(Citynotes Collective’s attempt here will be to present worker’s experience in their own language. Even without falling in tune with grammar’s normative compositions, language reflects the rhythm of experience and its cacophonic contradictions. Any fellow comrade who would like to share her experiences on the changing work relations inside or outside home in this time of emergency may contact us. Our sharing of experience is part of the political process of workers’ inquiry and workers’ self-inquiry. We would try to articulate this more clearly as we move on. Amidst the pandemic, towards the necessary solidarity for organizing in collective action…)
The shift to digital education has been so rapid that an understanding of how different aspects of life have been restructured by it is only now settling in. From the outset, it is clear that this is both a novel experience and yet it isn’t.
The idea of a digital classroom is of course not new. In the past decade, the process of learning had already shifted to the internet space, be it for gathering basic information, opinion consumption and construction, acquiring new skills through online courses and tutorials, or even serious academic research. Before attaining a job in a school, I had myself considered digital education as a possible space to earn money. However, even though I could imagine landing a few stints of paid work, the internet economy was not completely regularised and therefore, did not fit well with the aspirations of a regular income. In this sense, the recent shift to digital education is distinct from what had been happening earlier. The mass scale at which institutions have adopted online teaching as an approach to get around the shutdown of physical schools, has regularised digital education and “work from home”.
This shift seems to have heightened both the stress of and the relief from work. Like any other job, working from home has erased the distinctions between work time and non-work time (by work time I refer here to productive waged labour and non-work time as non-productive unwaged labour as seen within capitalist relations, however, the latter when seen as reproduction work within household, that of leisure and other allied activities, is also productive work). It is not as if that such distinctions existed in clear terms before this crisis. I remember, in the initial months of my job, I would regularly carry piles of notebooks/assignments/answer scripts home for correction. I had accepted this to be a compensation for my lack of efficiency in correction work (which composes most of my work as a teacher). Until one day, a colleague of mine advised me to stop this practice except on occasions of session-end where we were expected to prepare marksheets and reports. He explained that such a practice only encouraged the employers to pile more work on one’s shoulders. Even after that, it was a constant struggle to assert the existence of non-work/rest time in the face of deadlines, to myself and to my HOD.
Now that the space-time of the workplace and of home have been merged into one, it has become difficult to measure the quantity of work through the amount of time spent on it. For instance, at the workplace we used to get pre-packaged meals for breakfast and lunch.Our meals would get over in 15-20 minutes and any remaining time was either spent on socialising or else working. However, now, since I cook my own breakfast in between the class timings, it is difficult to ascertain whether I am still at the workplace or outside of it. Should I include the time I spend on cooking as my own time (because I enjoy cooking) or should I consider it as a part of work-time (since I am creating the conditions necessary for work)?
The day no longer starts at 6 AM, with the hurry of reaching the school on time. It starts much later but with the task of organizing domestic work in proper sync with the office work. Similarly, the day does not end at any prescribed time owing to the flexibility that working at one’s own place provides. The day is now structured with alternations between office work, domestic work, self-care work and breaks from all kinds of work. The most distinct experience is that social reproduction can no longer be separated from economic production. The array of activities which were carried out in the backstage of the Factory, now occupy a position on stage. In the absence of possibilities of outsourcing multiple kinds of labour, the actress finds herself in a position where she has to arrange for props, manage lights herself and here the teacher needs to mop the floor 15 minutes before the class begins.
For those workers, whose socio-economic location requires them to outsource domestic work outside the family, the situation is much graver. For instance, female teachers – who compose most of the workforce in our school – experience the crisis of managing the household and the job (housework and schoolwork) sharply. While male members of the family outsource domestic labour to the female members making them the de-facto managers of the household, the female members could earlier outsource it to a specialised workforce i.e. the maids and servants (In such households the labour of the family’s women was both unwaged and yet at the same time managerial in the sense that it consists of overseeing the extraction of value). In the absence of this specialised workforce, the managers of the household find themselves working not just in the Factory outside but also inside the house.
