Resilience, Uncertainty

The Other Long-COVID

Last week I was chatting with a faculty member about how things were going in her classes. Looking at the third week census data and the first hint of color in the trees on campus, we both realized that we were well past the feelings of starting off and now fully immersed in the fall semester. With so much attention to the transition back to campus, that simple fact had escaped our notice. We are no longer in transition; we are here.

I am very proud of all that has occured to get this done. Between the rearranging of classrooms, to the creation of processes for collecting all of the relevant health information, to the managing of curriculum with an eye on any abrupt departures, everyone has worked tremendously hard to get back to something like normal. I am looking with joy at the performing arts and athletics schedules, and smiling as I observe students scurrying across campus to their classes. It feels almost like what I like to call the before times.

But it isn’t quite the before times.

Shortly after the conversation with my colleague, a series of messages came to me. Several were about managing campus spaces in this COVID environment. There were questions about addressing people who are wearing masks improperly, the limits of our obligations to students who are quarantining, appropriate strategies for dealing with a missing COVID test reports, and how we are handling contact tracing in an environment where the majority of people are vaccinated and wearing masks. As I responded to each question, I could see the frayed nerves in the language of the messages. I did my best to respond in ways that might soothe those frayed nerves, but I’m sure I missed the mark here and there.

Then there were the other messages about normal things – schedules, governance, new programs or initiatives. These messages also seemed to carry an intensity of tone that was, well, a little overwrought. People are trying to get on with the usual things that universities do, but everything feels a little extra right now. Messages are a little more accusatory than the tone of our normal, healthy debates. Things that might have taken a few exchanges to get to frustration, now seem to start at a yell. Maybe the fact that so many of our conversations are still in Zoom-like environments, is causing us to lose the ability to recognize our shared efforts and camaraderie.

I think what we are experiencing is the emotional equivalent of long-COVID. Please know that I understand the seriousness of the physical symptoms of long-COVID. I am not being glib. What I am observing, though, is that this pandemic has created a sustained period of uncertainty and it is wearing us down.

In the field of communication, there is a body of research about uncertainty flowing from Berger and Calabrese’s Uncertainty Reduction Theory. The gist of the theory is pretty simple – we don’t really like uncertainty and we work hard to reduce it. Sometimes this behavior results in short cuts that are problematic (stereotyping, for example), but in all cases we tend to seek information to reduce uncertainty as quickly as possible. We build understanding with each interaction with new people or places or ideas and try to build ourselves a map of what we are experiencing and how to proceed. With COVID-19, it has been very difficult to get to the part where we feel confident about the predictions we are making for how to proceed.

We thought we would be through this by now. After all, the promise of the vaccinations became real last December. Many of us couldn’t wait to get our appointments and our biggest concern was holding on until our age group was scheduled. Yet, even as we did this, many were still in that limbo that comes with family members who are too young for vaccination. They have to hold out longer.

Then we were faced concerns about getting the vaccination in it’s experimental status. The FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine helped, but there was also the emergence of the Delta variant and suddenly everyone seemed to know someone who was vaccinated and still got COVID. Doubts began to flourish and all my hope for returning to classrooms under normal conditions were dashed with a quick pivot back to masks. We all have to hold out longer.

Despite these lingering concerns and disruptions, there are lots of reasons to be optimistic. We have emerging science on the impact of booster shots that is very encouraging. There will soon be vaccinations available for younger children, helping all members of our community get just a little more peace of mind. Today the trend data shows that the rate of infection is slowing again, so maybe we’re turning a corner. Fingers crossed.

But even with the good news, we are still living with uncertainty. We can’t get that feeling that we have things under control, and it is stressing everyone out. I wish it weren’t so, but that stress is showing up in interactions all over the place. We are going to have to find a way to reset our perspectives and figure out how to live in this limbo a bit longer.

This leaves me thinking about what I can do to support everyone through what I hope is a not too much longer period of not quite normal. I would love to be able to just mandate some hours of relaxation for all of us. Instead of a common hour for meetings, we need one for breathing. Would that I could alter our schedules for this immediately! But I can’t so I will suggest things that are totally obvious, but maybe need to be said. Here goes:

