The Covid-19 pandemic has undeniably led to a crisis in education and given rise to an urgent need to rethink the University and its post-pandemic future. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her essay The Crisis in Education, a crisis “forces us back to the questions themselves” and demands a direct response from us. For Arendt, what distinguishes a disaster from a crisis is our ability to avoid answering with prejudices, and to pause and reflect instead. The Covid-19 pandemic has indeed returned us to some of the key existential questions underpinning HE, encompassing the ontological nature of universities as institutions, and their epistemological attitudes: what kind of space is the university, and does it depend on its physical infrastructure to survive? What about the university as a community of people? Can we maintain a sense of proximity and belonging when we are physically apart? How does the university produce and share its knowledges? Will the pandemic increase the privileging of some forms of knowing over others?
A crisis constitutes a disruption of the status quo, and within that disruption lies an opportunity for redirection. As Arendt reminds us, people have agency to intervene and take action – especially in times of crisis. This is no less than our responsibility, she points out in her essay. The act of reimagining thus becomes a political act with a moral imperative, a responsible response to the crisis that opens up pathways towards new possible futures for a better, more equitable post-pandemic world. Such an exercise of utopian thinking stands within a tradition of radical rethinkers like Paulo Freire and bell hooks, who re-envisioned education towards liberation, through pedagogies of hope and teaching to transgress. During this Covid-19 crisis, it is crucial to revisit this tradition of utopian thinking and critically reimagine what kind of space we want the university to be, how it produces knowledge and who this space belongs to. The next question then becomes: how can we methodologically approach this task to reimagine, and do so in a way that democratically embraces a diversity of voices?
As a student, currently completing an MPhil at Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, I experienced the disruption of the pandemic firsthand. Colleges sent most of their students home, classes and events were called off, social life came to a halt and fieldwork got cancelled. In this Cambridge feature profile I recount these challenges. For to be a student in Education, at a time when the entire sector is going through an existential crisis, proved to be a distressing, yet simultaneously educational experience, itself. To make sense of this time, I created a podcast, Cambridge Quaranchats. On this podcast, I have been hosting weekly conversations with guests from the Cambridge community, from undergrads and college porters to post-docs and senior professors. Each episode forms part of a communal effort to re-envision the future of HE. Cambridge Quaranchats became a platform for critical and reflexive thinking, designed to stimulate collaborative knowledge making through its open-access format. I have found that podcasting is uniquely able to break with the academic tradition of privileging written word over spoken word and disrupt academic hierarchies in ways that peer-reviewed journals, for instance, do not.
In my MPhil thesis, I reflect on methodological approaches to the act of reimagination and propose podcasting as a research method to fulfil that task. To collect narratives and imageries about possible utopian and dystopian futures for the post-Covid university, I conducted a series of private, anonymized interviews with students and academics at Cambridge’s Faculty of Education. My podcast formed part of my methodology as an elicitation device, whereby I sent research participants a compilation episode of selected podcast fragments, to which they listened in advance of our interview. This resulted in powerfully intertextual interviews, where participants built on the multi-vocal podcast dialogues and used it as a sonic device to elicit their own imaginative thinking. As a sound-based medium for oral storytelling, podcasts allow the listener to create their own ‘images’ on the inner canvas of the mind – leading to creative, revealing results.
