While I attempt to organise some preliminary thoughts about the emerging Post-Pandemic University I am confronted with the not unexpected difficulty of the task. In fact, I am tempted to begin by asserting– with a hint of provocation – that perhaps we should let our emotions loose and accept that our thinking and praxis be guided by them.
Since March, an unprecedented re-orientation of the universities’ mode of delivery toward online provision in teaching and research has taken place in response to the global Covid-19 emergency. This has determined the most rapid and profound alteration in the everyday educational practices and routines ever witnessed in the history of the (HE) sector, the shock waves of which can arguably still be felt by staff and students at an emotional and psychological level.
However, we, the University, have raised to the challenge not only in compliance with the capitalist imperative to guarantee ‘business as usual’ and student satisfaction, but also and in primis out of genuine care for the educational needs of the students and in a spirit of mutual solidarity in the face of a historical moment of radical uncertainty and existential precarity.
From an anthropological point of view, and as a researcher interested in the subtle interplay between repetition and difference that traverses the embodied institution, I have considered and experienced the shift to online provision as a test to our intrinsic capacity to adapt. Lee calls this a process of “rhythmic recuperation”: once the unfamiliar becomes gradually normalised, we will adapt even to the unthinkable, turning intentions “against the initial design”, as Lefebvre observes in his Critique of Everyday Life. However, adaptation might well be the key to survival, but this says nothing about its conditions.
To complicate things further, we approach the new academic year with the possibility of new, restrictive measures looming large and this seems to be consecrating hybridity, liminality and uncertainty as the (un-)defining features of the Post-Pandemic University.
I argue that this liminal, uncertain and hybrid environment is mirrored in the polarity of sentiment toward the gradual abandonment of what – for some – already feels like the old, off-line, University. In other words, I want to draw attention to the tensions, contradictions and opportunities arising from the newly configured hyper-connected yet disembodied institution.
In order to do so, I take the cue from Bifo Berardi’s prescient Breathing. Chaos and Poetry. Here, hyper-connectivity and diminishing degrees of corporeal “conjunction” are indicted as the problematic outcomes of modern pan-logical projects. Rationality has bred chaos and human life is increasingly subsumed to malign forms of abstractions. Berardi exhorts us to disavow the “century of measure” (p.22) to find a novel, rhythmic recalibration with the cosmos and invites us to conspire, to literally and metaphorically go out and “breathe together” (ibid.).
This finds notable correspondence with Lefebvre’s writings on space conceived as always and already socially produced by a rhythmic constellation (indeed “conspiration”) of bodies, whose co-production of space is defined not only in relation to a variety of social/institutional needs but also, crucially, to a sheer human desire for enjoyment.
Within this intellectual perimeter, I ask what is gained (or lost) educationally, existentially and intellectually when “the continuum of conjunctive experience is disrupted by the fractal simultaneity of connectivity” (Berardi, p. 98) and what modes of appropriation and enjoyment are rendered available through virtual spaces.
In my capacity as a doctoral supervisor, for instance, I have encountered a variety of responses to the new virtual environment. Some students have embraced it as an effective and even enjoyable substitute, at times increasing their demands for quick and informal chats, thus paralleling the good old impromptu visits to the office. Others, however, have found it daunting and unpleasant, raising questions about its pedagogical suitability. They lamented in particular the socially uncomfortable staring-effect induced by a medium that forces the participants to keep demanding and prolonged levels of attention directed to the speaking person. Conversely, others have complained about what they perceive to be a lack of true connection, caused by a difficulty in looking at interlocutors straight in the eyes.
With time, both technology enthusiasts and sceptics have disclosed what what Kelly has termed a “critical nostalgia” for the abandoned campus and their own offices, mourning the loss of humanity that gives meaning to places and often recalling the emotional and sensory experiences that punctuated their everyday life.
In a similar vein, colleagues have both recognized the opportunities offered by online teaching and research, appreciating, for instance, the significantly widened possibilities to take part in webinars and online conferences worldwide.
This, however, has come at a price. The amount of time spent learning how to navigate new digital platforms such as MS Teams or Zoom added an extra burden to already unbearable workloads, not to mention the unequal impact on work/life balance inevitably suffered by female academics. All this has had an adverse impact on the already compromised mental health and wellbeing of staff.
Albeit limited, this anecdotal evidence points to (Zoom) fatigue, exhaustion and suffering as the underlying conditions currently afflicting staff and students. These feelings, now more than ever part of their psychic ambience, inform their ambivalent responses to a rapidly changing institutional and existential landscape.
If suppressed, they will inhibit our ability to construe the Post-Pandemic, hybrid University as a field of possibility and experimentation that will allow us to break free from “the century of measure”.
In order to do so, adaptation must entail a re-action to inhuman conditions of work, and a re-appropriation of the enjoyable time-spaces of teaching and learning, be them on-line or off-line. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect that staff and students will get their sea legs in absence of basic mechanisms that safeguard and promote their wellbeing as a pre-condition for a pledge to permanent adaptation.
In a bid to develop better, and more inclusive ways of caring, the Post-Pandemic University should start by acknowledging “mutuality and voice” as Richard Hall reminds us, for they “point beyond hopelessness”.
Fadia Dakka is Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director of CSPACE (Centre for the Study of Culture in Practice in Education) at Birmingham City University, UK. Her current research interests include rhythmanalysis, philosophy and theory of higher education, and universities futures.