  1. Take more walks. Right now is the perfect time as the temperatures drop and the leaves change. A walk on a trail or a sidewalk is fine. Getting outside is the crucial part. I want to also recommend that you actually leave that phone home while you do it, but if you must carry it for emergencies, keep it in your pocket.
  2. Try a little yoga. I know the complex routines of advanced yoga can be intimidating and some see it as something that is outside of their worldview, but the most basic of stretches are really soothing. The most important thing about them is that you stop focusing on to-do lists and inhale deeply. It is a natural way to slow your heartbeat and re-group. If I really can’t convince you to do yoga, try any other quasi-athletic thing you enjoy. The point is to shift your attention from your work life and the rest of things you feel you must do.
  3. Listen to or play some music. If you are playing music, you will not be able to worry about other things. If you are lucky enough to play music with other people you will reignite those collaborative skills of nuanced listening and mutual support that seem to be suffering in the zoomiverse. If you are a listener, do it with your eyes-closed. Tune out the world and tune into the sound. It is a break from the endless screens that we rely on all the time.
  4. Most of all, examine your schedule and delete a few things. We just don’t have to do every task we have set for ourselves. If we take a good look and cut out a few things, the rest of this marathon of uncertainty might be just a little more manageable.

But I always say to do a little less. It isn’t just COVID that pushes me this way–it is the general observation that our society – especially education – is trying to do too many things. We really can’t teach everything or ensure that our students will absorb or engage everything we thinks is interesting and important in a few short years of their lives. Nor can we do all of the research that interests us, even in a full career. We can afford to do a little less and still learn interesting and valuable things.

For today, though, my case for less is really about making room for the breaks we need right now. This long pandemic is wearing us down and we need to get a grip. So I am encouraging everyone to do a little less so you can log off and turn your attention to anything that makes you breathe deeply. You’ll be glad you did.

Resilience

Doing More by Doing Less

It is the start of the fall semester and I am already worried about my ability to keep up with the hundred tasks before me. The emerging list is so long that, as one of my favorite professors once said, “it’s a full-time job just updating my to-do list.” No! I cannot be tired before September. This will not do.

As always, whenever I feel this way, I reflect on the lives of my colleagues. Faculty are in that first exhilarating rush of the semester, when everything seems possible. Fresh syllabi, fresh faces, and hope are the order of the day. This will be the year when all that hard work of planning pays off in student engagement and professional growth.

Sort of.

The planning was probably a little more stressful this year as we tried to take all eventualities related to COVID into account. The research agendas are somewhat disjointed as we plan for travel but know that some is likely to be cancelled. And, those fresh faces are partially covered with masks (for now), dampening the sound and a little bit of the excitement ahead.

Colleagues not in the classroom are also happy(ish) to be back on campus. It is so good to see each other, to hear noise in the hallways, to have some direct interaction with peers and students. It is a refreshing change from those endless remote meetings of the last year. The possibility of the casual conversation, the collaborative events, and just being together feels good. But, it is moderated by that nagging sense that things could shift quickly, and we should be prepared.

Many students are looking forward to in-person experiences this fall. Some stayed in online courses, but most are here and ready for the things that just work better when we’re in the same room. They are looking forward to the conversations in classes and co-curricular activities that we once took for granted. Students who started college last fall are finally able to feel like they are in college, which is wonderful. This year’s first year students are here from the start. It is good, and as I watch them scurrying across campus I note that they are pretty good at the mask thing at this point. I am sorry that they have to be.

In the face of this quasi-normal life and the potential for disruptions, those wonderful aspirational feelings of a new year are just a little dampened. We find ourselves having to plan two options at every step, and, well it is a lot. Like my endless to-do list, it can make a person feel a little tired at this point when we are usually energized. So, considering our extra load, I am returning to a common theme in my writing… can we do just a little less?

Deep breaths, everyone. I know you just made your plans for the semester and that may be all you can do right now. Perhaps you don’t want to think about anything else until conditions change (if they change). Ok, do what you need to do for your own sanity. But, if you’re willing to think for a minute, with your students’ chaotic lives in mind in addition to your own, maybe there is some room to trim those plans just a little.

For courses, this means taking one more look at the readings and assignments and asking yourself about the goals for each. Is there a way to focus those goals a bit more and eliminate one thing? When I was still teaching, I found this question very helpful. At one point, it resulted in reducing assignments by 3 and gaining as many opportunities for learning. I cut some short papers in favor of more focused goals in those that remained. This made room for more detailed and timely feedback. The experience and the learning was better for everyone.

For co-curricular activities, how about just focusing on small opportunities for engagement. With most activities safest outdoors it seems like our outdoor recreational opportunities will serve us best this year. I’ll add that our students feel a great deal of reward when they have been of service to the community, so adding those events that foster community service (outdoors), will likely go a long way to just making us all feel a part of something. It is a welcome change from the dislocation of Zoom.

