In preparation for teaching online during the 2021 summer semester, I have been thinking about how much group discussions are transformed by digital platforms. In reflecting on the vulnerabilities that are required for students to discuss challenging topics (particularly feminist activist work) I was wondering how students will respond when they find themselves isolated in different physical spaces, but working together to create a community online. I often discuss these questions with my fellow teachers, and I received a recommendation to watch a short web-series titled GROUP.

GROUP is a fictionalized portrayal of a group therapy session, in which the audience gets to witness how communication and relationships develop between the different group members. The show’s dialog is largely improvised and its premise is based on an adaptation of The Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin D. Yalom. The topics of discussion between the group members vary, but many sessions circle back to larger questions about the human condition and the value of free expression of emotion that “can’t be expressed in polite company.” What does it take to really communicate about and self-monitor emotions rather than speaking in terms of assessment or observation to one’s own reactions (meaning, already moving on to the next step of analysis)?

Despite the show’s therapy setting, it sparked my thinking about the level of intimacy involved in all small group discussion. I connected the moments of hesitancies that many of the show’s characters experienced to what I have witnessed students reveal in individual self-reflections regarding their classroom discussion experiences. I also wondered about how different emotions drive student responses to the topics that they are learning about, and how students can better respond to intellectual challenges (both from the classroom materials and from their fellow classmates).

This reflection is guided by the following core question: what is the potential for students’ opening of their minds to theory, to alternate forms of knowledge about how the world world, if they are able to first process their own emotional responses? The web series tackles both in-person and Zoom therapy settings, and it really helps to drive home the vulnerabilities of communicating in a shared physical space. Furthermore it elucidates how connections are built based on physical presence. On further reflection about the evocative nature of GROUP, it seems to me that developing a culture of trust and vulnerability in the classroom is dependent also on de-centering the authority of the teacher and understanding how the exploratory potential of learning is built on the foundation of community relationships.

I think this Humanities Moment relates back to my own experiences as facilitator of learning in the classroom, in that I think folks experience the most meaningful forms of learning or self-exploration when there is enough space to balance self-expression with group accountability.

– Joanna (Ph.D. Candidate)