Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation:
Episode 13: Interview with Kira Tomsons
Transcription by Jennifer Jill Fellows
Jennifer Jill Fellows: In March 2020, college and university classrooms across Canada fell silent as public health officials ordered post-secondary institutions to shift their classes online. Overnight, faculty, staff and students were suddenly grappling with many new technologies that they had not used or not used so intensively before. Zoom and became the norm. Learning management systems governed all faculty student interactions. And many professors began the difficult task of learning effective online pedagogy with little support and less time. One question looms large in many professors’ minds. How do I ensure my students don’t cheat when they are not physically in front of me? An answer to that question, a number of surveillance technologies led to the fore. But as we will learn today, this technological solution, as well as the framing and use of a number of other education technologies during this time of emergency remote teaching. Extremely problematic. Hi everyone, Welcome to another episode of Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the conversation. I’m your host, Jennifer Jill Fellows, and I’m joined today by Dr. Kira Tomsons. Dr. Tomsons is an instructor at Douglas College and philosophy and humanities department. So, she’s a colleague of mine. She also happens to be my co-host on another podcast that we do together where we nerd out about the Dragon Age games and philosophy. That podcast is called Andraste’s Gadfly. Kira also teaches ethics, philosophy of law, and issues in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. She has written articles on rape and consent, companies and the ethics of care, feminist considerations regarding euthanasia and the ethics of lying to children. Today, she’s here to talk to me about ethics of care and online course delivery. Hi Kira, welcome to the show.
Kira Tomsons: Thank you for having me.
Jill: I’m so excited to hang out with a friend on the podcast. This is awesome.
Jill: I want to take a moment and be mindful that while we are in digital space, digital space is still fundamentally physical space. I don’t want to lose touch of that. So I just want to take a moment to acknowledge that this podcast is made on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish and Qiqéytpeople. And Kara, where are you today?
Kira: I am currently a settler presence in the territories of the QiqéytFirst Nations where I live.
Jill: So Kara, let’s kind of zoom out to a bigger picture. Can you tell me a bit about your academic journey? Particularly, did you start out as a philosopher?
Kira: I actually did not start out as a philosopher.
Jill: Nobody does.
Kira: And I think my journey, no. I think my journey as an object lesson in how not to make life choices. When my students asked me where I went to college and what I majored in, I actually do use it as an example of how not to decide what you’re going to be studying.
Jill: Can you give this example to our listeners?
Kira: Yes, I can, because it’s kind of funny. I started off as an English major and I didn’t do so well.
Kira: In the first essay that I did. I was used to getting fairly high marks in high school and it was the first C I ever got in English and I panicked. This was also helped by the fact that I knew someone in the class who I thought, because I was an arrogant person, I thought they weren’t very bright and they got a B. And so I, you know, I panicked. I was on a scholarship and I thought I’m going to lose my scholarship. So
Kira: Back in the day, you couldn’t go online to change your, your major. So, I immediately went to the registrar’s office and filled out a change of program form. And changed it to philosophy where I was getting A’s and A pluses in part because both of my parents were philosophers. So, I was used to philosophy and, and so I, I switched my major based on what I knew for sure I would be able to keep my scholarships in. And that began my journey. And so, I thought as I was going through my undergraduate, I was like, “What could I do with such a degree?” And I was thinking it could be a lawyer. Those are really good, solid backgrounds. And then I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer. And then I realized I had no marketable skills. And so
Jill: I don’t think that’s a fair representation of the philosophy.
Kira: Well, the philosophy I was doing, it did not feel. So, I went to Acadia University and they very heavily emphasize the history of philosophy. And so, I’ve read a lot of historical stuff, but I came out of that degree feeling like I was not going to be able to market myself with any skills to the business world or a job. And so, I applied for my masters and I got in at Queens and over the course of that year, I did not feel like I had again gained any marketable skills. So, I felt I’m just going to put off working. And so, I applied for my PhD and I managed to get in at Dalhousie. And so that was that was sort of my journey. But I realized during my MA that I did love teaching.
Jill: Did you get the opportunity to TA then or, and during your MA?
Kira: I was a TA
Jill: Teaching Assistant for people who don’t know.
Kira: Yeah. I was a teaching assistant as an undergraduate as well. I was a tutor and did very minimal grading. But when I was a teaching assistant at Queens, I was given the opportunity to do a review session. And I loved helping students review for the exam. And then when I went to Dalhousie, I was a teaching assistant for a really quite famous philosopher in bioethics. And she said, “Hey, you’ve been doing the ethics of care, working on this stuff since you were an undergraduate. Do you want to teach the class on the ethics of care?” And I was like, “Yes, yes, I do.” And this wasn’t just a review, this was me planning the class, carrying it out and that cemented for me. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.
Jill: This is my marketable skill.
Kira: Yeah, Exactly. Research. Not so much, but teaching. That was something that I immediately felt. This was my calling.
Kira: I felt like I was actually good at it. The students seem to be really responsive to what I was doing and I thought that, yeah, this is, this is what I could do. And then as a PhD student, I was given the opportunity to teach, class, full classes myself. And that just helped reinforce to the detriment of progress on my thesis. My dissertation took way longer. Because I, I was very good at saying yes, I’d like to teach classes as opposed to saying no and working more on getting, getting my actual research. It really just felt like the, the writing aspect of things, while like, I don’t hate research, It didn’t feel like I was having the same impact. And I think I still feel that way today that publishing things in journals is never the goal for me. If I am going to present research, I want to be doing it at a conference. I want to be engaging with people directly. And teaching is one of the ways that I can do that in a, in a really concrete and meaningful way. And so, I use this as an object lesson for my students though, because generally when you’re not doing so great at something, the first response should not be to go just drop it immediately. I want it to be the next great Canadian novelists.
