Where's The Support? Where's The Leadership?
All faculty are leaders. Faculty members are naturals at leading students. We manage both large and small classes, and guide students through undergraduate and graduate programs. And now more than ever, we are providing emotional support and mentoring. COVID-19 has cast its shadow upon students. It has robbed them of a live graduation, hindered their ability to complete the semester, and wrecked their chances to obtain jobs this summer and after graduation.
Polls show that Americans trust the CDC and governors more than the President. It is likely that the perception of expertise impacts trust. Similarly, we ought to trust and seek guidance from our peers who have expertise in developing online or blended learning. We ought to trust: faculty who have previously adapted courses online; teaching and learning centres, and; students when they tell us what they need and how they have been helped or hindered. This is true leadership. It is collaborative and recognizes those who are doing creative and fun work in course design. It’s inspirational, not boastful.
Some universities have expressed beaming pride that within just one day, they “pivoted” to taking their education remote and online. Yet other universities pressed pause and allocated a week for faculty to rethink their courses, read up on online best practices (okay, binge and panic reading, but still), and seek assistance from the creative and empowering staff at teaching and learning centres on campus. This pause also allowed students to leave campus, get settled, and start the complicated grieving process of losing important parts of the face-to-face undergraduate experience (read: friends, independence, campus jobs, and a seemingly endless list of ways in which college and university lifestyle has been lost). A quick pivot is not necessarily a good one.
Leading in a tragedy is a special kind of leadership. In a press conference on 20 April, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked how this crisis has affected his leadership. He responded that Canadians want to trust the government and come together to get through this uncertain time. Similarly, students want to trust their professors. They want to know that their transcripts will not suffer (their short term job prospects are suffering enough). It’s no time to boast about how fast you or your university “pivoted” or use faculty’s hard work as a promotional poster.
Trudeau also remarked that even if we have a better story than some other countries, let’s not kid ourselves: this is a tragedy. Reframing this tragedy as a positive success story is premature, and we ought to conduct ourselves accordingly. We are all grieving, and grief is not the time for arrogance. Boasting about the “pivot” is like putting lipstick on a pig, and promoting one’s own decisions, whether good or bad, is both untimely and misplaced.
Leadership looks forward. It is understandable that protecting universities from falling enrolment and curbing the general griping about the “pivot” online is part of academic leadership. As we look to faculty as leaders, we have the opportunity to consider what we can learn and how much better we can make our university and student experiences. So we can recast questions to: how can I make a better way of communicating with students? How can I make better use of technology? How can I ensure more social equity, and ways to get students to know one another? How can I adapt ways of seeing students as humans? Stop focusing on cheating and boasting; focus more on trust.
You don’t earn trust by telling people how well you did. You earn trust by doing the hard stuff.