In the case of teachers who live alone in the city, the sudden increase in the time spent at home has produced other changes in the way time is experienced. The unorganised routine of “work from home” has of course, reduced their efficiency, but loneliness, lack of human interaction and anxiety have now become major concerns. The unending use of internet and technology for both work and recreation has created a strange sense of aversion from social media and other modes of digital entertainment. The increased screen-time to manage the task of teaching, regular meetings, and assignment correction has aggravated underlying health conditions. Across the staff, teachers complain of migraines, eye aches, headaches and spinal issues.
When the first news of the closure of schools got public, our school rushed to plan out the transition to the digital classroom. The very next day, all the teachers were called for a training in the basics of the online interface and understanding the functionality of the changed classroom space. The promptness of the school’s response made it clear that the school was considering this experiment for a long time now, given the regular closure of schools in Delhi , owing to regular environmental emergencies.
On the day of the training session, the school principal, while providing basic informal guidelines to the teachers, pointed out in a casual tone how teachers should be conscious of what the camera captured, how the teachers should be appropriately dressed, how they should check against showing any cleavage to the camera. Though, the comment was met with mild laughs, the fear of the online space persisted. While some teachers raised objections to sending video recordings of their lectures on students’ cell phones, others agreed that the possibility of them getting recorded by the students, combined with poor data security prevalent on online platforms, was a recipe for a scandal. And it took no time to witness such scandals. Within a month, the internet is full of videos where teachers face embarrassment at the hands of the students. In my own school, many classes have been intruded by people from outside, who then disrupted the classes with abuses, rape threats and pornographic clips.
The classroom space is no longer secured by security guards standing outside the school building. It needs to be guarded by the teacher herself through a mastery over the tools provided by the internet platforms. Such a security is at once both fragile and authoritarian. One slippage in keeping all the settings in check can lead to a breach, and since such a possibility keeps looming over the head throughout, the fear of a possible disruption leads to a stringent control over the classroom interaction, treating every student as a potential disruptor, and a constant display of authority.
What has been the impact of this shift on teaching itself? A teaching job in a school does not actually require a lot of teaching. From constantly rushing every lesson to finish the syllabus, to managing weekly competitions and events, the tasks that the school expects from a teacher is the efficient management of deadlines. Whatever teaching-learning takes place in such an environment is mostly despite the school and hardly ever because of the school.
In such a scenario, the digital classroom provides adequate opportunities for a teacher to avail the technological controls – such as muting all the students – to deliver an unhindered compact lecture and finish the syllabus. The teaching process has formally become more didactic than dialogic. Earlier, the disruptive nature (resulting from indiscipline) of the class was both an obstacle to the completion of syllabus but also provided a sufficient reason to not set strict goals for each and every lesson. There were even lessons where I would not have much to offer to the students and in such situations looked forward to possible disruptions which could push the whole lesson in a different direction, or pose a challenge for me to find different ways of engaging with the students. This challenge contained the potential of allowing me to improvise on the content of the lesson based on the responses of the students.
The more goal-oriented the classes were (especially with the practice of making detailed lesson-plans), more often arose situations where pre-decided content had to be imposed through the use of authority. Even then, the students’ rejection and refusal to learn was physically present in the space of the classroom. With the mediation of education via the internet, the teacher no longer needs to perform the dirty task of scolding disruptive students or making them stand outside the class. No longer do I need to expend my energy on keeping the class quiet. I can simply mute them all and continue with the lesson. In a way, technology has provided a sense of impersonality when implementing disciplinary mechanisms. The disturbing experiences of a classroom space have now been muted along with the students and consequently, the pace of covering the syllabus has substantially increased.