For the initiatives in departments and in governance, perhaps we can think just a little more strategically and lighten our load. I was recently reading about several Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives around the country, and I am struck by the smaller steps that can go a long way. Some universities have elected to look at the expertise and offerings already available on their campuses, and worked to bring those resources together into majors, minors, and certificates. This is more manageable than creating something entirely new and can often create interdisciplinary relationships that are invigorating. Others are looking at existing courses and programs for opportunities to revise from within. This generally involves a scan of topics and readings to find opportunities to include new voices in our favorite courses. This is easier to get our minds around than trying to think about re-imagining an entire major from a DEI perspective.

For my part, I’m looking at opportunities to draw on existing committees and departments to accomplish tasks. Most pressing right now is preparing to do a self-study of the university for our next accreditation visit. I’m trying not to build a new structure to figure out processes that members of our community are already doing. We’ve got most of what we need embedded in our normal practices, so why complicate things? In this case, I think we can accomplish more by doing just a little less.

I think there are more things I can do to simplify processes and projects and reduce all of our loads this year. Just thinking about this is bringing that energy and excitement back to this start of the semester. Hooray. Finding simplifications is now the most important part of my to-do list. I will be the champion of doing more by doing less. Maybe you will, too.

Higher Education, Hope, Resilience

Dream Big

At the end of this year-and-a-half long effort to create great educational experiences in the face of a global pandemic, it is easy to get too focused on triage instead of big ideas. We have all been busy monitoring COVID cases and becoming experts in contact tracing. We’ve been transforming student support to try to reach out to students who are drowning in the online environment. Faculty have been trying hard to reshape their teaching strategies for online and hybrid modalities, all the while worrying about the learning taking place and the missing interactions that take place in the normal classroom settings. We’re developing strategies to encourage our students to get vaccinated and wondering if we’ll ever get to remove our masks. And, of course, we are all worried about surviving the fiscal challenges that we face due to this disaster because we know it will take multiple years to get back to normal enrollment patterns. In short, we have a lot on our collective minds.

While every single detail matters, when we stay too long in the slog of managing those details, there is a tendency to reduce our dreams to the immediate future. Well, consider this a reminder to step back, look up from the spreadsheets and grading, and take a moment to dream big.

I’m thinking today about the graduates that I will greet next weekend. They have had a heck of a finish to their education. They have attended to the details necessary to complete their programs in less that optimal ways. I am proud of them for getting to this point under these unique conditions. They are now facing a world of work that is strange to say the least. It would be a normal reaction to feel despair in the face of so much uncertainty. It would also be normal to limit the scope of one’s job search to safe bets, nearby things, and the less than ambiguous, just to mitigate all of that uncertainty. But I urge them not to do so.

Now is the time for our graduates to dream big. It is time to think clearly about what a good life looks like, what a rewarding career looks like, and what contributions to the world might be possible. This is a time to reflect on one’s values and align one’s goals with those values. It is time to think about the arc of one’s life and some long range goals. This will make that job search more rewarding and fruitful. It may be that the first post-college job is not a big step up from the work done to pay the bills during college. That’s fine. But make sure that the next job has something for you to learn on your path to your bigger dreams. In short, aim for the most that you want, not the least, and build a plan accordingly.

For my colleagues at WCSU, we need to heed the same advice. We have worked so hard this past year just to survive this crisis. The work has made me very proud. Faculty have reimagined pedagogy, experimented with new technologies, and kept the struggles of their students foremost in their minds. Our Information Technology team and Instructional Designers have continuously supported faculty and students as they’ve navigated new tools and connectivity. Student Affairs has worked hard to develop a semblance of student life in this virtual context and invested in more mental health support because it was so desperately needed. Athletics has managed to achieve some big wins, even with such limited opportunities to compete. Yes, we’ve done an excellent job of triage.

But we are going to face a few more years of challenges because of COVID-19 and the continued drop in high school graduates in New England. It would be normal to look at our chances to recover as something that can be managed by small cuts and status quo behaviors. That won’t work anymore. It is time to think clearly about what we want to look like in five years and in ten years. What does a great university look like for the students we serve and the communities that depend on us? How should we evolve to achieve that greatness? What steps do we need to take to feel that our work is rewarding and exciting? What contributions to the world do we want to make and how should we organize ourselves to get there? It may be that the next year or two of working toward this great university might feel mired in minutia and even more triage, but if we are working toward greatness together, it will be purposeful triage that can inspire us, rather than drag us down.

