Dr. Eleftheria Ioannidou currently works at the Department of Arts, Culture and Media, University of Groningen.
Interview conducted by Nenritji Esther Suwa on 23rd April 2021
Interviewer: Would you like to introduce yourself?
Dr. E. Ioannidou: I’m Eleftheria Ioannidou, I’m a theater scholar and Assistant Professor in Theatre/Performance in Arts, Culture, and Media at the University of Groningen. My specialism is the performance reception and adaptation of Greek tragedy in the modern era and the political and ideological uses of the classical canon. The relationship between theatre and politics underpins my research and teaching in different areas, from the radical traditions of the avant-garde, to contemporary forms of performative artivism, and the role of myths in shaping collective action.
Interviewer: OK, very interesting. With you teaching and being a part of many things at the University of Groningen, do you find it hard for you to stay motivated during the pandemic?
Dr. E. Ioannidou: That’s a good question. The main challenge for me is that we remain motivated in our home isolation studying a form of art that is meant to happen in the public space and is grounded in the shared experience of an audience. Oftentimes, I felt the need to adjust the topics I teach to address this unprecedented situation – a proliferation of digital performances on the one hand and the closed theatre venues and ever-more precarious art workers, on the other.
But the pandemic has stimulated us to consider the limits of theatre and to explore alternate forms of performance. Can a digital performance be categorized as theatre? There has been a lot of creativity on the part of theatre workers in finding ways to communicate with audiences, and it is our task to develop analytical tools that enable us to reflect on this creativity. It’s been a time of challenging our preconceptions but after all this is what Higher Education is about.
Interviewer: So would you say that there definitely are positive aspects to virtual education?
Dr. E. Ioannidou: There are positive aspects, no doubt. For example, the opportunity to invite to a session a scholar based in a different country is one of the benefits of online teaching that immediately springs to the mind.
There are further positive aspects for those of us interested in the arts and media. The condition of virtual education lends itself to thought-provoking discussions on liveness and mediatization, topics which provide our bread and butter, so to speak. Virtual education is almost like a laboratory within which we can study the developments in theatre during the pandemic. The format of an online lecture is no different to that of a digital performance. In both cases, events we were used to experiencing live had to be done remotely. Their liveness no longer relies on physical presence but on real-time interaction. I would take this whole pandemic year as an exciting experiment on what constitutes a performance. Now, whether I’d like to see this experiment turned into the new norm, that’s a more complex question. I guess that like with many experiments, there are risks and shortcomings we should never lose sight of.
Interviewer: OK, so do you feel like you’re more comfortable with the whole virtual dynamic now than when it first started? Because I assume that it must have been a difficult switch for the teachers as much as the students.
Dr. E. Ioannidou: At the beginning, we were taken by surprise. Probably we shouldn’t have been, and that speaks to how oblivious European countries have been to a health crisis that was underway, ironically within a globally networked culture. But when the pandemic reached us last year, my primary concern was how I could remain meaningfully connected to my students, to understand their learning needs and their emotional strains. At the same time, I tried to familiarize myself with environments we were not “programmed” to use for education. The content of my courses had to be tried out in the new environments. The more critical questions about the possibilities and the limitations of virtual education emerged at a later stage, once I was more comfortable with VL.
Interviewer: So, do you think your schedule is busier through virtual classes than pre-pandemic times?
Dr. E. Ioannidou: For sure. Of course, significant time and effort had to be put into redesigning courses for online delivery and finding solutions to problems of all sorts. But apart from the longer hours, the boundaries between life and work have blurred to the point it’s easy to forget there are any. And this is caused by the fact that during lockdown and home isolation, our entire life is organized around a computer screen – same environment, same devices, same sensory stimuli. I noticed that more and more there was no clear endpoint to my day. Whilst that’s not unknown to most academics, the pandemic has exacerbated it. Looking at the broader picture, I am concerned that the pandemic reinforces modes of working that will have an adverse effect on the work-life balance, the well-being, and the rights of workers in the long run.