The experience of teaching is also shaped by the absence of those students who do not have proper access to the technological resources such as well-functioning devices or a high-speed internet. For many teachers, the unequal access to digital resources is formidable concern since it will lead to a widening of the “knowledge gap” that already existed between the students of different economic backgrounds. While the school had taken note of this concern, the responsibility of bridging the gap has been left to individual teachers. We are expected to now keep a record of the attendance and individually reach out to the kids who are irregular or face connectivity issues. By turning such a structural issue into the moral responsibility of individual teachers, the school has exposed the realities of ‘inclusive education’. The school curriculum is framed around the students who have ample resources at their disposal, who have substantial exposure to language, cultural capital and most importantly the time to dedicate maximum hours of the day towards school education. The inclusion of other students into this curriculum is mostly an after-thought. Thrice in the past six months, my HOD has remarked “70% of our students plan to go abroad for further studies, we should cater to that when we design our syllabus”. Thereafter begins the attempts to somehow teach the same curriculum to students who cannot afford to see such high-brow dreams, via the array of “remedial” classes.
However, it is not always that a student misses the lessons because of issues of inaccessibility. It is quite evident that many students have their own responses to the shift to online classes. They see it as providing them newer ways of evading from the school altogether. I remember that as a kid, the fact that the school was away from home provided the perfect opportunity to bunk the school and utilise the public space as the space of anonymity. For today’s students, such a space had already been taken away by strict security measures taken by the parents and the school, such that students could only get out at the end of the school day with an accompanying guardian. With the merging of school and home now, though non-surveyed spaces have shrunk even further, many students are finding subtle ways of evading from the classes such as switching off their cameras, leaving the classes early, etc. On other occasions, their everyday acts of mild disruption are taking form of much more serious breaches into not just the decorum of the class but also into the privacy of the teacher or other students.
Currently, these issues do not hold priority for the school. The school is for now content with the appreciation it is getting from the parents. At more than one occasion, the parents have collectively commended the school’s efforts for the fast transition to the online medium. Soon after the shut-down of the schools, it became clear that the shut-down created a severe crisis in the life of the parents who had no clue of managing the absence of a well-designed schedule to keep the children in order. They became desperate to keep their children occupied in school education.
Since, many of the students’ mothers hold jobs, their own daily routines were structured around the outsourcing of child-care and discipline work to external institutions such as the school. The rest of the time in a child’s life is spent at hobby clubs and coaching centres. If all such spaces are shut down, a child can seriously destabilize the working conditions for a parent. Therefore, when as a collective gesture, many mothers appreciated the efforts made by the school to maintain the sense of “normality” for children, I wondered what far-reaching consequences the disruption of normality would have had. That we do not teach adolescents and young adults that ‘normality’ is what got us into this situation is one thing, how a disruption in a child’s sense of ‘normality’ (being constantly occupied in a routine) can put into crisis the whole chain of work relations is perhaps even more fascinating. The employers want the employees to continue to work, the parents need their children occupied with continual work, the school fulfils this with its never-ending array of assignments, tests, and competitions. Is the need to preserve the semblance of ‘normality’ for children really the attempt to preserve the chain of work relations?
If after all that has happened in the past month, I were to be asked whether I would want to return to how things were: a 7AM-3PM job, separation of work and home, physical classes, my answer (from my own subject location of being a male worker living with a family) would be a firm “no”. It is true that the collapse/merger of the space of work and home into one another has erased the distinctions of work time and non-work time, but it has also made visible the relations between the two: work and home, work time and non-work time. The nexus between the Family and the Factory as it exists to preserve critical work relations is also becoming clear.
Besides this, there is also an absence of proper mechanisms of keeping the employee’s time accountable. In previous employee-feedback meeting, my HOD had remarked that I wasted considerable amount of my time in school socialising with my colleagues. No longer can she keep a tab of how many conversations I have throughout the day or how much time I spend eating my meals. The superiors can currently not even keep a proper track of whether I send the assignment feedbacks on time. It is only for this reason, that I am writing this report when I have piles and piles of homework assignments to be corrected. The employers are aware of the lack of such mechanisms and without a doubt they are currently working on developing them, such that ‘normality’ can be restored.