Jill: Oh yeah.
Kira: I wanted to be a writer and then I get this sill C. And and just for the record, I did get my grade up to an A by the end of the semester, but I didn’t switch back
Jill: Oh so this wasn’t at the end, it was in the middle. And you switched in the middle of the term?
Kira: The first term, like six weeks. Not even six weeks in. I completely switched. Yeah. So an object lesson in how not to make life choices.
Jill: That’s kind of interesting. How sometimes the choices are a little random to you that way our life.
Kira: And the thing is, well, I have many regrets. Becoming a teacher in philosophy is not one of them. So. . .
Jill: Okay, so you’ve kind of raise two things out of your background. One is this love for teaching, which I expect we will come back to during the course of this episode. But the other one is that you said quite early on you were researching and then teaching in ethics of care specifically. So, for our listeners, can you tell us a bit about what ethics of care is?
Kira: So, I frame the ethics of care as a reaction to traditional ethics. Where traditional ethics has systematically ignored the moral experiences of women and those from marginalized communities. It’s really an umbrella term for an ethical perspective that prioritizes the idea of care and responsibility in ways that acknowledges the rules that relationships play in our moral landscape. So many traditional ethical theories focus on the individual, as an independent, rational, isolated, moral agent. You’re dealing with adults who can reason, should be using principles and moral rights to make decisions. But the ethic of care really is coming at it from the perspective of critically reacting to that and saying that most people don’t exist in that way. In many parts of our lives, we are dependent, we’re not independent sort of atomistic cells. We exist in relations that women in particular experience relationships differently, in particular, child-care relations, that these sorts of things historically just have been sidelined as morally relevant. And the ethics of care brings it back into the foreground in a much more explicit way. And I think it, it incorporates a wide ranges of approaches though. So, some ethics of care will focus very much on individual relationships. Where the paradigm has been seen as sort of the mother-child relationship as the sort of the paradigm of care. So, you get writers like Nell Noddings who wants to do a deep dive into how those relationships function. But then you get other aspects of the ethic of care, which is about how people reason morally and that’s where you get Carol Gilligan. So ,these are sort of the two founders of the ethics of care were Gilligan argues that women largely reason in a different way when it comes to ethics because they prioritize relationships and think about morality in those terms. Whereas men tend to use sort of abstract principled reasoning. And initially she started off as someone who attributed that to social causes, that people are socialized in very different ways based on gender. But then she kinda tripped down into sort of bio-determinism where it she connected it much more to sort of men and women.
Jill: More of an essentialist narrative there.
Kira: Essentialism, yes. But it is certainly there that there’s this idea that there are these two different ways of thinking about morality. And some theorists have taken that in terms of thinking about the virtue approach to carrying were caring is a virtue and it, it has various elements which we can unpack in terms of thinking about what makes caring virtuous. Other people politicize it. My favorite account of the ethics of care actually is Joan Tronto, who talks about the way that we engage in care through processes and applies it to institutions so that companies, that’s where I’ve taken it, you know companies, can they care? And it’s like yes, because they do focus on particular people and meet their needs instead of others. And so, I think there’s, there’s lots going on under the umbrella of the ethics of care. But for me, I think the important aspects of it are prioritizing how we engage in relationships and how we exist in relationships morally and shifting away from thinking about moral obligations, which are, tend to be tied to things like duties and rights. And instead shifting to responsibilities where we instead think about “How are we meeting the interests and needs of people?” and the responsibilities that come with those. And I think that shift is what makes me more inclined to be coming at things from an ethics of care perspective that you’re asking slightly different questions and shifting the perspective to more concrete particular cases, that, philosophy is quite bad at abstracting away from the particulars. But one of my favorite scenes I think, articulates this difference in, in a show, Stargate Atlantis, where one of the characters is posing the trolley problem to his friend. . .
Jill: Oh, we’re going to go to the trolley problem.
Kira: So, he’s posing it just as sort of an interesting moral discussion. Do you save a baby where the train is bearing down on it, or do you save the five people?
Jill: So, we should back up and just explain what the trolley problem is.
Kira: So, the trolley problem is when you are in charge of a switch where that a train is traveling down a track and you have the ability to switch the track to another track, you can divert the train. And so, in the distance you can see five people on the track. And you can’t communicate to them. And they’re sort of just stuck there. But you could divert the train onto another track where there’s one person.
Jill: Who you also can’t talk to you?
Kira: Yeah. And you can’t talk to that person either. So, this has meant to be an exercise in sort of, are you a consequentialist or a deontologist, or do you care about the consequences? Where saving five people is better than saving one person? Or do you think killing people is fundamentally wrong no matter what and switching the track is going to make you a killer. So, this is kind of abstractly how it’s setup. But in this show, the character poses this as sort of a fun moral . . .
Jill: Thought experiment.
Kira: Thought experiment.
Jill: Let’s get comfortable in our armchairs.
Kira: Exactly. But what happens though is that the, the people around him start asking questions like, “Well, how fast is the train going? Can I run and save the baby? Or can I just shout out, right, and get the people to move off the tracks?”
Jill: “Who are the five people? Right? Am I related to them?