Interviewer: Students, not just in our university but worldwide, are complaining about this online situation. A lot of people feel like it’s very taxing; it’s mentally draining. Do you think that teachers are overlooked when it comes to the conversation about the issues with online universities or the problems with online education?
Dr. E. Ioannidou: What I have found, at least in my own students, it’s a spirit of solidarity, support, and mutual understanding regarding the difficulties of online teaching. A reassuring feeling that we will figure it out and help each other. If anything, I’d say the pandemic created more common ground between teachers and students. Beyond that, I think we are just starting to fathom the physical, psychological, and mental implications of online teaching for both the learners and the teachers. It’d be important that these discussions do not happen separately, and that students do not equate teachers with institutional policies they may disagree with. To voice our concerns about online education effectively and to ensure our voices are heard, we need to create shared platforms and to enable more dialogue between students and teachers.
Interviewer: You mentioned earlier that you’ve obviously found some positives due to online education. But there are also negatives as not being able to experience theater or teach theater the way you would have in the past. Do you prefer virtual education to do in-person classes or the other way around?
Dr. E. Ioannidou: Whilst I embrace the opportunities that VL provides in terms of flexibility and access to expertise, I cannot see myself fully switching to online teaching. What I find emotionally and mentally draining in an online environment is the inability to assess the dynamic of the group. You can’t read the room. When I lecture onsite, I know whether something I’m saying generates a vibe in the auditorium, whether it raises a few smirks or causes an eyebrow to rise. Small reactions but not insignificant in communication. Based on these, I can adjust my performance or even slightly change the focus of a lecture. There is a feedback loop that is perceptible and, at least to some extent, shared. During an online lecture, the feedback loop is much harder to decipher. How do I interpret the silence at the other end? It can be attentiveness, but it can also be that someone has moved away from their screen. Last year, two of my students who happened to be roommates and were attending sessions from the same screen. That already made a difference to me. It felt more like teaching a group.
Online seminars pose further challenges. I think the online environment disadvantages students who lack confidence or struggle with public speaking. You can still have exciting conversations with the more motivated students online, but I am also very mindful of the various reasons that prevent students from actively participating. For example, people from certain ethnic or social backgrounds may find it harder to speak publicly; gender dynamics can make students reluctant to participate. In the physical space, there is more I can do to remedy all that and create an inclusive environment.
Interviewer: Our university says that it would be nice for you to turn your camera on and try to engage. Do you feel that it’s counterproductive when students either have their screen off or fail to engage, and you don’t hear their voices? Do you feel like that is not helping to make the situation better?
Dr. E. Ioannidou: Personally, I find it awkward to ask students to switch on their cameras – it feels almost like intruding someone’s private space. Having said that, I do think that sealing off behind a screen is counterproductive. A digital class can work just as well as an onsite one as long as students are willing to approximate the conditions of a face-to-face session. To use a medical metaphor, the lack of shared space shouldn’t prevent us from opening up to the “contagious” effects of other people’s reactions and letting ourselves be affected by their interest, excitement, bafflement, even boredom. But it is a matter of personal responsibility, it cannot be forced. Learning requires breaking out of our comfort zones and taking risks.
When a student is not proactive in a VLE, I cannot be sure whether they are having difficulty understanding the material or if they have consciously chosen to be a quiet learner, something that’s totally understandable to me. Certain people prefer to absorb and processes critically before they form an opinion they’d like to share. How do you know if this is the case? How do you know if somebody isn’t motivated because they are not interested in the topic?
Interviewer: Earlier, you mentioned that you had to change the way you teach, and you had to approach teaching differently because of the current pandemic. Do you want to elaborate on how exactly you were able to change your methods?
Dr. E. Ioannidou: Online platforms are less conducive to open seminar discussion, which I still consider as fundamental to the study of the arts and humanities. So, I designed more learning activities and hands-on tasks that allow students to apply the knowledge of the material. I believe that this is something I will keep when we go back to onsite teaching because I have found it to be an effective way of mobilizing the students’ learning faculties. In addition to that, I had to be strategic in terms of maintaining the students’ attention span during lectures. To this end, I adjusted the length and the content and made sure to alternate between theoretical/historical parts and more concrete examples. These are good practices which have now become more necessary than ever.