From the data I collected, many fears emerged around the university becoming more closed-off, inaccessible and elitist as a consequence of Covid-19. In an imagined dystopian future, the university could become fully disconnected from society, the ‘Cambridge Bubble’ would grow only tighter, and interdisciplinary collaborations would disappear. The university would be strengthened in its neoliberal tendencies, increase its surveillance over students and staff, and reduce education down to isolated ‘sellable experiences’, where even a visit to the library or the college buttery would be marketized. Perhaps the most striking image that came up in an interview with a postgraduate student, was her fear that education would become ‘just another tab open on my computer’. Next to your Netflix, online shopping and Facebook feed, a distant lecturer would be talking to an invisible classroom on Zoom, devoid of any personal interaction. Others too, spoke about virtual reality-like scenarios, where in the future, ‘going to class’ would mean putting one’s VR headset on. Why is this so frightening? Because, as one participant put it, education would feel like a lonely undertaking and no longer be ‘really real’. The prospect of a fully online university was consistently described in dystopian terms, deemed unreal, dehumanizing and disembodied. The real reality of education, taking place in the ‘real world’, seems to require physicality. As I argue in my thesis, utopian visions for the post-pandemic university remain overwhelmingly grounded not in virtual but in corpo-reality.
This exercise of imagination helps to clarify how we might engage with the philosophical questions I posed earlier, including what universities are for. When imagining utopian futures, many research participants stressed that HE is not just for gaining skill sets and preparing for the job market; it is also about becoming better human beings. Online instruction endangers the ideal of education as a humanizing experience, by threatening to remove some of the things we attach most value to: community and belonging, dialogue and conversation, connection and proximity, and yes, the bodies we inhabit. Approaching these themes from a phenomenological angle, Merleau-Ponty reminds us of the onto-epistemological connections between body, mind and perception: our Being-in-the-World is defined by our existence-as-bodies, and this embodied Being in turn informs embodied Knowing.
If online education threatens our ability to exist, teach and learn as embodied social beings in community with each other, we must start to think creatively about how we can counter this disconnect. The post-pandemic university might need to embrace a mixed economy approach, that combines both on-and offline learning, including a mix of face-to-face and remote formats. This will require considerable flexibility built into course structures and learning material. As the Cambridge Head of Faculty Susan Robertson points out in episode 13 of Cambridge Quaranchats, this offers an opportunity to develop more creative pedagogies, including the use of more multi-media formats like video, blogging, podcasts and social media, in ways that encourage students to be actively engaged.
When starting to design these alternatives for multi-media teaching on- and offline, it is worthwhile to keep in mind the above highlighted concerns with corporeality and community. This brings me back to the practice of podcasting, which I have found to be a valuable tool for educational practices. Podcasts offer much flexibility to the learner, as its resources can be accessed from anywhere and at any time, making this an ideal format for the ‘self-scheduling consumer’. In addition, podcasting differs from radio in its distinguished capacity for corporeal intimacy: they are mostly listened to through in-ear headphones, bringing other voices quite literally into the body. This arguably makes podcasting a re-embodying medium, which is uniquely positioned to promote embodied listening and learning. Furthermore, podcasts have been observed to grow tight-knit audience communities, that encourage active participation through social media, voice message responses, and (in-person) live listening events or discussion groups.
Finally, in returning to the issues I opened this blog with, I believe that podcasts themselves can be seen as new ‘spaces’ within universities, which extend beyond academia through its free and open access format within the public domain. They are spaces where institutional hierarchies can be overturned, and where students themselves (such as in my own case), can have their voices heard and partake in processes of innovative knowledge production. Thinking along with Mark Carrigan’s ideas about the ‘platform university’, podcasts too can be seen as platforms which may contribute to shaping the identity, structure of, and engagement within, universities themselves. Podcasts are public, political spaces where the neoliberal University, or what Darren Webb calls the ‘corporate-imperial University’, can be resisted, challenged and continually questioned, all from a place of critical self-reflexivity and radical reimagination.
Podcasting then, is both a valuable research method for taking us into the space of the sonic imagination, as well as a re-embodying medium for creative forms of post-pandemic teaching, all whilst being itself a political space that democratically facilitates a radical rethinking of the university itself, and all its utopian possibilities. In any case, podcasting will make a valuable contribution to the post-pandemic university.
Simone Eringfeld is an MPhil student in ‘Education, Globalisation and International Development’ at the University of Cambridge. She also produces and hosts the podcast Cambridge Quaranchats, which explores possible futures of post-Covid HE.