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Two Years In; or, The Long Covid of Our Discontent

The P3 Collaboratory is pleased to continue “Teaching Tuesdays,” our ongoing series on pedagogy in higher ed and on the RU-N campus. This week's entry was written by Dr. Catherine Clepper.

All month (like every month), I’ve been getting pop-up “memories” from my various social media accounts, little flashbacks to old photos and posts meant to prompt reflection and, usually, a smile. But the March 2020 memories that populate my feed are different than the usual digital debris. Those last photos of maskless indoor playdates, large family gatherings, in-person conferences, and perhaps, Spring Break travel starkly stand-in for the final days of the “old normal” - that is, a pre-Covid19 world unmarked by the changes that would swifty come to characterize our pandemic-stricken present. On a personal level, these memories are bittersweet. They evoke melancholy over what’s been lost and a fragile hope that one day we will again be able to gather together without fear or extreme precaution. On a professional level, those memories signal rhythms of work that have since been upended and provoke a nostalgia for a kind of functional simplicity that has proved elusive in the years since.

For those of us who teach in higher ed, the past two years have brought with them unprecedented changes in the ways that we deliver disciplinary content, interact with our students, structure our classroom norms, and work with educational technology. New learning challenges emerged as we watched our students struggle to focus on coursework when family members fell ill, jobs were lost, or when the childcare infrastructures repeatedly evaporated. Additionally, new teaching challenges arose that we are still grappling with: how to best connect and engage with students online, how to respect student privacy in a remote/domestic environment, how to adopt trauma-informed approaches to pedagogy, and how to give students more flexibility within the boundaries of our learning objectives. As March 2020 begat March 2021 and now, March 2022, the short-term optimism that characterized the first weeks of the Covid19 pandemic in the US quietly faded away, along with our individual and collective reserves of surge capacity to manage it all.

So, where are we now? The Chronicle of Higher Ed and many other higher ed facing journals have been reporting on the “Great Faculty Disengagement” for several months. A January 2022 round up of quotes from university faculty nation-wide contained the following observation:

“Everything requires more effort now, and after two years of the pandemic, I have less effort to give. I need to be more choosy with my time and priorities, professionally and personally. It’s like I’ve been slowly peeling an onion since March 2020, getting to the essence of what must be done and what I truly want to get done.”

In other sorts of higher ed conversations, tone and topic have shifted dramatically from best practices around what to wear on a campus interview or how to create effective academic videos to questions around sustainable workloads, whether or not to the leave the academy, or how best to apply a mutual aid approach to higher ed. Case in point: this 1990 article on mutualism in teaching science tracked more reads in 2021 than it did upon its initial publication.

One of the most palpable effects of the pandemic on how we conceptualize teaching and engaging with our students has been a renewed interest in mental health and wellness as an explicit part of classroom practices and policies. Not only have campus resources around mental health and well-being expanded and evolved during this time, responding to alarming trends in students anxiety and depression, instructors have also begun to increase awareness around these supports in a variety of ways. Some faculty report including new policies re: mental health crises in their syllabi. Others have described an increasing number of referrals to the counseling center and/or additional time spent candidly mentoring students about prioritizing well-being in the face of prolonged trauma. Still others have implemented new group projects or peer-to-peer educational opportunities to strengthen social bonds and shore up students’ sense of connection in isolation.

Above: A recent ad council campaign encourages young adults to reach out to their peers who may be hurting. Encouraging or facilitating peer-to-peer interactions via group projects and peer learning exercises has gained momentum since 2020 due to the psychological benefits it offers students.

With a few sunny days under our belts, declining caseloads in Essex county, and crocuses beginning to push out of the ground, the darkest days of 2022 may well seem past us. By all means, let’s embrace the return of warmer weather and outdoor social gathering with a sense of joy. But let’s also take some time to consider all we’ve experienced, lost, and learned since March 2020. If the past two years have taught us anything, it’s the importance of compassion for ourselves and others. And given how formidable a foe Covid19 has proven thus far, we should all fill our buckets to the brim while we can, so we can continue to stave off the effects of “long Covid” on our and our students’ lives.

Related Campus Resources:

RU-N Crisis Resources (Live Links)
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