, and what they would say is it's not happening. The way it happens naturally in a classroom, right in a face to face setting. And why isn't that happening and how do I fix that? And invariably like what they would want to fix, it would like what they would like us to be able to point to would be, you know, a tool or a technique.  That would that would foster community.

AUniversity Relations are doing an amazing job giving the character a fun, mischievous personality, and I hope that stays. Some schools opt for fierce or mean-looking/acting mascots, and that wouldn't vibe with our image or our history. Please keep the playfulness a part of the character. Kean students don't fight or battle; we climb. Our mascot should not be aggressive or mean, but rather encouraging, supportive, and inspiring.nd the reason I bring that up is that the the entire. Uhm, you know experience of watching people? Sort of go through this during COVID sort of solidified in my head. This this understanding for this is my personal understanding that community. Uhm, only comes about when you have trust. Like trust has to exist in some form in order for real community to form. And trust, I believe, can only exist in the context of love or care. You might think you can trust somebody, right? But real trust has to be fostered in the light of love like it just. Can't exist otherwise.

So it kept coming back to me again and again in conversations and in talking to faculty and hearing faculty that. Really, what this was about wasn't about technology or tools or assignments or Ice Breakers or forum questions. It was about care. Right and and to be clear, it's not magical. It's not like oh, you know, like go into class tomorrow and act like you love your students and from there trust will form. And then in a week you'll have a. Community like that's not how it works.  Really, it's not that easy, that's.  Not, oh damn.  You know?

Friend: That sounds so good though.

Burtis:  But, but I'm pretty certain at this point, like and let me just be very clear here for a moment. But I have literally. Like no expertise in these subjects, this is…

Friend: What, you're not an expert care-giver?

Burtis:  Yeah, this is just Martha Burtis’s observations of faculty development during a pandemic, but I'm I'm basically certain at this point that all of our conversation and hand wringing about community. It all comes back to care, and when we're feeling brave, that's really about love.

Friend: So how—it’s an intentionally vague question, so take in whatever direction crosses your mind. How can we? Express care for students in digital spaces.

Burtis:  I would I've been pondering that.

Friend: 'cause it sounds like you're telling me that I need to emote via ones and zeros. And that sounds really hard.

Burtis:  Right yes, yes heart emojis. That's how we. Do it Chris perfect.

Friend: Solved that so.

Burtis:  So I've been thinking about this because. I think it's, uh, I think that's uh, I think that's at literally the heart. Of the question so. In in meatspace, as we used to call it in face to. Face Internet.

Friend: Don't we love that word?

Burtis:  No, I hate it, but sometimes I use it ironically. In face to face encounters. We come, we express care for students. Those of us who were oriented that way, right? And we can talk about that to Sean Michael Morris has talked about this about love as an orientation within pedagogy, a particular kind of love that's really about pointing us towards something. Uhm, but those of us who are oriented that way in in face to face. Traditional classroom settings, express care and love. Almost without knowing we do it, I think it's. Some of us are intentional about it. I think there is some intentionality.

But many educators who are who are good at. What they do? And have really kind of embraced this mindset and this orientation. It comes so naturally that they've never even really had to. Reflect on it. It just it's in, it's in the way that. They start class. It's in the words they put in the first paragraph of their syllabus. It's in how they respond to a student question. In the hallway. Uhm, it's in the way that they help direct and and. And foster conversation and discussion the way that they can into it. When a student is ready to speak and when a student isn't ready to. Speak it's the way that they appreciate participation in different forms. That participation doesn't always look like having your hand raised for every question.

And so the problem is that like for so many really great educators. That are that are good at that. When you move into online mediated spaces. What was very natural suddenly doesn't. There's no natural way to do a lot of those things. They they haven't developed any natural proficiency on how to express care using digital spaces, and in digital spaces. I don't think it's only rocket science like that. It's vastly different.

But it does require, and this is actually one of the things that came up in that panel discussion with. Sean and Ruha and Jesse and I was this the way in which little space digital spaces require kind of a distancing and intentionality of us that we are not used to because we haven't had to cope with it in in traditional classroom. So it does require us to think perhaps more intentionally than we usually do about what our care looks like and how we express it. And it may mean also. Again, going back to this whole idea of love and vulnerability and danger, it may mean. Trying new things right in these spaces. That don't come naturally at first, because that's how it all is. I mean nothing. None of this happens magically, right? Even those of us. Even educators who are who are extremely good at fostering community because of the way that they. Orient themselves towards care they didn't walk into a classroom the very first day they were teaching. Necessarily and have that like something happened in their story in their trajectory to where they got that helped them build those skills in those capacities. And helped them foster that orientation to begin with.

