On the occasion of the LSE HE Blog’s first anniversary, Dilly Fung espouses the need for compassion and community in higher education, and describes how academic communities are engaging and coming together in new ways
A year ago, when I wrote the opening post for this blog, we could hardly have imagined that within nine months the world would have changed so radically. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our daily lives, on our economy and on our communities has been profound and devastating. Such an assault on life as we knew it has rightly prompted new reflections on higher education: What is our purpose? What are our underpinning values? How can we, how should we, transform ourselves to meet the demands of the moment?
Around the world, universities have been grappling with how to adapt their practices for a world in which we can’t see each other face to face. In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, feminist scholar bell hooks argued that ‘As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence’. Education, at its best, has always been relational; and while the current moment is producing new opportunities for building community and expressing care for one another, it is also challenging us deeply.
There’s no doubt that the higher education sector around the world has been extraordinarily imaginative in its responses to current challenges. Academic departments are working hard to transform their degree programmes so that they engage and assess students online or in a socially distanced mode, and to offer support for students as they work through this exceptionally difficult time in their studies. Research flourishes too; the LSE is undertaking new research addressing the urgent challenges of Covid-19 from the perspectives of the social sciences. At the same time, we’re running events to keep people working together, promote critical analysis, and collaborate on solutions. The LSE online public events programme, for example, illustrates just how diverse and engaging these activities have been. Themes presented include strategic leadership in the time of the pandemic, its effect on the economy, and its unequal impact on existing socio-economic and regional inequalities. Engagement has been very high, with more than a 1,000 people attending some of the live events and even more accessing the associated podcasts.
In our separation, new kinds of community are emerging.
Inspiration and support have also been evident across the university sector among the services made available for students during this tough time. At the LSE, LSE LIFE, Student Wellbeing, and LSE Careers have rapidly transformed their academic, wellbeing, and careers support for an online environment, holding one-to-one meetings as well as larger events to inspire, inform, and keep students connected. The LSE Volunteering team has developed new, inspirational opportunities for students to help others during the crisis, and LSE Generate, the School’s home for entrepreneurship, has overseen a range of new Corona-related initiatives. The LSE Faith Centre has continued its excellent work and set up a new website called Standing Together in Loss, where members of the LSE community who are grieving can come together to support one another. The LSE Students’ Union, LSESU, has been providing a range of support and activities for students, recently holding a lively virtual event to celebrate the 2020 Teaching Awards.
It’s not an easy time, for anyone, but the pervasive inequalities of society have become even more stark. We know that some students and members of staff have comfortable living circumstances and ready access to technology, while others struggle financially and are trying to study, teach, research, or work in cramped, noisy environments with limited online access. Some have been grappling with physical or mental illness, while others have been caring for sick family members. At LSE, our Equity, Diversity and Inclusion team have continued their great work promoting equitable treatment and developing LSE as a diverse and inclusive community, but it’s been down to us all as individuals and in our teams to listen to our colleagues’ and students’ stories and collaborate in identifying systemic barriers and finding positive steps forward.
A real challenge for senior university leaders, in the face of these complexities and inequalities, is communicating compassion.
A real challenge for senior university leaders, in the face of these complexities and inequalities, is communicating compassion. Students at LSE, for example, have been exercised by the rapid move to online teaching and examinations, and while many have appreciated more flexibility in assessments, some have found it hard to grasp our ‘no disadvantage’ measures, whereby we look this year at course marks and review them in the light of the achievements of previous cohorts. We really don’t want students who are trying to study through the pandemic to be disadvantaged – we’ve also offered deferrals on request – but it’s not always easy to reassure anxious students. Our care and consideration will only be fully evident once students see how the School takes account of their interrupted experience through its adapted practices.
Staff members in higher education – faculty and professional colleagues – are understandably feeling challenged, too. We face the coming academic year without knowing the extent to which we’ll be able to offer a face-to-face on-campus experience. Yet at the LSE, with support from the new LSE Eden Centre, we’re beginning to find really creative ways of building more flexibility into our research-inspired courses. Even while there are many unanswered questions about the status of the lockdown in the UK and its economic impact on universities, we’re seeing genuine collaboration within and across teams, and a strong sense of engagement in a shared cause. In our separation, new kinds of community are emerging.
It’s been a salutary reminder of how challenging it is, and yet how important it is to infuse higher education with compassionate practices. Building relationships and communities, whether face-to-face or online, is vital – for education, for research, and for professional activities of every kind. To return to bell hooks’ words, we need to commit to “hearing one another’s voices” and “recognizing one another’s presence” as we seek equitable, compassionate solutions to the challenges of the moment.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.
Image: LSESU Teaching Awards 2020