Yes, as we come to the end point of our academic-year and finish up reports, grades, and the usual closing of the year details, it is important to rekindle the capacity for big dreams. It is the dreams that make room for good ideas and inspire us to continue re-imagining all that we do. They give us hope when we need it the most and they are the start of any good plan. Let’s lift up our heads from the day-to-day and take the time to dream big. We owe it to ourselves and I know that good things will come of it.

Change, Higher Education, Inclusion, Resilience

The Balcony View

Managing a campus under crisis conditions is, well, challenging. All campus leaders, and I mean everyone not just the academic leadership team, have been immersed in the details of health and safety and the related enrollment challenges that came with COVID-19. At the same time, higher education has been grappling with the social injustices laid bare in this environment and heightened by the events surrounding the death of George Floyd. We have been running at high speed from problem to problem for a year now, and our ability to keep running may be reaching its end. Even Olympic athletes need to rest now and then.

So, at this one year mark (our campus closed on March 13, 2020), I am taking a moment to step back and consider our next steps. I’m taking a “balcony view” (coincidentally, I have just finished a course that introduced me to Heifetz and Laurie’s (1997) work on this subject, and now it is in the higher education news), and asking myself, “In light of all that we have experienced in the last year, how should our university evolve?”

Why ask this question, now? Why not just chart a path back to “normal”? After all, the vaccination roll out in Connecticut is progressing well and I feel very optimistic about our ability to be fully open next fall. It would be easy to just focus on that project, attending to the normal recruiting and scheduling questions and reveling in the knowledge that we can finally reduce our dependence on Zoom. But I can’t do that, because COVID-19 was not just an emergency for the last year: it was a powerful tool for surfacing structural issues that were already pervasive in our society and on our campuses. No, I can’t just breathe a sigh of relief. I must help our entire campus community dig into the necessary conversations about equity that have been made abundantly clear in this crisis.

So, as I invite my colleagues to engage in questions of what we should learn from life in a pandemic, I have a list of questions.

First, how should we respond to the access issues laid bare by COVID-19?

Questions about access to education and healthcare are not new, but they sure did move front and center over the last year. Last March, as students, faculty, and most of our staff shifted to remote learning and work environments, it became abundantly clear that the distribution of technology and wi-fi was not equal. We scrambled to deploy resources to students, only to find that our faculty and staff needed them, too. In 2020, this was kind of shocking. The world of work and the work of community has been at least partially digital for many years now, so how could we have found it acceptable that members of our organization did not have the basic tools necessary to interact remotely? As we return to “normal” let’s not lose sight of this fact. As we face the many budgetary challenges ahead, let’s not forget that this access issue is our responsibility. What can we do to reorganize our priorities so that the gap in access does not return?

While we are not in the health care delivery business, we are in the health care education business. The last year has made clear to many what some of us have known all along – not everyone has access to quality healthcare. But there’s more; communities do not just have financial barriers to medicine, they have cultural histories that lead to distrust of the health care system. As we work to educate future health care providers, how might we make those cultural and socio-economic barriers to health care a central component of our student’s education? How can we bring those same issues to the forefront of the education we offer to future educators, social workers, police officers, lawyers, and politicians? Can we become an organization that keeps these realities and histories central to all that we do?

Second, what should we learn from the experience of online and remote learning?

While none of us loved the abrupt move to online everything, it has become clear that this should be available to us for specific audiences and scenarios. Some of our students really benefitted from the flexibility of online courses and are hoping to continue in that modality for more of their education. The string of snow days in February was a good reminder that having all faculty prepared to hold some of their classes remotely is important for continuity. But not all students and faculty thrive online and not all disciplines are great experiences online, so we need to really explore what just happened. Perhaps the most important questions to ask right now are 1. What should we offer online to support our students and, perhaps recruit new ones? 2. How will we discover who is ready for online learning and who is not?, and 3. How can we ensure that our course design for online learning is as robust as it is for on-ground learning?

Third, how should we respond to the social justice issues surfaced by George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movements?

As we struggle to have the important conversations about race and equity in the United States, we must remember that these issues are not new. The differential experiences of communities of color in all social institutions has been real forever. As important as the questions around policing are, and they are incredibly important, the reality is that we should be focused on our own practices, practices that are re-enforcing inequity. So, while I do ask that my colleagues dedicated to educating law enforcement professionals carefully scrutinize the ways in which they are addressing social structures and racism, I am looking in the mirror first.

Among the things we should be considering are differential outcomes that cluster around race (retention, graduation, debt, and, yes, who enrolls in each major). We should be asking ourselves if the curriculum we offer reflects, at a minimum, the interests and histories of our students? We should be asking ourselves why we are still struggling to attract and retain faculty from diverse backgrounds? In other words, we should not let a demonstration last summer, end in a demonstration last summer. How can we keep ourselves engaged in meaningful and frequent examination of our own practices so that we progress toward greater inclusivity and equity?