So I think it's getting back in touch with that orientation, like getting back in touch with it and naming it and saying what we are really doing here. Is loving our students. That is what we are doing. We start there and then we talk about what does that look like in any modality in any space in any context, in any encounter. What does that look like and how do we do that in ways that are? As safe as possible for us and our students.

Friend: So I want to start by being a devil's advocate for a quick second here. The last thing you just said was what we are doing here is loving our students. So the the class that I'm teaching is called writing in digital spaces. It is not called Loving Our Students 101. So how does loving my students get me through the course? Either the course content, or I know that you're going to object to the word content right in your explanation. So I want to try. And make this question harder for you so. How can we get through the experience of this class of doing the things that we want to do in this course if our focus has to be on love, like I don't see how we how we connect those. Dots, there we go.

Burtis:  So I think it has to do with the burden and the baggage of that word, right? Like when we think of love. In any context, we think of it as being. That our enactment of it as being incredibly overt and passionate and overwhelming, right? But if we back away from that for a second, like, just put the classroom aside and just talk about love, generally.

Like, I love my husband. You know we've been married for almost 20 years. At this point, we sure. Better love each other. Through thick or. Thin right? I do not have that front of mind every moment that I am with my husband, right? Like every moment we share together. I am not focusing on what does love look like right? Well how do I show love in this moment? Is this the right thing to do or is that the right thing to do in order to love this person, right? And in fact. I miss I, I screw up 'cause. That's part of love. As well, like we are just two humans who are vastly different coming together trying to make something work, and so we make mistakes and and part of love is that you accept that and you move you for you know you learn to forgive it. And you learn how to move on.

So part of it, I think is is sort of de-intensifying this conversation a little bit, that when we say we love our students, it does not mean that every moment, every interaction, what is right here in front of us. Is a heart emoji right? And and it's a different. It's not the same. Kind of love. That I have for my children, or that I have for my my spouse, or that I have for my best friend or my mother, right

And it's a generosity of love. And it's not romantic love. It's not passionate love. It's not familial love. It's it's. I love you Chris Friend, because we work together and we're colleagues and I trust you and together.  That's all. We you know. Can do neat things together when we decide we want to collaborate. Together and we share some experiences and some. Understandings of the world that make me feel close to you, and when we can sit down and have a conversation after having not seen each other for two years, we could sit here before this podcast and and catch up. And it feels real and it feels it feels like a meaningful connection for two human beings.

That to me is the kind of love. That that we're talking about, and I think just naming it for what it is and accepting that and understanding that it's not. It's not perfect, right? It's not. There there are going to be days when. You go into. A class virtual or face to face. Where you do not feel like loving anybody. Right where you don't even want to be there, just like there are days I go home and my husband I'm just like. Leave me alone I. Need some aligning part the time right now right. Like that's natural and normal, but we all part of it is just accepting that and realizing that you know. If it isn't going to be right in front of us all the time and it shouldn't be, that's not natural. That's not OK. You don't want to turn your. Class into loving my students. Like that, that's not what they're there for.   It's not what you're there for.

It's really more about OK once you just accept this love that as an orientation, love is pointing a direction towards. Towards caring for your students towards UM. Wanting to to. To foster something for your students wanting to to come. Wanting to build something with your students. Like once we we accept that as just an orientation. And as a fellowship. And we get into some of the pedagogies of care here, right?

Like what it looks like for me, is that. I want my students to get out of my classes. The exact thing that they want to get out. Of my class, right? I want them to have the opportunity to determine what matters to them about what they're learning, and then I want to do whatever I can to help them get to that place, and if not, get to that place during the time. That I have them in my class, at least them set them on a path so they feel like they could continue. That means that I want to be flexible, right? I I don't want rules to get in the way of that.

Uhm, I had open house last night with at my oldest high school and I was meeting with their English teacher who was talking about giving students opportunities. You know they're writing These kinds of papers for the first time you know the goal here is not about a grade. The goal here? Is about progress and it's about growth and it's about helping them understand that. Just because a deadline has passed, if they continue to learn and are able. To make something better then they should. Be able to do that, right?

I mean. There's practical reasons why we have to have deadlines, right? 'cause we work at a university and grades are due on December 18th whatever. But within the confines of those practical situations that we have no control over. Why can't we be as flexible as possible? Because that's how we care for people. That's how we foster a situation in which our students can fully explore. The possibilities revise, rethink, revisit. Come back to it, leave it behind for a while, pick it up again.

You know the interesting thing about this. There's lots of pieces of this that are, I think, kind of complex. But like when I when I do this kind of teaching with students so often they're like deer in the headlights, right? Like you give them flexibility. You tell them they have these options. And they don't know what to. Do with it. Right, they're like. No one ever loved them that way before. Chris, like.

