On Thursday, March 12, 2020, during an information session to prospective students, the Translation Studies director popped in and announced it was time to wrap things up. Confused, the presenters finished their talks, chatted (in person!) with attendees and answered their questions. Once everyone had left, the director updated the teachers on the COVID-19 situation, which was evolving so rapidly that a mere hour in a classroom had left them out of the loop. In sum, schools and daycares would close for at least two weeks, and everyone needed to vacate the premises immediately.
There was a flurry of questions. Was the semester going to be extended into summer, shortened, or outright cancelled? Should students continue working on their assignments during lockdown? What to do if lecturers, or their students, had young children at home, got sick or had to assume a caretaking role? How does one even teach online? Could students be required to turn their cameras on, or would lecturers have to stare into a black abyss for hours on end?
While answers trickled in, two guiding principles seemed to emerge. The first was quite simple: empathy. Students needed space to cope with the situation and to reorganize their lives, and the university had to accommodate them. The second was a call to arms: As we headed into unchartered terrain and migrated online, we would need a healthy dose of trial and error.
How did this unfold on the ‘virtual’ ground? In one classroom, a new lecturer had been working with students to develop a plain-language pamphlet for at-risk youths facing arrest and language barriers. When everything went into lockdown, in addition to the ‘regular’ concerns, there were worries about the outcome of this project. However, when classes reconvened remotely, the students all seemed infused with a new sense of purpose. Despite the additional challenges, they were clearly invested in the project and ready to roll up their sleeves. The final pamphlet was spectacular not only in terms of quality, but also as a testament to team effort. Beyond being a “sum of many parts,” it reflected this particular synergy cultivated through a greater appreciation and willingness to work with what people could bring to the table, in spite of the strangeness of the situation and the need to find workarounds. Everyone took it for granted that their peers were doing the best they could in this situation, and as a result of this infusion of good faith, everyone did give their best. It was a bright spot in a very dark spring.
By summer 2020, teachers were already looking to try new things to overcome the coldness and monotony of online presentations. Bolstered by a new arsenal of tools for synchronous and asynchronous instruction, the Anticipating and Managing Disruption in the Language Industry class was designed to be highly interactive and hands-on. Framed as “learning as a social adventure,”1 it sought to create a sense of purpose for students. Specifically, the teacher wrote a case study in collaboration with a provincial trade association in the language industry, and students were tasked, in teams, to develop and pitch their solutions to the association’s board members. When the teacher announced the assignment during the first class, the students’ unease became palpable—even remotely! Not only would this bring everyone outside of their comfort zones (the dreaded teamwork!), but the stakes were very real: They had just met their classmates, and yet they would be conducting interviews the following week and doing client presentations the week after. However, once they realized everything had been set up for them to succeed (e.g., streamlined coordination, briefs for each team, prepared presentations on effective teamwork), they dove right in. By the end of the semester, students overwhelmingly confirmed the value of this exceptional teamwork experience (acquired via collaborative platforms) and had a newfound appreciation for interpersonal skills in periods of high uncertainty. Some even said they felt more prepared to enter the long winter that laid ahead.
This example was not unique. Teachers and universities the world over were trying different things to engage their students, improve online class management, create virtual school environments, and seize all the opportunities made possible in a virtual and suddenly borderless world. Perhaps this signalled a new dawn in higher education, and everything would be fine.
However, a recent Léger survey of 1,209 students across 17 university campuses has revealed that everything is not in fact fine. The report, commissioned by the Union étudiante du Québec, found that no fewer than 81% of the university students surveyed showed signs of psychological distress in 2020, with half of the respondents stating that their mental health had deteriorated in the fall semester of 2020—in spite of the lessons learned during the preceding six months. While underlying reasons are complex, the sources of stress cited are familiar to us all: increased workload, absence of human contact, remote teamwork, uncertainty or lack of information, and unsuitable work environments at home.2 The need to play multiple roles (e.g., parent, caregiver, employee) with a collapsed support system and unstable resources are also familiar stressors, but they present additional challenges to students who are dependent on their teachers’ empathy to negotiate deadlines within a semester’s strict timelines.
Herein lies the difficulty of taking stock of the online education experiment foisted upon us by the pandemic. We must not ‘rainbow-wash’ the very real struggles and exhaustion experienced by people, yet we need hope and optimism to move forward. Inequalities have been exacerbated, and people have mourned loved ones and ways of life. Nevertheless, we, as a society, have learned and achieved so much in the last year, including finding ways to come together as a community of educators and students.
And yet… precisely because we were continuously compelled to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and realize the real value of simply trying our best, we can hope that we will emerge from this pandemic a more empathetic and creative society. Indeed, despite the heavy and ongoing challenges, the two guiding principles of empathy and trial and error—present in so many university classrooms—were the brightly coloured threads that wove their way through 2020 and intertwine still in 2021.
After 10 years at the helm of her own micro-enterprise, Meaghan Girard decided to go back to school mid-apocalypse to do a PhD in Administration. Never one to stick to the sidelines, Meaghan is affiliated with HEC Montréal’s Global Innovation Networks Chair, is highly involved at OTTIAQ, and is a McGill SCS lecturer. She also taught the classes mentioned in this article.