Kira: Am I related to them? And what’s interesting is when I pose this to my students, they get so frustrated by the trolley problem because it is in so many ways the impossible dilemma. There’s no good choice people die no matter what. But what they start to do is ask so many questions like, “Well, who set this up, that people would be working on the trains at the same time, trains are actually running?”
Jill: “Who’s responsible for those five people being there?”
Kira: So, what happens though, is we’ve moved from a really abstract thought experiment where you could do the very philosophical thing of labeling people with A’s, Bs and Cs and you know, make it really abstract. They’re not people, they’re just, they’re just representations. But what people do in response to the trolley problem is they start to contextualize it. They start to make it a real scenario with real people, with histories, with questions about, but how did it really get to this point? And I think that’s something that the ethic of care focuses on. That morality does not happen in the abstract. Morality happens in the here and the now when you are in a position making choices, relationship to the people around you.
Jill: So, for example, it matters, who sent these five people to work on the track and did they fail in their responsibilities of care doing so?
Jill: And what is your connection or lack of connection to the one-person into the five people respectively? Also, it might matter like are any of these people, children or adolescents who are fundamentally more vulnerable while playing or working on the tracks?
Kira: So, the ethic of care, I think, pays a lot more attention to the way in which not everyone is functioning as an independent moral agent. It pays attention to children and their role in moral decisions. And, and in fact looks at them as burgeoning moral agents themselves. It looks at the relationships between those who may experience less moral autonomy. So, people who have extreme disabilities, people who are elderly with dementia, that it allows us to place these people within the moral landscape in a way that includes them. Where a lot of traditional theories, if you’re not an adult who’s rational, what’s the point of you? You don’t matter. You’re just not, you’re just not present. People have tried to save the theories. So, when I, when I teach Kantianism, for example,I, I, so Kant thought that in order to be a moral agent, you had to be rational. And well, he told a really terrible story though about how children weren’t rational, so they don’t morally count. And women are really emotional, so they’re not really rational, so they don’t get to be moral agents either. And well, he was really racist.
Jill: Yeah, it’s kinda of only white men that got to be moral agents.
Kira: It really is. Now, the thing is what people who, who’ve come after Kant have done is said, well, we can just fix his account and now. . .
Jill: Just extend the bubble of moral agency.
Kira: Extend it. Right. Although that’s still doesn’t include children, is still won’t include people who have extreme mental disabilities. And those people still count morally. And so, I think in this respect, traditional moral theories really don’t go far enough to explain the moral experiences of those who encounter people who are in marginalized positions.
Jill: And I think that’s probably leads me to my next question, which is how your understanding of intersectionality might inform or work well with explorations of ethics of care?
Kira: So, I think ultimately there’s two ways this plays out. One is, I think just like I’ve mentioned, that when it comes to understanding how one experiences the world, you can experience privilege in certain aspects and not realize how that excludes others. But it also allows for the possibility where you could be privileged in certain ways but marginalized and others and thus have, thus have access to an understanding of why something may not be sufficient. So, for example, when it comes to my own experiences, I experienced privilege with respect to my race because I’m white, my class, I’m quite privileged, I think with that respect. However, when it comes to gender or sexual orientation, I don’t experience the same amount of privilege as someone who is a white male, for example, in terms of those, those social group categories. So, I think there’s a recognition in intersectionality that people can have more than one way in which they experience marginalization, but also privilege. And so that gives I think, insight into how we have to be carefully examining how our commitments, both in terms of our moral theories and moral principles and judgments, may be tapping into privileges in a way that excludes people or debases them.
Jill: For example, saying only white men are moral agents.
Kira: Yes. But I think there’s another element to this as well, where there’s a way in which intersectionality forces us to confront the ways in which sometimes feminist responses to things like traditional ethics has to be aware that the generalizations that are being made can be deeply problematic because you have people like Gilligan talking about women generally using this other sort of moral voice. And I admit when I first encountered her analysis, I’d felt very alienating because I didn’t experience that in part because I was sort of trained within a philosophical method that was very masculine, her sense of masculine, and at that point found it quite appealing. So, I didn’t quite experience the, the way in which she said women would experience things. And there is a tendency, I think, when talking about the ethics of care to make presumptions about what caring looks like, what femininity looks like, and how they play out. And intersectionality kind of forces you to confront that not all women are going to share the same experiences when it comes to how the world treats them and views them differently with respect to things like what counts as feminine, right? So Black women, for example, do not experience the same sorts of judgments when it comes to things like what femininity requires and how you can be feminine. Disabled women do not experience the same sorts of judgments when it comes to these things. And I think intersectionality challenges us to recognize these differences and to recognize that what works for one group of people will not always translate when it’s other types of social groups that are now entering into that experience because of the ways in which we structure things.
Jill: So, it’s problematic the way Gilligan at times writes as though there were a kind of a women’s way of moral reasoning that is supposed to encapsulate all women. When we know from intersectionality and third wave feminism that there really isn’t one woman’s experience. So, it doesn’t follow that there would be kind of one Women’s way of reasoning, either that comes from, or it is informed by that experience, for example, because that experience doesn’t exist.
Jill: So, now that we’ve got a little bit clearer about how intersectionality can both inform a practice of ethics of care, but also kind of challenge or question certain ways that some philosophers may conceive of or write about ethics of care in terms of this idea of they’re not really being a single Women’s Way of moral reasoning, I want to talk more about your background and ethics of care it more specifically. So, we’ve established that you’ve been researching ethics of care since your PhD, that you’ve taught ethics of care in the classroom. But you’ve had a change because now it’s not just a subject matter for you to teach or research, but ethics of care has become a pedagogical practice. So, what led you to think of ethics of care as a pedagogical practice.
