Sarah Godsell; Lecturer, History, Social and Economic Science Division, Wits School of Education

I am a lecturer. I am a lecturer who is passionate (as many of us are) and who loves my students (as many of us do). I have been open-mouthed and wracked with grief during the frantic move towards online learning. In between breathing through the overwhelm, rapidly  learning the skills of a whole new pedagogy, trying to become-octopus like in juggling the multiple multiples of this time, I have not yet found home for my grief. I think grief is what many of us are experiencing right now, and are struggling to both hold and explain it. Every sector has its own grief in this time, and there is grief we hold as a world: those without food, homes, jobs, security. Much of this is not new. Our world was not a just world three months ago, and the virus is tightening the screws of neoliberal capitalism. 

But what of this grief. Why am I bursting into tears as I am recording lectures, working out online tutorials, making interactive documents? What is the specific loss to the higher education sector right now? 

The grief, once explored, flowers out in different ways and goes to the heart of our learning and teaching in South Africa. Some of these flower-wounds are obvious on the South African landscape: the inequality of what online teaching will mean. We are all (I know what my colleagues are doing) working as hard as possible to make online teaching as equal as possible, but a friend still described it as triage: we save who we can and acknowledge who we will lose. But this is not good enough (grief wells in chest). 

There is another layer of grief as we pare down our syllabi, our curricula, to the bare essentials that we have to convey to learners in our online best-efforts. This will work for some students. Some students will listen in bed and take notes and interact. Some students who were not able to speak in class will be able to interact online and will blossom. But some will not have electricity, some will not have data, some will not have devices. And none will get the full garden of knowledge we had been preparing for them. Alright. This is a global pandemic, nothing is normal, we need to relook at outcomes and find the core of the necessary knowledge. This is good for us. It tests us on what is important, and pushes us to think about how we know what we know, and how we know learners, and how they know what they know, and how do we plant new gardens with this knowledge. But the knowledge is less. And the knowledge is privileged. And this is not good enough (grief wells in chest). 

Another layer of grief sits on the tongue: we cannot comfort our students. We can respond to emails and whatsapps and chat for a – we can follow all the wonderful tools on supporting students through this crisis (in their learning and their personhood). But we cannot see whose face is about to break into tears, who is missing lectures often, who has a broken leg. (grief wells in chest) 

This leads to the deepest layer of grief. A wise colleague reminds me that this is a time of reflection: who we are and who we want to be, who we will be in this moment and afterwards. And that it is our job to facilitate this pause in our students. And this deepest layer of grief goes beyond the wonderful technologies we are learning, the skills we are bootcamping through: it is a grief because we love our students, and we miss them. It is because we see their learning and our learning, their teaching and our teaching, wrapped up in their presence in the classroom. In their ability to raise a hand, to crack a joke, to push us, and their class colleagues, their fellow garden-warriors in this war. It is in the learning that happens between the lines of what we plan – and we need to be present to see it, nourish it, water it, grow it. This is not to say that online learning will not be learning. It will be and we are working as hard as we can to make it as much as possible. But it will not be gardening knowledge with the students we love.

(grief wells in chest)