Interviewer: Do you think that students generally are learning better this way?
Dr. E. Ioannidou: Hopefully, that’d work for most students, but I am still gathering feedback and assessing these methods. My guess is that the new strategies we have developed to maintain students’ engagement during this period will affect the way we deliver teaching in the future. The use of technology is the obvious one, but I am more interested in the new modes of interaction we have developed and how they will pan out in onsite education.
Interviewer: Do you feel that you have all the tools for a successful learning experience as a professor who is teaching multiple students. Do you feel like you have all the tools/ materials to conduct a successful learning experience in these times?
Dr. E. Ioannidou: I think that the platforms used at RUG were pretty reliable. I find Blackboard Collaborate a stable and effective VLE with functions that serve a range of learning goals. I would have welcomed a platform who would allow me to virtualize an auditorium or seminar room and ask learners to interact in space, walking in and out of small groups. I’d be tempted to create a digital performance piece with my students.
Interviewer: You feel like earlier you mentioned that sometimes students equate teachers with the institution of forgetting that teachers have their own struggles with this new virtual landscape. Do you think that there is a misconception that students believe about teachers in these times that is incorrect?
Dr. E. Ioannidou: I am not sure I can speak of the students’ perception as one thing, let alone dismissing their views as misconceptions. It requires effort both sides to reach a mutual understanding, and it important that we understand that there is more than one side to every story.
Interviewer: That’s one of the reasons the publishing committee created the pandemic diaries for our audience to understand that there are two sides to every story. And we’re delighted to have you be interested in this project.
Dr. E. Ioannidou: This project responds to a need that was felt in the academic community. The physical distancing imposes severe restrictions as to how, and to what extent, we can communicate our experiences and engage with each other’s perspective, so we have to devise ways that enable this communication. I commend you on this relevant and timely undertaking.
Interviewer: Thank you very much. Earlier, you mentioned that sometimes students get unmotivated in their education to try to make the courses you teach more practical to keep the students more engaged. But do you feel that the students are not putting as much effort as you would like to? How do you try to make the students think that they can be open to you about their own struggles or about their own difficulties?
Dr. E. Ioannidou: This is easier when a student reaches out to me and brings to my attention any issues that affect their performance and motivation. By contrast, when someone does not contribute to class discussion or refuses to activate their camera without further explanation, I am somewhat limited in what I can do to motivate them. I encourage students to communicate their difficulties and implement an empathetic approach in my teaching praxis. The work I do as a lecturer-tutor of first-year students has helped me develop these skills.
Interviewer: Do you foresee in-person classes any time soon? And how do you suggest that would work out, and how do you see that going forward?
Dr. E. Ioannidou: Despite my intrinsic tendency to see the glass half full, I do foresee returning to face-to-face education in the next academic year. So far, the university has been working along with the national and local authorities to ensure the safety of students and staff. We are ready to return to once the rules allow. But I am expecting a gradual return to onsite teaching with blended teaching staying around for the most part of the academic year.
Interviewer: So how you suggest that we go forward with that? Like, do you think maybe of onsite covid tests? Or how should we gradually bring normalcy back?
Dr. E. Ioannidou: Well, I suppose that the vaccination and the immunity of the population is key here. Before that, ramping up self-testing will enable us to work in physical spaces again. I am not sure though that a return to some form of normalcy is what I’d hope for. The pandemic has questioned our ways of life and social organization on a fundamental level; it has revealed our vulnerability and interconnectedness and brought to the fore environmental considerations. It’d be a shame to lose the immense potential that these hold for redefining our lifestyles and social relations in the pursuit of normalcy.
Interviewer: That’s the end of our interview. Thank you so much for participating. I think I speak on behalf of the publishing committee when I say that it is a pleasure to have you collaborate with us on the special project.
Dr. E. Ioannidou: The pleasure was mine.