Kira: I think the real click moment for me, where it’s centered as something that I could adopt as a moral framework for thinking about it, was when I first encountered the notion of universal design. So universal design at its very core is the idea that we need to approach how we teach with the goal of meeting the needs of all students. And the framework for that is that if you design things universally, then you don’t need to build in accommodations afterwards. And I think that’s where the ethics of care kicked in for me because the ethics of care, as I frame it at its core, is about meeting the needs of those around us in the best possible ways and conceptualizing our notions of moral responsibility around that idea. So, I was always willing to meet students where they were in terms of accommodations, I was always willing to give extensions on assignments when students asked, and I was always happy to share notes. I would always give students makeups if they had to miss an exam. I was always very accommodating and I was always willing to work with the students accessibility office at any institution I’ve been in to make sure that students were able to access the resources that they need. But then I started to think critically about how the processes I had built into my classes and policies facilitated that for some students, but not for others. So, I used to have a policy where students could ask for an extension. I, even when I was quite young, had a little form they could fill out because I thought that would make things more efficient because I would have a record and I could keep track of all of this. So, having students ask for extensions meant though that those students who were nervous about talking to a professor or who thought that I was going to require a justification for why they needed it and would have to disclose why they needed it, these sorts of students would get left out. So first-generation college or university students often are less comfortable because they don’t know the sort of norms that go into how to interact with professors, how to navigate institutional sort of situations like this. So I started to think about how even my simple policy, which I thought was quite accommodating, yeah, I mean, I never denied anybody an extension, but there was this background assumption that they would have to ask for it. And it never occurred to me until I started to think about how not everyone grew up in a college like I did, because I really did. Both my parents were philosophy professor. I literally would spend days in the college library that they were at. If I was sick, for example, they still had to teach. They would cart me to their office and I would hang out there.
Jill: The pre COVID days.
Kira: Yes. But the idea though is that I was really comfortable in those institutional surroundings talking with professors, my parents, friends were professors, so of course I was comfortable. So, this was the first step, I think, for me in recognizing that, I mean, there were multiple times that I’ve recognized my students are not me.
Kira: Having that moment of my students are not me. And recognizing that I can’t teach my students as the students I want. Now, part of this also was facilitated by me having kids.
Kira: Because having children really cemented for me the idea that I can’t parent the children I want to have I have to parent the children that I do have. And that’s not always going to look the way that I thought it should be.
Jill: Right. I’m well aware.
Kira: You know, as, as a parent with two kids with special needs, our family traditions don’t look necessarily the same as I would have expected them to. And here’s an example that both of my kids have a really hard time sitting still and family meals were something that I grew up with. Where you would sit down as a family and just eat together. And I was getting really stressed that we weren’t eating together as a family with me and my kids. But then a very wise person said, “Well, what’s the point of having a family dinner? What’s the goal of the family dinner?” And I said, “Well, it’s a time to build connection and foster those relationships.” And, and she said, “Well, what do you do that in other ways?” We did. We were making puzzles together. We were playing games together. Those were the moments that we were fostering family connectedness. And she helped me realize I could give up family dinners, that it was okay to have people eat at different times because of the ways in which family dinners were really stressful for my kids. So that I think was also a click moment when I had this realization of well, in the same way I can parent the kids I wish I had I have to parent the kids I do have. I can’t teach the students, I want to have which are students that are a 100 percent prepared all the time.
Jill: Did all the reading.
Kira: Did all the readings come to class with all of their assignments done a week early. You know, those are the students I in many ways want to have, but of course I’m not going to have that. And so, with that recognition that students’ lives are very complex and I think teaching at a community college helped that a lot as well. Realizing that most, most of my students are not at all like me. I went to school full-time. I didn’t have part-time jobs outside of being a TA, which is still going to school in many ways. That my experience of learning is so vastly different than so many of my students who are often juggling part-time jobs. They’ve got kids, they’ve got things making their lives more difficult than I had. And I think that was that recognition of “I need to be thinking more critically about the wide diversity in my students.” And that connected very strongly with the notion of universal design.
Kira: Where I now switch to thinking about “how can I design the policies and the structure of my class to allow people who are experiencing these many different ways of living, the opportunities to learn.” So, I switched from getting students to ask for extensions to more or less doing away with rigid due dates altogether that I have built flexibility into a lot of my classes where students can choose when they submit an assignment so they can build it around their lives. And I’m really clear to them at the beginning that I recognize this class is not always going to be a priority for them. And then in an act of care for myself, I tell them that it’s not always the priority for me because I have two kids and my life gets crazy sometimes. And I think that starts to build that relationship with students where there’s a recognition, “We’re all in this together and we need to be willing to be caring with each other.” So that they are much more willing to accept my foibles, and when I dropped the ball on things which I need, because I’m human, I make mistakes. And I’m much more willing to be flexible with them. So, my goal now in class design is to ensure that when I get a letter of accommodation from the accessibility office saying this is what the student needs, that I largely don’t have to do anything new. I might sometimes have to incorporate things. If a student has a interpreter, for example, that’s not something I have the institutional power to build into my class. But that’s something that can be easily integrated into my class given the structure of it. So, thinking critically about how students experience my classroom when it comes to systems of privilege and marginalization, that became really important. And I think that is sort of how I’ve shifted from how I used to think about teaching me to how I think now.
