A Semester of Contradictions
We all know where we were when the pandemic was declared, but where were you when you first heard the term pivot?
Almost immediately after the pandemic began, pivot became the euphemism of choice for the abandonment of one thing and the quick adoption of another. Educators and academic administrators in particular seemed to seize this tag as our own. We began to speak of this new phenomenon as a process of endless, seamless shifting. But members of the academy abruptly plucked from the comfortable confines of their physical classrooms and office spaces and directed to pivot to online instruction or online service did not do so seamlessly.
For many, transitioning to online instruction was a mess. Conversations with my own faculty revealed that although faculty knew what they were supposed to do, they did not always know how to do it in a virtual learning environment. Shifting from the sage on the stage in a lecture hall to virtual guide on the side was not an easy task! Similarly, some administrators knew what they wanted (actively engaged online classes, technologically savvy instructors, etc.) but did not have a clue what it was supposed look like in a virtual space. Meanwhile, students were in a league all by themselves. They were virtually present yet emotionally distracted. No matter how detailed their teachers’ instructions, many of them simply did not know how to complete assignments in their newly adopted virtual space.
If we are capable of honest discourse, can we admit that we absolutely loathed much about these previous two and a half semesters? Change came as us faster than Helio Castroneves at the Indy 500. We can also admit that we did not particularly like these changes, but who likes change anyway? While we might not like swift change, as educators and administrators, we are courageous in our efforts to improve who we are and what we do in this educational enterprise. Once the dust began to settle and we began to take ownership of our virtual spaces, and we realized great administration and good ole fashion teaching satisfyingly remained the same.
This brings us to our current semester. A semester of contradictions—deep, unpleasant ones that affect everything we do in higher ed. This is the very first time many of us were back in our buildings, offices, and physical classrooms. As campuses braced themselves for a new semester, the front-line administrators welcomed faculty, staff, and students back with bated breath. We welcomed them back to spaces that seemed at once familiar and strange. Spaces that provided a sense of comfort and induced anxiety. These spaces appeared normal even though a “new normal” had emerged. Spaces where each of us desires to distance socially without disconnecting.
We have returned to our campuses with PPE in hand, yet we are afraid. We all crave a sense of normalcy but we are counting the costs. We are hopeful that we will be able to get through a semester of face-to-face instruction even as the Delta variant of the coronavirus rears its spiky head. We want the virus to go away, yet we are aware that it may not. We want active engagement among students in the customary social structure of campus life, yet attaining it could mean death. This is a semester of contradictions.
Some campuses are prepared to use the spaces given throughout buildings to adhere to the three-to-six feet social distancing guidelines set forth by the CDC, yet some are not. Some colleges and universities mandate vaccines for faculty, staff and students, yet some do not. At present, higher ed has become a tale of two cities as some intuitions earnestly prepare to take necessary precautions to ensure the health and safety of their campuses, while others are rushing headlong into the inferno. Administrators, faculty, and staff have shown up to their respective campuses this semester committed to providing students with an excellent face-to-face educational experience. In doing so, they may end up disconnected from family members and friends due in part to established quarantine protocols. Being present for students could lead to their absence from others. This is a semester of contradictions.
Campus administrators are prepared to assist faculty and staff with integrated self-directed teaching and guided learning with a combination of technological applications. They have equipped faculty and support staff to instruct in modalities with blurred lines, but how do they truly determine where one (face-to-face) begins and another one (online) ends? As a dean, I am aware of the many conflicting duties, roles, and responsibilities of faculty. The pandemic has exacerbated many of these tasks, but upon my latest assessment, I am sure contradictory character traits do not appear on the list. But this is a semester of contradictions.
The semester is well underway, and as we become more aware of what we might face mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally I want to encourage you. You will not be able to control everything. Therefore, simply control what you can. Regardless of what the semester brings, I want you to make the most of this abnormal academic year and participate in what is sure to be a level of organized chaos the likes of which we have not seen. Let us attempt to navigate our way through this semester of contradictions by formulating a plan to set sail for a journey unknown. I bid each of you smooth sailing, speed, and good luck.
Tywana Chenault Hemby, PhD, is the dean of the School of Humanities, Education, and Social Sciences at Voorhees College.