By Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities
In the past two weeks we’ve seen the extremes of human nature. On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard about ugly expressions of racism, witnessed hoarders stockpiling toilet paper, and watched pandemic deniers put whole populations at risk; and on the other end we’ve read about selfless acts of kindness, listened to Italian neighbourhoods collectively singing from their balconies, and seen heroic health care workers continually put themselves at risk to save others.
We’ve had a front row seat as “this wide and universal theatre” plays out on all our social media channels (As You Like It, 2.1.). We are left wondering how – in the words of Shakespeare – we are supposed to “moralize this spectacle?” (2.7.) In other words, how are we to make sense of this topsy-turvey world with its breakneck news cycle and seemingly endless new information to process?
As educators and educational leaders, we not only have to feel our way through this uncertain new reality ourselves, but we also have to guide students, collaborators, and our communities through uncharted territory.
What is an appropriate response?
My initial response to any disorder is 1. Quote Shakespeare (see above) and 2. Create Structure. When the news first broke, my initial reaction was damage control. Faced with the prospect of working full time from home with a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old, I colour-coded home schooling charts, stockpiled art supplies, and collected links for online concerts, virtual museum tours, and live story-telling events. Concomitantly I rallied the Maple League Student Fellows, connected with committees and collaborators, and ordered a series of BlueJeans links from our (eternally patient) ITS team for the flurry of meetings that would inevitably follow.
Then I saw a tweet from a Professor of Education (UConn) that put things in perspective in both the personal and professional realms. She said: “I’m just going to say this and judge me all you want. We are not planning anything educational for our kids. Homeschool will not happen. We will survive and watch too much TV. We will eat cookies and carbs and hope for the best. We will love and try not to go insane.”
Her non-judgmental, down-to-earth approach was the perfect antidote to my knee-jerk “let’s fix this” response. To be fair, we are witnessing extremes every day so it is perfectly normal that our initial responses might also be intense. But as the shock wore off it dawned on me that managing expectations is a form of self-care – at home and at work. In other words, acknowledging that this situation is not perfect (and more than a little scary) means that we can all give ourselves a break and aim for kindness while making space for imperfection.
As I looked for guidance in the time of a global pandemic I re-discovered Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address (March 4, 1861). America was teetering on the brink of war when Lincoln delivered a speech that resonates today:
“We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Lincoln didn’t invoke the “best angels” of our nature. He merely asks us to be better than we are right now. In this spirit, I have endeavoured to be gentle on myself and others, find ways to build “bonds of affection,” and lean into the messiness. We’ve tried to ensure that Maple League response to the COVID-19 crisis values of generosity, kindness, and empathy and in the coming months we will endeavor to find the opportunities embedded in the challenges and harness our entrepreneurial spirits to imagine new ways forward.
A key tenet in the Maple League strategic vision is: “We value a holistic approach to learning within the classroom and beyond ― with an understanding that mental, physical, social, and intellectual health are inextricably intertwined.”
Just as learning is not a solitary act, hope is also cultivated in communion with others. In my conversations with Maple League partners, our collective response to the global pandemic answers the guiding question that animates this consortium, which is “what can we do together that we cannot do on our own?” A number of colleagues have connected over the past two weeks to trouble shoot, share strategies, and just check in with one another. The Maple League TLC developed exceptional programming in the early days of the shutdown, the VP Academics have had a number of emails exchanges, the Maple League Research committee met to explore protocols, and the Presidents’ Council, IT teams, Athletic Directors, and others are meeting to discuss how we might move forward together in these uncertain times.
In the coming months we will be called upon to balance delivering high quality online learning while making an argument for the deep and enduring value of face-to-face learning. One of the core strengths of our institutions are the many opportunities for in-person engagement with extraordinary faculty and staff. As cohorts of students are currently transitioning, in so many ways, to virtual environments, we must make the case for our institutions as intimate communities of learning. At the heart of this consortium is a willingness to think differently to deliver a 21st century liberal education. The Maple League is a daring experiment in collaboration and can act as a beacon as we navigate uncharted territories.
Ça va bien aller. We will be okay.
Dr. Jessica Riddell
Executive Director, Maple League of Universities
Dr. Jessica Riddell is Full Professor in the Department of English at Bishop’s University, the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, and a 3M National Teaching Fellow (2015). She is a mother of two.