Jill: So, you’ve drawn out some themes of recognizing kind of a reciprocal relationship between yourself and your students. Responsibilities that you have for your students. Intersectionality in terms of recognizing your students are not in the same position that you are and they’re not in the same positions as each other. They have different priorities, different needs, different approaches to learning. So can you speak of any other ways in which your pedagogical values have changed over time or any other influences that have led to these changes.
Kira: When I first started out, I was all about the fairness and about being just, that was that was what drove me. I was I was all about being principled and upholding the rules, trying to make sure that interestingly, if that people responded to my authority.
Kira: I started teaching when I was fairly young. I think I taught my first-class when I was twenty-four.
Jill: Yeah, I wondered how much this approach might have to be being a young woman in the classroom. I also as a young teacher, I kind of struggled with the need to be seen as an authority.
Kira: Yeah, I felt there was a general attitude and I think there still is towards women in philosophy that when I tell people I teach philosophy, they kind of have to do a double take sometimes. And I really felt when I started out teaching, that I had to go full on authoritarian mode. And in part, I think philosophers don’t get a lot of training and how to teach, particularly at the time when I was going through grad school. I think that might have changed a little bit, but I thinks so much of what we do is what we’ve learned before from, from those who modeled their, their teaching. And at that time, all of my models largely were white men who all had very similar approaches in the classroom where they were the authority and everyone bought into that authority. And I really felt I had to adopt that. And I think another aspect to it as well as that I had more faith in the education system. I think at that time, I don’t know if I was just full of myself, but I felt like I was doing something really important and meaningful. And now that I’m older, I do have a much better sense of confidence in myself and I don’t feel the need to, to put myself out as an authority. But I’m also feeling a bit jaded about what the education system is doing. And I think I’ve shifted my priorities to asking, how can I make this class meet the needs of students and meet my needs as well. And I think that’s a, that’s a completely different question from “how can I make a syllabus with enough class rules that I can enforce fairly, right?” Where you have a ten page syllabus as opposed to now where I have I basically have a one page syllabus. I don’t have a lot of rules. The rules that I do have tend to be ones that I’m institutionally told I have to put in there. So, I have to put in a section on academic integrity because that’s required of me institutionally. But I’ve structured my classes largely in such a way that I don’t need to have rules anymore.
Jill: So, you’ve mentioned fairness. I take it that also perhaps was informed a little bit by Justice Theory of Moral Theory of Justice in the classroom. So, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about what, what ways you think educators can practice ethics of care in a traditional, not online class to start out with, (and then we can talk about the online class later) and how this differs from practicing kind of this fairness or justice ethics in the classroom.
Kira: I think one of the things I need to sort of preface this all with is that I don’t see the ethics of care as in opposition to a justice perspective and a lots of ways because I think the ethics of care in looking at meeting the needs of people embeds within it, questions of, “are we being fair to people who are marginalized?” Like all of these questions I actually think end up being justice questions and a lot of ways. But I’m coming at it from a perspective of care that that’s what’s motivating it as opposed to some sort of moral calculus where I’m trying to make sure that everyone’s interests are met equally in some sort of numerical fashion. So, I think there’s, there’s two ways in terms of practically setting up the class. I think embody sort of an ethic of care where we’re thinking critically about the sorts of assignments that we’re giving in terms of creating engagement. So formative assignments where we’re not just requiring rote memorization. And I, I kind of put this under the umbrella of engagement. I’ve moved away from traditional papers. I’ve moved away from strict dates on when things happen. Because I think one, I want students to be engaged in learning and I want there to be flexibility. So those are sort of the two guiding principles that I use when it comes to structuring the class. And I think in terms of class structure, that goes a lot of ways to answering the questions.” What, what do my students need in this class?” I’ll admit, I’m really fortunate. I’m not teaching in an area where if my students don’t learn something, they’re going to not be able to do surgery.
Kira: So, I admit that there may be disciplines where having students be able to spit back information precisely without having to look it up is an important skill. But for my classes that’s not the important skill. My goal is to teach students how to think critically. My goal is to have students come out of the class knowing more about the subject matter than they knew going in. And so, creating assignments that are engaging where they’re able to apply it to things that matter to them so that they can find joy in what they’re doing. So, creating assignments that allow them to engage, much like our podcast on philosophy and video games, right? I think that’s one of the. . .
Jill: Andraste’s Gadfly.
Kira: I think that’s one of the things that I love about that work is that it’s fun and it’s philosophy. And I love doing it because it allows me to do two things that I really enjoy. So, what I’ve done in most of my classes is say, “Hey, look, if you don’t want to write a paper, you can do a creative project if you love to draw. You could do a comic. If you love to write, you can write a story.” And students have responded to that. Now, here’s the thing too though. Also recognizing that a lot of students at the end of the semester don’t have a creative bone in their body and they don’t want to do something creative. So, I have the essay as an option, right? It’s the flexibility. So, it’s about meeting the students where they are. And some students have even said, “Look, I want to write the paper, but I can’t even come up with a topic” like Okay. Here are some questions that you could answer, right? So, helping them where they are, I think, is how the ethic of care comes into my teaching practice. And that also means being really responsive to needs as they develop. So that’s why I don’t have policies about extensions. And as long as they’ve passed it in by the end of the semester, I’m generally okay with accepting it. There are occasionally some exceptions to that where some work. If it’s already been graded, then I tend to be less flexible if I’ve already built flexibility into the actual assignment itself. So, where I’ve assigned discussion forums, I only count five out of the ten. So, if students miss half of them, they’ve still met their requirements. So, I don’t tend to allow extensions on those because there’s always more that they can do to make up for it. So, it’s always about giving students a chance to show me what they’ve learned in a way that doesn’t punish people whose lives sometimes get really messy, or punish people who have trouble with executive function, right? People who have a hard time organizing their lives in ways that I don’t want to disadvantage those people either, right? So, people who aren’t neurotypical, people who are neurodiverse. So, this is not just about those formally recognized diagnoses that I get, where students get more time with exams. That it’s really recognizing that how you set up the class is going to impact on people. Virtually, every single person in that class will be able to respond positively to something that I’ve done in the design of the class.
