What would you like to keep, if and when your university returns from online to on-campus instruction? The sudden move from in-person to remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the exciting educational technologies now at our fingertips. Your institution has probably invested large sums of money in new software, perhaps while expenditure on people stagnated or decreased. Marketing emails about various other products may have made their way into your promotions or spam folders.
Programs like Zoom, Prezi or Kahoot, to name only a few, have many uses and benefits. Their makers certainly have my gratitude. However, more than by any app and gadget, I was impressed by basic human qualities shown by teachers during the last year and a half: generosity and kindness.
When buildings closed and Internet connections were disrupted, my colleagues and I could no longer expect the same levels of attendance as before. Empathy for struggling students made hard deadlines become flexible. For at least one or two semesters, some of the usual penalties did not apply. Instead of covering content, I spent the beginning of many class meetings just finding out how participants were coping with the unprecedented pressures in their lives. (See a related article, “Literacies Teachers Need During Covid-19.”)
Students responded positively to the compassion they received. Surprisingly, they gave my chaotic courses in 2020 higher ratings than those of some previous years. (See a related article, “5 Ways to Connect With Online Students.”)
There is, of course, nothing new about positivity, acceptance and forgiveness in higher education. Long before lockdown-related concerns about mental health, mindfulness was promoted in various settings. I first learned about it from Buddhist monks and secular practitioners when studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, between 2008 and 2012. Soon thereafter, two colleagues at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, Byrad Yyelland and Robert Bianchi, introduced me to Appreciative Inquiry, which affirms strengths and successes.
Nevertheless, many of the words commonly referenced at universities hardly elicit warmth: “excellence,” “elite,” “competitiveness,” “critical thinking,” “problem-solving,” “problem-finding,” “problematizing,” et cetera.