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Photo by Efe Kurnaz on Unsplash

Passing the one-year mark in this global pandemic has got me taking stock and thinking about what it means to be living (and having lived) through a strange and historic time. We’re still very much in the midst of things, and the years to come will unpack, analyze, process, and document what feels like a “time out of time”. It is a remarkable milestone delineating the “beforetime” from the post-pandemic, while right now we continue to occupy a strange and liminal space in between.

In our ‘virtual reality’ we’ve co-created a new normal in which we’ve invented and adapted norms and conventions, shared experience, routines and rituals. Take Zoom for example – much has been written about Zoom fatigue, and “metastasizing meetings”: i.e. “We can book back-to-back-to-back Zoom meetings or accept meeting invitations because we are not physically trying to get someplace else. Every meeting occurs where we already are, in front of our laptop.” Being tied to a small box among a sea of boxes on a screen, day after day, hour after hour…self care and wellness aren’t a luxury, they are a necessity. Many of us have discovered (or rediscovered) hobbies and interests: home improvement; cooking and baking (especially sourdough!); sewing and crafts; writing, music-making, photography and painting; 1000 piece puzzles; gardening and growing;  tinkering in the garage; video gaming; long drives; and more.

And speaking of Zoom…so many questions! Are Zoom backgrounds the proxy for how we normally express ourselves at work through body language and office attire? What proportion of your wardrobe has become utterly redundant? Why is it so natural to eat lunch in a classroom or meeting room, and so deeply discomfiting online? (And is that why we almost never see actors actually eat on-camera?). Also lighting – I didn’t even know what a ‘ring light’ was until my 23 year old got me one as a gift. And the etiquette surrounding when to mute or unmute our cameras and/or audio, the criticality (and precarity) of WiFi bandwidth, the cognitive and dexterity challenges in toggling between multiple screens and sharing screen, those Zoom emojis, sidebar chat conversations … the list is long. Phrase of the year: “You’re on mute”. And in those Zoom meetings we’ve gotten to know each other in new and even deeper ways – we’ve met/seen pets, children, partners, kitchens – so many parts of ourselves and our lives that were never so real and present in our former reality.

The ‘real world’ is just as strange in relation to the beforetime. Masks can be a challenge, including for those of us who wear glasses (unless the fit around the nose is almost perfect i.e. never). And shopping: I don’t ever remember lining up for any store other than on Boxing Day or a sample sale. Shopping is far from relaxing that’s for sure. Browsing in stores is a thing of the past – get in, get out – replaced by online browsing?  Physical distance, even outside, and taking a walk in the city is kind of like a live video game of switching from road to sidewalk to the opposite side of the street as we encounter others in the opposite direction.

A few months ago on one of my neighborhood walks, l came across a small patch of grass with a stone bench, tucked off to the side near a place of worship close to my house. I’ve lived in the same place for over 20 years and had never noticed that peaceful, lonely little spot. I often see someone sitting on the bench – just sitting. It’s always someone different, sometimes a couple, an older or a younger person, sometimes it’s me. I guess we’re all trying to make sense of something so big, so impossible to fully grasp.

As the vaccine roll-out in Ontario and elsewhere finds its way into eager, grateful arms, I’m resolved to fully inhabit and be present in this liminal space, this in-between time. It won’t last forever, we’ll all be glad to get to the other side, but we’ll have lived through something extraordinary and beyond imagining.

We are all students, and we are all teachers

This past week I did a session for Northern College at their Faculty Development Conference reflecting on some of the key themes and opportunities for higher education, as we collectively navigate through this “Year of the Pandemic”.

There were faculty and staff joining from across northern Ontario, and a lively discussion following my talk. One thing that stood out for me was how, regardless of how large or small, rural or urban, our institutions – all of us in higher education are grappling with the same big questions, big issues, big challenges, and big opportunities for transformation, redress, growth and change.

Here are the “Top 10” standout themes from Wednesday’s conversation:

  1. Leading inclusion and action through “two pandemics”: COVID-19, as well as the more destructive, corrosive and longstanding pandemic of racism, particularly Anti-Indigenous and Anti-Black Racism, and other forms of violence and exclusion
  2. Navigating institutional sustainability in the face of enrolment challenges
  3. Mastering online and digital technology tools and applications to support online teaching, and preparing students for meaningful engagement in online learning
  4. Digital inclusion and student access to technology and WiFi/bandwidth
  5. Fostering connectedness and community in this time of physical distancing and remote working and teaching
  6. Assuring student and employee health and safety, especially those who are engaging in face-to-face, lab-based learning on our campuses
  7. Supporting student (and employee) mental health and wellness
  8. Fostering closer connections with industry and employers to enrich opportunities for Work-Integrated Learning and graduate employment
  9. Balancing work with child care, elder care, and other competing priorities and responsibilities
  10. Finding our way into a new reality for PSE, one which can offer students choice and “hyflex” learning opportunities across a range of face-to-face, online, and hybrid credentials and micro-credentials…all pretty unimaginable just six months ago!

As we prepare for a fall semester in which so much is uncertain, and in which our students are placing so much hope and trust in us, the axiom that “we are all students, and we are all teachers” has never been more real. We are on an extraordinary learning journey together. It’s not going to perfect, it will certainly be messy at times, and the occasions when we get things absolutely right will be worth celebrating.

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