Karin Cattell-Holden, Anthea Jacobs, Benita Bobo, Melanie Skead

Centre for Teaching and Learning

Stellenbosch University

In the past three months of radical uncertainty and upheaval, academic developers – like everyone else – have had to cope with incisive change. We find ourselves in a liminal space of flux between the past, representing life as we knew it, and an unpredictable future which will be marked by further change. The “normal” of the familiar has become the “new normal” of unchartered territory, a journey which is taking us through various stages of transition.

As academic developers in the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at Stellenbosch University, a residential institution, we have had to deal with not only our own repositioning with regard to emergency remote teaching but also the changing academic identities of lecturers. The different mode of delivery and the crisis context have led to a perceived loss of competence and expertise among both lecturers and ourselves, resulting in a lived reality of vulnerability. As a method of self-care, four colleagues[1] in the CTL reflected on the challenges, solutions and positives of the last three months in a context aptly described by Ravitch (2020)[2]: “We are feeling individually and collectively vulnerable, which while difficult, brings possibilities for societal transformation as well as new connections and creativity in teaching and learning.”

The initial shock of the emergency, the lockdown and the urgent shift to emergency remote teaching were overwhelming. The accompanying uncertainty and unpredictability, an overload of new information, long work hours, and caring for family and self have become ‘the new normal’, but have remained an uncontrollable and threatening force, nevertheless. Colleague A felt beset by fear “in all its guises”: of becoming ill and dying, of exposing her lack of technological know-how, of being judged as not good enough, of having to admit that “I don’t know”. Work has invaded the safe spaces of our homes, leaving minimal space for nurturing our inner lives. Colleague B struggled with the new workload, feeling that she existed under “a relentless spotlight”, demanding immediate action 24 hours a day. For Colleague C, one of her greatest challenges was having to understand “a myriad of changing technological offerings” to navigate the online space, leaving her feeling always behind. Colleague D, who was new to academic development and to the CTL, experienced the commencement of emergency remote teaching as confusing regarding her responsibilities. She felt that “everyone, but me, seemed to know what was going on” and was unsure what and how to contribute to the conversation.

Solutions to these challenges were not forthcoming. As Colleague C pointed out, the COVID-19 situation is such a complex one that it would be naive to assume that there are solutions to the challenges we experience. Although the present liminal space offers scant comfort, ongoing critical engagement and reflection do offer a measure of relief in helping one find coping strategies. With regard to the invasive role of technology in our home spaces, for example, we have found Newport’s[3] three principles for ‘digital minimalism’ useful: ensure that you do not clutter your time and attention with too many devices and digital applications; decide that a particular technology supports something you value and think carefully about using this technology, and commit to being more intentional about how you engage with new technologies. Technology is intrinsically neither good nor bad: “the key is using it to support our goals and values, rather than letting it use us” (Colleague C).

Despite the challenges and lack of comfort-inducing solutions, the context of liminality has presented us with unexpected affordances, both professionally and personally. “Pressure does not come without possibility” (Colleague B). The possibility of positivity lies in looking differently at oneself and your personal and work lives, recognising meaningful shifts and spaces that have opened up. Colleague B has come to know herself and her colleagues in different ways than she believes would have happened, had we remained in our familiar physical spaces, for example. For Colleague D, the advice to lecturers to “start with what you have” opened up the realisation that she did not need to know all the answers and could use this time to learn as much as possible. “Discomfort can sometimes be a good learning opportunity,” she says. Colleague C emphasised the opportunity of choice: she chooses to be hopeful and shares that positivity with the people in her professional and personal spaces. For Colleague A, her liminal space has provided her with the opportunity to deepen her gratitude for expectations and hope, both adding dignity to her existence. She appreciates her own resilience and that of her colleagues anew and realises the power of solidarity for crafting a creative response to the need for emergency remote teaching.

Arguably the biggest affordance of the personal and professional “boot-camp” (Colleague D) during the last three months has been the opportunity to grow. We are not only learning to navigate the virtual space and provide SU lecturers with informed and compassionate support, but also to care for our CTL colleagues and ourselves. We are learning that sometimes “good enough” is just that and that we need to be patient and forgiving towards ourselves and others – after all, “we are all human” (Colleague C). So, how have we been at the CTL? We are okay, thanks. We are coping.

[1] The four colleagues (the authors) are referred to as “Colleague A”, “B”, “C” and “D” (not in alphabetical order of surnames) or as “we”.

[2] Ravitch, S. 2020. FLUX Pedagogy: Transforming Teaching & Learning during Coronavirus. Sage Methods. https://www.methodspace.com/flux-pedagogy-transforming-teaching-learning-during-coronavirus/ . Accessed 16 May 2020.

[3] Newport, C. 2019. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. New York: Penguin Random House.