Friend: Right no, no one given them that kind of empowerment.

Burtis:  No one ever loved them that way, and so and so some fact some, some faculty and teachers I've worked with will say. Well, it doesn't. Work because they're. You know they don't do it. They don't continue to revise or they never get it in or, and I'm and I'm like well. That's because it's through the love and care work that we're doing. That's as you just said, what we're also teaching them is how to take power, right? And how to take control and that doesn't happen magically either, right?

Like you don't become empowered because somebody walks up to you and says. Here's the power, right? Like you become empowered because. You start to believe it. You start to believe in it. And so that's a process. And you may not like in a single class. We may not see that process unfold for every student fully. But if more and more of us are orienting ourselves this way and embracing this this mindset, then maybe we begin to see students. Feel like that is. A possibility for them feel. Like that empowerment can can happen.

It makes me think. About like all of these assumptions that are that are kind of just baked into the way we structure education about linearity, right? And as opposed to Recursivity, and the reality that any of us who've Who who spend time thinking about learning right? If you take time to reflect on your own learning. I I can. I can't think of anything that I've learned linearly, right? Like all learning is recursive for me. Like how many times do you have like that moment where you figure something out and you go? That's why that other thing was the way that. It was of. Course, right? But you couldn't see it yet.

But the way that we structure education and the way we talk. To our students about learning is linearly. Even when we, even when we talk about revision. It tends to feel linear. I think that This is another practice that I think is essential and that you that you hinted at is talking to students. About that meta level of what's happening about why things are structured this way and organize this way for a reason. And this is the reason and. It's OK that right now you're feeling confused, right? That sense of confusion. While it's disorienting and it's unsettling, is actually how you should be feeling right now. It's a sign you're doing it right.

And I mean if there's one other common practice that I'm I feel like I'm bringing up again and again when I talk to faculty. It's that about making more transparent to students. The the design of. The design of the class right talking to students about the choices that you've made. If possible, inviting them into that conversation to refine those choices. Because guess what? Like that's recursive as well, right? Like we all set out at the beginning of a semester with a well laid plan of how things are going. Unfold and we all know that by like mid semester, we're flailing exactly.

Friend: Completely off the charts, Yep.

Burtis:  So like, why not just acknowledge that and just say, like you know what we're going to go about? Three weeks. And then we're going to see where we are. We're going to talk about it. We're going to keep figuring out where to go. Next, It's so interesting. The resistance. I feel like when I talk to teachers and faculty about that practice is that that's. That's that makes you vulnerable, right? Pulling back the curtain and sharing what's behind, it makes us vulnerable and we don't like like that feels dangerous.

So the the corollary to. All of this. Is that in addition to us loving our students, we have to trust them. To love us back right we have to give them permission. To do that? Not all of them will. You know, not all of them are going to step up to that, right? They're going to be. They're always odd like and it's fine. There's their students were like. I don't really want to be part of this practice. I want you to tell me what it is I have to do. And and maybe that's when the love gets a. Little tough. But I think that that's that's also part of what it is. I mean that that is its nature to be like that. And I think understanding that what we're resisting here we're not resisting sharing this because it's a bad idea to share it. We're resisting sharing it because it makes us feel vulnerable. And if we're going to ask our students to be as vulnerable as we ask them to be, because really learning to to learn well, you have to make yourself vulnerable. Then I think we have to do the same for them.

Friend: But our vulnerability has to have limits. We need to be able to have boundaries and work to take care of ourselves, too.

Burtis:        I think some of it. Is about. Acknowledging our own like you know the hours. They are in fact 0 sum. Like they only go up to 24 no matter what we do. So we do have to acknowledge that there are real boundaries to our lives and limitations that we get to define for ourselves, right? And we need to to work within those, but I also. That some of it. We did a session here at the Colab a couple weeks ago on the labor of teaching where we're really trying to kind of unpack and get into this. These questions of Labor and work and like what's expected of us by our institutions, what's expected of us by our students? What do we expect of ourselves? What is? That final equation look like because guess what? It looks like more than 24 hours and like and then how do we? Exist within.

