Academic lives are in transition

A group of university academics set out to capture and profile academic lives-in-transition as a result of the pandemic. Here's the results.

The physical closure of university campuses by the Covid-19 pandemic has almost overnight changed “how we do what we do” as academics, and the nature of our daily routines.

In an attempt to capture and profile academic lives-in-transition, we designed a large-scale international attitudinal survey coinciding with universities’ mass online-migration and for which we received an overwhelming response.

In total, an excess of 1400 responses were generated from academics working in higher education institutions across 40 country contexts. These are voices of experience representing all the major disciplinary areas and career stages from which transpire the enormous challenges that this pandemic presents to academic lives and careers.

What follows is their collective account; an account that will be familiar and, at least in parts, will resonate with each one of us as members of a global Academy under siege.

Within this account we find a recent history of turbulence and trauma – not unknown to academics – and evidence of the tightening grip of occupational precarity. So too, we encounter an evolving history of perseverance, survival and of critical solidarity. We find also an appeal for balance in avoiding the pitfall of hysteria and the unchecked anxieties of a future increasingly difficult to predict.

This then is a moving history of who we are and who we might be; of what has, what is and what may happen to our professional and personal worlds as a consequence of Covid-19.

Saying goodbye

We have been forced to abandon our places of work and formally reconstitute ourselves as home workers. We have – many of us – also simultaneously become home-schoolers and/or home-carers.

We have been forcibly decoupled from our institutional environs, both the material binds – and affordances – of our offices, classrooms, common rooms, kitchens, laboratories, libraries and the like. We no longer travel to work. We are no longer late for meetings or else are able to better disguise our tardiness. We are no longer required to practice presenteeism – at least of an in-person variety.

We no longer hold “normal” office hours – these have been radically extended. We no longer receive students knocking on our office doors outside of these office hours. We no longer have pigeon-holes to check. We no longer serendipitously bump into colleagues in corridors or at water-coolers or are invigorated by these chance encounters for inspiring new ideas. We no longer meet for coffee. We no longer dodge the gaze of colleagues whose requests we haven’t (yet) met.

Coping with loss

We are counting the cost of being shut away and cut off from our colleagues, cut off from our students and cut off from our scholarly homes. We are suffering from nostalgia. We are missing weekly seminars. We are missing (cancelled) conferences and the rigours of academic travel on a budget. We are missing fieldwork.

We are feeling anxious and conspicuous about what we think we are not doing and/or what we could be doing. Our administrative load has become gargantuan. Our research has ground to a halt – yet so too some of its technologies of governance. We are worried that we’ll be left behind. We are worried that our universities and their leaders may not care given the potential financial impact on the sector.

What about students?

We are concerned about our students. We are especially concerned for our international students and those locked-in to halls-of-residence and single-room dwellings. We are worried that they are severely lonely, thousands of miles away from their friends and families. We are worried that they are with each passing day increasingly vulnerable. We are worried about their mental health. We are concerned about how well we can attend to their pastoral needs. We are feeling the strain of their demands. We are suffering from being always on call. We are struggling with digital fatigue. We are worried about our own mental health. Our work-life balance has collapsed.

We are concerned about our colleagues. We are concerned about our children, families, neighbours and friends. We are contending with daily reports of death, presented as the showpiece headline news. People we know are ill and have died. We are dealing with grief. We are dealing with uncertainty. We don’t know what new horror tomorrow will bring.

We are scared about our jobs and that we will lose good colleagues. We are scared the job-market will bottom-out and any prospect of new starters has vanished indefinitely. We worry for the future of our doctoral students and those at the start of their academic careers. We are nervous that our students won’t return and with them new faces – especially from international climes – though we hope that recession will stimulate new demand. We wonder whether the education we are able to offer will still be wanted and whether students or funders will still pay. We fear our programmes will be pruned or closed, our departments shut down, and that some institutions may not survive. We are even more alert to market competition. We are deeply uneasy about the challenge presented by private – and potentially more technologically adept – higher education providers.

We are increasingly frustrated about what we can’t do. We are struggling in our efforts to compensate for physical distance with digital connectivity. We are overwhelmed by a sense of ill-preparation. We are far from confident in our knowledge of and ability to effectively operate as pedagogues in a digital space. We are worried that this will impact how our students think of us. We are concerned that student evaluations will turn sour. We are worried that our ratings will nose-dive. We are worried that our performance will be challenged.

Teaching

We feel like we’re no longer really teaching. We are anxious that our students are becoming disengaged with “emergency remote teaching”. We’re concerned that many of our non-traditional students will drop out. We are especially frustrated about the limitations of bandwidth and of the failings or inadequacies of our technological infrastructure that hinder our efforts to carry on as normal, which may be no bad thing. This is not normal. We are beginning to accept this is not normal. We recognise that things may not go back to being ‘normal’ for some time, if ever.

But beyond this we no longer feel quite so much policed. The intensity of a surveillance spotlight seems to have dimmed – if only just a little and regrettably not for all. We have at least somewhat slipped the radar. There are growing displays of kindness among colleagues.

We are (re)discovering collegiality and virtual coffee meetings. We are accepting of chaos, including the unanticipated interruption of family members – human and other – to our digital discussions. We are rethinking our priorities. We are embracing humility. We are focusing on what really counts. We are allowing ourselves to be more than just academics. So too are at least some of our institutions.

We are thankful for technology. We recognise its affordances and opportunities. We acknowledge its role in our society, culture and economy, and especially in our futures, even if we remain acutely wary and sceptical of plans for its overhaul of our teaching and assessment.

Yet, ultimately, we, a global academic community, remain relevant and must defend ourselves as such. We should resist immobilisation by doubt and doom-mongering despite the inclemency of current forecasts. Our students nevermore so need us – our communities too. The world in untold ways is reliant on academics to step up – and not only in the acquisition of an antidote. For all the existential panic, we are far from at an end.

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