Staying Connected Through the Pandemic

UVic Humanities student town hall 2020
The Faculty of Humanities virtual townhall for prospective students (June 2020)

When it was announced in May that the vast majority of fall courses and programs would be offered online, many students, staff and faculty speculated about how exactly that might look.

The simple fact is that this move online is virtually unprecedented. Courses have been taught online before, but not all of these courses and certainly not all at once. So much of university life has traditionally taken place on campus, in classrooms or at the BiblioCafé; in the McPherson library or around the Petch fountain outside its main entrance; on the field or upon a bench – that is, in person. With those opportunities suddenly limited, many wondered: how will we stay connected with one another?

Our first glimpse into the “new reality” brought about by the pandemic came in June during a series of virtual town halls for prospective students, spearheaded by our Associate Dean Academic, Lisa Surridge. As a parent of university-aged children herself, Lisa was quick to recognize that students and parents felt a great deal of uncertainty about the upcoming year online. She thus organized a series of nine virtual events designed to address these questions or concerns directly, with invaluable assistance from Acting Dean Annalee Lepp, Associate Dean Research Alex D’Arcy, Academic Advisors Megan Wurster and Sherri Williams, and a team of representatives from each our of academic programs and departments.

These town halls were in many ways a first for the Faculty of Humanities – public events such as these have traditionally and invariably been in-person affairs. We wondered: would anyone show up? Would they find the experience valuable? Despite our trepidations, the turnout was high and the interest was palpable. 95 students came to the first event, ready to share their excitement and their fears; to ask questions and engage meaningfully with our answers. It was a chance for us to welcome them by name and for them to learn more about who we are and what we represent. The lesson, for us, was this: no one chose the circumstance that necessitated this move online, but that would not stop anyone from connecting with one another in whatever way they could.

Of course, students were not the only ones facing uncertain circumstances as they prepared for the new academic year. Transitioning away from face-to-face instruction has been and continues to be a tremendous and demanding feat for our course instructors, who have risen to the challenge with grace and professionalism. Crucial to their collective success are the efforts of the many individuals who have supported others in ways big and small. Joel Hawkes (English) and Michael Reed (Medieval Studies), for instance, have offered several zoom presentations on best practices for teaching online over the last several months; Janni Aragon (Gender Studies) and Sara Humphreys (English) have elected to become Faculty Mentors, developing and supporting strong pedagogical practices in online environments; and Elena Pnevmonidou (European Studies) has created a community forum for faculty and instructors with children to share resources, strategies and personal experiences. For every name mentioned here, there are a dozen more of you unnamed whose individual efforts contribute to the betterment of us all.

This, to us, is the stuff of community: helping one another out, raising one another up and taking the time to open new channels for dialogue. This year will not be “business as usual” by any means; but by staying connected in this way we can face all challenges together and ensure that everyone will thrive in the times to come.

by Philip Cox