 Yeah, and and one of the things. That that kind of came out two things that kind of came out of that for me. One of which is that, like when you invite your students into the design of the class, when you turn over control of the class in certain ways, it actually candy labor. The class for you. Now I'm very resistant to I've been. I've done some reading about this and there's some people out there who say it's fine like you don't have to do so much work, just make your students do more work. No, no, no. We all need to respect each other's humanity. They only have 24 hours just like. Yes, so I'm not saying just turn the class into, you know a factory. Don't turn your class into a sweat shop. That is not what Martha Burtis is recommending, but. But that's a conversation to have with your class right about, like. What is the labor of this class like? What am I bringing every day? What do you? What do you want to bring every day? How does all of that add up to an experience? We're going to have together? How do? We do that in. A way that so that people, people feel like they can be. Successful, right? Like they can accomplish what we've our goals, but they also feel like it's getting them where they want to go, right? But we're not just selling ourselves short.

So two classes that I taught my last year at Mary Washington. One was with Jesse was a digital journal Workshop class and the other one was, uh, another workshop class where students were doing digital projects with local non pro. Profits and community organizations. Two of the most. You know, in the terms that we've been talking about most terrifying classes to teach because we hold, we, you know, we turned over so much to students we we pulled the curtain way back for the class we taught together and for the class that I taught in the spring I. Did the same thing in terms of the labor. My workload was less for those classes. In some ways it was more intense in other ways, right? Like the emotional investment was intense, the kind of work I had to do was intense, but it wasn't. It didn't add up to so much that I felt like I was getting buried alive.

And then the other piece of this that's related is at a certain point when we're talking about these labor issues, we're talking about how do you balance all of this? It has to be about not just how do I do less work, but how. Do I do more of? The work I love. So when I started doing alternative assessment or UN grading in my classes, you know I moved away from doing traditional grading and I started doing self reflections and self evaluations and I remember the first time I had my students. Turn in a self evaluation mid semester. They turned in a paper and they turned in a self evaluation so I had to read all the just like this semester previous I had to read all those papers but now I also had to read all those self evaluations.

The difference in how it felt was so profound. Like what had been a a truly emotionally draining process for me reading student papers. Where I was constantly worried about grades, I was constantly worried about like how am I being fair? Is this equitable? I was in a better mood last night when I read those five papers than I am this afternoon, and I know that's coming through and how I'm grading and. How I'm assessing and in? The comments I'm leaving and that doesn't feel. Good so I need. To come back like it just was. This this like cycle of rumination and anxiety and dread

When I switched doing the UN grading it was not. It was less hours necessarily, but it was so joyful, right? Because I was reading their papers now for pure. Reading like I was just reading them to read them and offer any comments that came to mind and then their self reflections. The one where I was leaving pretty extensive comments. It was like having a conversation with my students. It was not. It didn't feel. It felt like the work I love to do so I don't have an answer to like we all have way too much on our plates like let's just be honest, the instance our institutions are taking advantage of us. Her workloads are growing contingent faculty God like it's ridiculous what's being asked of faculty. I don't have a solution. For all of that

If we can de-labor our classes and or if we can focus our work on those things that bring us joy. If we can now. So we've talked about loving our students. We talked about our students loving. Uh, so how about loving ourselves, right? Acknowledge that that this is your work, right? Like this is your work, so let's find a way within whatever boundaries and confines and horrible institutional circumstances and. Contexts we operate in. But let's find that. Space to make that work better for ourselves and not worry about. Am I? You know, am I being the. Am I being the? The stereo, my being the. Professor, right like let's not worry about that.

Friend: Oh yeah.

Burtis:  Let's not worry about that, let's. Let's just take care of ourselves in each other and see where that takes us.

You've been hearing Teacher of the Ear. Just because the show is over doesn't mean the conversation ends. Everyone who contributed to this episode is accessible through Twitter, and so is the show itself. Along those lines, @TeacherOfTheEar and @chris_friend would like to thank @mburtis (M-B-U-R-T-I-S) for chatting with me on today's show. And another quick shameless plug: Martha wrote Chapter 8 of Hybrid Teaching: Pedagogy, People, Politics, the edited collection of essays available through Hybrid Pedagogy and as a serialized audiobook available wherever you get your podcasts. The audio version of her chapter, titled “Messy and Chaotic Learning” will be available this week—just search for Hybrid Teaching in your podcatcher.

But let’s get back to Teacher of the Ear. Our theme music is by Blue Dot Sessions. This episode’s cover art is from Krista Mangulsone on Unsplash. The show is hosted on, and you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. The full catalog of episodes, including show notes and complete transcripts, lives at That’s

So that’s it for this episode of Teacher of the Ear. I’m your host, Chris Friend, from Kean University in Union, NJ, where it’s going to be above freezing for the first time in a few days. I’m going to go take a nice walk to celebrate. Well, that’s it for this episode. Next time, we’ll hear Laura Gibbs discuss the importance of giving feedback as opposed to grades. Until then, let’s all keep our ears open for more ways to empower educators and champion student agency.

Thanks for listening!