Jill: So, you mentioned discussion boards when you were talking about that. And I wonder if we can now talk about what maybe is that university and college elephant in the room, the pandemic?
Jill: And how we all transitioned online. You were already teaching online some of your courses prior to this?
Jill: So what can you tell us about how educational technologies work and in what ways, if any, the practice of ethics of care has to change or shift when we shift to the virtual classroom or pivot, I guess we all like the word pivot. When we pivoted online.
Kira: I didn’t find the pivot too difficult because you’re right. I had I had taught online before. What, what made the online pivot difficult actually was that the types of students that I had were now different. So, students that deliberately chose online prior to the pandemic were a particular type of student. So, they were generally students who worked very well in time management who learned independently. And when the pandemic hit, and we pivoted online, a lot of instructors did not have the sorts of things that I had it in my pocket, so to speak. I had hundreds of videos made for my students already, so it was easy to just trot those out. So not much changed for me, but for a lot of instructors, they’re only mode was, well, I have to do this as I would do it in the normal classroom, but now I’m just going to do it online. So, for me, one of the biggest things was the use of synchronous online meetings. And I admit I’m going to be philosophically opposed to those forever. In terms of successful teaching. I actually don’t think that’s the best way for people to be learning online. Now, here’s the thing though. And I think this is why the ethics of care can come in, is, first of all, we have to recognize that, that is what many students want.
Kira: And it’s what many teachers wanted.
Kira: Because that’s what they could do. But I also think that we have to consider how, what students and what teachers want is not always going to be good for learning. And I think that many practices that I have seen with synchronous online meetings are really problematic from the perspective of an ethic of care. So for example, requiring attendance, taking attendance and using that as a participation mark, that is going to significantly impact students who don’t have a robust online connection.
Kira: People who are going to be missing classes because of various commitments that they have. Now, here’s the thing though. This goes back to how I don’t think it changes much from the in-person. I never took attendance in person either. But I think there tends to be a more rigorous application of participation marking when it comes to synchronous online because it’s easy and the technology facilitates this. I had one instructor who was really upset that we were moving away from Blackboard Collaborate to Zoom at our institution. Because Blackboard allowed for the taking of attendance that would just immediately be shunted into a grade book.
Jill: Yeah. It was just automatic, right.
Kira: And it just made it easier. Yeah. It was just automatic. You could connect attendance with a grade in gradebook. And for me, I found that really problematic because I tend to be philosophically opposed to the idea that attendance is something that we should be measuring as a learning objective, right? And this goes back to what are the needs of students when it comes to learning. So, we could also consider how technology can be used to meet the needs of students.
Jill: Perfect. So how might that work?
Kira: So, I help another instructor get online who did not have any online teaching experience and liked to do things very particular ways in the classroom. And so we had to kind of negotiate how they wanted to run their class. And when he realized that he could record his lectures, and that students could go back and rewatch them, he actually had a moment of “this is actually perhaps better because students who miss something.” So students, for example, who have English as a second language, they can put on subtitles and be able to see what is being said, and students with any disabilities who need accessibility if they’re captioned, right, that this type of technology can be used to meet so many of these needs provided that the technology is being appropriately used of course, right? Because there are lots of people who made videos who didn’t caption, right? So again, we need to be thinking about how the technology facilitates meeting these needs and how we can meet them using the technology. In that sense, I don’t think the technology is inherently good or bad in a lot of ways. I think the use we put them to significantly is going to indicate where we’re falling in our moral sort of framework. And I think the minute you start using technology from the perspective of, “well, I’m going to use it to ensure that students are following the rules.”
Jill: “That they’re in my class for the three hours of my lecture.”
Kira: Requiring students to have their cameras on, for example. And not recognizing how that is going to impact on student’s well-being.
Kira: So I think there’s a lot of ways in which the perspective that we’re taking when it comes to the policies that we’re building is going to impact how we use the technologies. And that can be for good or for evil. And so that said, however, I think there’s some technology which by virtue of the way that it’s built, is just not going to be something that can be justified from the ethic of care.
Jill: Okay, so this reminds me of a quote that you said in the chapter in the book Gender, Sex and Tech. So you said, “If I choose to use these technologies for the name of justice to catch the liars and the cheaters, then I am choosing to ignore the needs and interests of students who are disadvantaged by such technology. This cannot be a carrying choice and cannot be justified from the position of an ethic of care.” And here, if I remember correctly, you’re talking about not specifically the, or only these technologies, but in particular technologies like Respondus and Proctoro.
Jill: So can you elaborate on this a little bit?
Kira: Sure. I’ve been quite vocal in my position that the online exam monitoring, however that happens, is just evil and it cannot be saved. And if you think about how the technology is developed, I think from both a care perspective and a justice perspective arguably that you would, you should get, that they are pretty terrible. That built into the very tech itself or the biases and prejudices of the people developing them.