Yes, it would be easier to “go back to normal” now that we can see the light at the end of the pandemic. But going back to normal is not a good idea. The pre-pandemic normal was not adequate or fair or just. So, I’m looking at this moment as the end of a yearlong sprint and the start of a marathon. We’ll just call that sprint the training I needed to go the distance, because I don’t want to go back to normal. I’ve taken the balcony view and I see at least part of the big picture. Now it is time to get back into the details and work with my colleagues to find some answers.

Higher Education, Hope, Resilience

Spring into Action

This week is the start of WCSU’s spring semester, and I am excited. We have faced the hurdles that all campuses have faced in this COVID-19 environment. We now have a multitude of teaching modalities, from face-to-face to the myriad possible combinations of hybrid and online. Our safety measures on campus proved very effective in the fall, so we will continue them this spring, with an increase in testing and a continuation of masks and reduced classroom capacity. Our students and faculty appear to have adapted to online advising, and we continue to try to drive our students to the academic and social supports that we are offering online. In short, we have learned from our experiences last fall and we are ready dive into spring, better informed and with new insights.

Even though we must start online so we can safely bring our residential students back to campus (we move to the blended learning environment next week), I still feel that wonderful sense of excitement and optimism that comes with the start of a new semester. That feeling that once came from the smell of new course texts and the smooth paper of new notebooks, now arises from a neatly organized calendar, a full schedule of meetings, and the hope of moving initiatives forward. I love the constant renewal that comes from the rhythm of higher education. The rest of the world waits for New Year’s Day for resolutions, we get to do this every semester.

Nevertheless, I feel time slipping away. Oy! The spring semester, though the same length as the fall, always flies by. I usually describe this as the downhill slide to commencement. I suppose it feels faster because of the summer break at the end. Or perhaps it is because the many projects started in the fall are nowhere near complete. And since the opportunity for action is limited by the finite number of campus meetings that are possible, the time crunch is real.

How wonderful this urgency feels. You see it is a normal feeling. It is the usual, pre-pandemic sensation that comes with the launch of the spring semester. As we obsess about when vaccinations will be available, and what the prognosis might be for the next fall, it is easy to feel that this quasi-lockdown status will never end. But it will and we should be thinking about the world after. The good news is, once you recognize that, the wait for a more normal world doesn’t seem as long.

So, here is my to-do list for the next several months:

  1. Focus on equity in the curriculum. The issues driving the Black Lives Matter movement have not disappeared and they must not be forgotten. While there are many areas of the university that deserve attention when it comes to equity and inclusion, as provost, it seems that a thorough look at what we are teaching is a good place to start. It took all fall to get this project started, but we are off.
  2. Determine the right blend of online, hybrid, and on-campus offerings for a post-pandemic world. This is hard to do quickly, and I must admit we will only have a first draft of a plan this spring, but we need to learn from everything we just, well, piloted. We must identify and evaluate the appropriate variables to determine the right mix of learning modalities for next year.
  3. Prioritize investment in academic success programs. In what is likely to be a multi-year path to financial recovery for all of higher education, we must not neglect the initiatives that will best serve our students. It is natural to think that we cannot afford new things, but our data are telling us that we must intervene where students struggle. The task is to reimagine our constrained spending plans to meet these urgent challenges.
  4. Increase awareness of all the important work that our students and faculty are doing in the surrounding community. COVID-19 has provided lots of opportunities for WCSU to partner with health care, education, and other city services. We have risen to these challenges and worked with partners throughout. But we always do this, and no one seems to know. Now is the time to make our expertise and community engagement visible.

This is the short list of specific things to work on this spring. It may be short, but it is strenuous to be sure. I am diving in with optimism and enthusiasm, not just because of the renewal I feel with the start of a new semester, but because all of it has real value for students and the future of the university. There is nothing like working for things you believe in to inspire hope.

But that short list is just a small glimpse of my dreams for higher education. In reality, my list starts here: 1. Re-imagine the role and structure of the regional comprehensive university such that it provides opportunities for all learners and supports the informed citizenry necessary to sustain a democratic society. This is what I wake up thinking about every morning and it both inspires and frightens me.

But I am not afraid today. It is the start of a new semester. Students and faculty have returned to my inbox, if not my office. My calendar is full of opportunities to move things forward. And hey, there’s even a little more daylight to celebrate. I am ready!