Jill: In what ways?
Kira: Well, so when it comes to the way in which people who are not white experienced these technologies. So just built into them when they are rolled out, they functionally don’t work often to recognize those people who have darker skin tones. There were multiple reports of people who were saying, “Look, I’ve turned on all the lights in my room. I’ve got lamps shining on my face and Respondus to still telling me it’s not able to recognize my face,” and across the board, these were all people who were people of color, white people did not experience this. People who were disabled were having their bodily movements flagged as suspicious at a much higher rate than other people. So, I think in many ways, the way in which the AI is developed is going to be problematic when it’s developed by people who are in privileged positions and don’t recognize, “oh, well maybe this facial recognition software should be able to detect people from various range of skin tones.” And it just in terms of behavioral markers, right? In terms of what counts as a cheating. . .
Jill: Or suspicious behavior.
Kira: Right? We have to build that into the system. And that is going to be filled with the biases of the people who are creating the system. And this is, this is not new in terms of analyses of this AI tech. So, I think the justification behind them, whether looking at the ethics of care versus the justice perspective, the way people justify them is always going to be from a justice perspective.
Jill: Right. That we need to be fair.
Kira: We need to be fair. And, and it’s always going to rest on principles that sound great in the abstract, right?
Jill: Just like the trolley problem.
Kira: Cheating is wrong. “We need to make sure people are not violating academic integrity policies.” I mean, that sounds good in principle. Of course. “We’re simply applying the rules fairly to everyone.” But when put into practice, these abstractly neutral policies and so-called neutral tech, have devastatingly different effects on people when it comes to these sorts of things.
Jill: So, when applied equally to everyone, the result is not equal or equitable.
Kira: Yeah, and the use of technology is only going to be used in the context of particular kinds of assessment. So, I never, I’ve never used this type of technology that when I have given online quizzes, they’re open-book. There, there’s an understanding that I’ve built into the processes that this is not about you not being able to have the materials with you. So, when it comes to these sorts of questions, we need to be thinking about different forms of assessment that don’t criminalize students as presumptively going to cheat. So, here’s the thing I know students do cheat. I catch them a lot. I catch the cheaters, I catch the plagiarists. I’m known for catching them. But I don’t think having this sort of technology is going to root out cheating. What it does is it just creates, “how do we work around this to cheat differently? Uh, how do we cheat this new system that’s in place?” Because the students who cheat are always going to cheat. And I think the question, I’m now asking, and this again goes not to just how the technology is used, but what are we trying to achieve with the technology is, I don’t want to treat my students as criminals, as just inherently lying to me about things, I want to trust my students. Because I can, for the most part trust my students that they’re trying their best and they’re doing the best they can. In many cases of students who have cheated, it’s not like they’re the bad apple, but rather it’s, they’re put in places of extreme stress. They don’t have the resources available to them to understand how to do things properly. They may not be understanding the parameters of the assignment or the information that they don’t know what they need to be doing and they’re panicking. So again, this is a pushback against the way we institutionally frame these things. As opposed to punishing cheaters, I want to reframe it as “how can I help my students learn the value of appropriate citation? How can I take away some of the stress so that they’re more likely to do their own work?” But also, in designing assignments that allow them to engage in things that they’re interested in. They’re more likely be looking at things and doing their own work, as opposed to be plagiarizing using someone else’s work.
Jill: Googling the answer on Wikipedia.
Kira: Exactly. Because there’s more engagement.
Jill: And I think I’ve talked to you about this, but you tend to ask questions that can’t be Googled on Wikipedia because the goal is to apply concepts to real-world situations that matter to the students. And that it actually can’t be found on Wikipedia and is more meaningful than Wikipedia.
Kira: I’m not just asking for definitions.
Jill: One other thing that I just wanted to draw from what you said is it also sounds like at least some of these technologies, like these exam monitoring technologies, have the potential to then change the nature of the relationship or reframe the nature of the relationship between yourself and your students. Such that in an ethics of care model of pedagogy, there’s more of a kind of reciprocal relationship and understanding of responsibilities. But with the use of some of these technologies, that relationship shifts to this idea of you again being on the lookout for cheaters and this kind of presumptive understanding that students are all cheaters unless proven otherwise through the use of this problematic tech.
Kira: I want to be a teacher. I don’t want to be a cop.
Kira: I don’t want to be policing my students because that’s not my job. My job is to be helping students learn. And so, unless I have very egregious cases of academic dishonesty, and by egregious, I generally mean things like buying an entire paper, cheating off another student in a way that could endanger another student’s academic standing. These are the sorts of cases I would actually take institutionally through the processes. But when I have students who forget a citation or who’ve submitted something without appropriate citations, I generally take a much more different approach, which is I say, “Okay, look, you haven’t done this properly. So now you’re going to have to go do it properly. Resubmit it to me properly done. So that at the very least you’ve got the skills now to understand how it’s meant to be done.” And it’s, so it but again, if I’m a cop, then all I care about is catching it and sending it off to someone else to punish them. But that’s not my goal as a teacher. My goal as a teacher is to help them learn how to manage the sorts of decisions that they have to make. And part of that is, “Here’s how you do this properly. You have no more excuse now to say I don’t know how to do it.” What they then do with it is in many ways up to them if they want to continue to do things that are not entirely honest, I can’t control that. I can’t make my students be good people. Because that’s not my, my purpose in the classroom even though I teach ethics.
Jill: So, a lot of the information that you’ve given is, I hope, very, very helpful to our listeners who happened to be in roles of teachers or educators. But why do you think this is also important for students to know this kind of approach of ethics of care?
Kira: I think it’s really important for students to understand how we make decisions the way that we do, but also why we make the decisions that we do. Because one of the things that I found is that if I just present students with a syllabus with a set of rules on it or policies, they generally throughout the semester always respond in ways that don’t seem to get buy-in to the syllabus. That there’s, there’s always moments where students question what’s going on in various ways. It might not be a direct question, but it will be pushed back against something. Whether it’s everyone asking for an extension or something like that. But what I’ve found is that when I’m very transparent about why I’ve set up my syllabus the way that I have, students tend to buy in a lot more. And I think the way that I frame this with students is due dates are not inherently moral or inherently just. There’s nothing bad morally, if you can’t make a due date. That when I set a due date, I’m not trying to teach a lesson about getting things in on time and teaching students time-management. That’s, that’s not my goal. My goal in having a due date is so that I can manage my teaching load so that I can great things in time to get them back to students. And when I explain that to students and I say, “Look, I want to get things back within a week. I want to get them back to you and within a week so you know where you stand.” So that means if everyone gets things in on time and what I call the due date, but I am very clear that I will accept things after that date as well. The due date is for me when I start marking your assignments. “So, if everyone gets them in on time, then you can all get them back within a week.” And I’ve set up my classes so that they’re staggered so that I’m not grading everything in one week so that I actually can do it. And so, what this does is allows students to recognize that I am actually doing a job as well. And it takes time and I’m not just magically producing grades. This is something that takes effort on my part. But I also want to stress to them that it is they’re giving them ownership of their work?
Kira: And their responsibilities for allowing me to do my job. So, it’s again, that notion of reciprocation. So that why I’ve chosen this is because I want to be able to get things done for you. And I think this is a shift from people assigning these due dates and then having a very strong attitude of against extensions. When they say things like, “well, they won’t get extensions in the real world.” And my response to that is often, “well, maybe they should, I mean, maybe we shouldn’t normalize having the sorts of processes that are so uncaring in our institutions outside of academia”, which by the way is still the real world.
Jill: Yes, academics live in the real world in case anybody was wondering.
Kira: I get paid to do a job.
Jill: In the world.
Kira: In the world. So ,when we get that response of the goal of the due dates is to ensure students are learning time-management. I’m sorry, that’s, that’s not my job. That’s not what I do that for. And I think being really transparent about why we have things set up the way we do makes it easier for students to buy into it. Like I shifted to getting students to pass in their papers through Blackboard or the learning management system wherever I’ve been. And a lot of students were very reluctant to do that. They, they liked the idea of heading in a piece of paper. I think it felt more final, but then I was really clear to them, Look. I’m sort of the epitome of absent-minded professor. I have left a bag full of exams on a bus.
Jill: Oh no.
Kira: I did get them back. But the idea is I said if you submit it online, it won’t get lost.
Jill: I can’t lose it.
Kira: I can’t lose it. It will always be there. It attaches to you in your account. No one else can see it, but it’s okay,
Jill: Even if you forget to put your name on it,
Kira: I will know whose it is. And so that there’s this level of transparency and this is not just a hoop to jump through that. I have a reason for what I’m doing. And I think that’s really important because a lot of the reasoning behind “why am I having a student do this?” often is, well, “because it’s what I did as a student. It’s what my instructors made me do.” And I think that’s all kind of silly. But it’s very common in the justification for how academics work is: We’ve always done it this way or my professors always made me do this. Why can’t these kids these days do it? And I think this goes back for me to that idea of I can’t teach to the students that I want to have.
Jill: You’re not teaching yourself.
Kira: I’m not. And to be honest, I wasn’t that great at time management either. So, but I, I think in having to justify to students what you’re doing, you have to first go through the process of justifying it to yourself. And that step, I think, brings to the forefront the sorts of moral frameworks that you’re operating with. And that doesn’t just go for how you’re setting up your syllabus and your policies. But it also goes through the question of, “why am I using this particular technology in the way that I am?”
Kira: And I’m really grateful for the tech team that we have because I remember one of the first conversations I had when I was moving online and I was consulting with our Academic Technology Services team and one of them said to me quite upfront, “You don’t want to use technology for the sake of technology.”
Jill: Just because it’s there, right?
Kira: Just because it’s there. You want to have a purpose behind its use. And I think that sense of I have to justify what I’m doing makes it so that you are more engaged and thinking about what are the implications of this technology and my policies and structures for students in a way that embeds you within a framework of care, opposed to coming at it from very abstract principles of justice that this approach allows you to be thinking about how we can fruitfully and beneficially use a lot of great technology that’s out there to benefit students and myself in that learning process.
Jill: This episode of Gender, Sex and Tech continued, conversation began in Chapter 13 of the book Gender Sex and Tech!: An Intersectional Feminist Guide. The chapter is titled “The ethics of care and online teaching: Personal reflections on pandemic post-secondary instruction,” and it was written by Dr. Kira Tomsons. I want to thank Kira for joining me today for this thoughtful conversation. And thank you listener for joining me for yet another episode of Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation. If you want to continue this conversation further, please reach out on Twitter @tech_gender. Or you might consider creating your own material to continue the conversation in your own voice. Music for this podcast provided by Epidemic Sound. This episode is created by me, Jennifer Jill Fellows, with support from Douglas College in New Westminster, BC and support from the Mark Sanders Foundation for Public Philosophy. Until next time, everyone. Bye.