Being seen, being human, being compassionate.
University life, like all of life, took strange and dramatic twists as the impact of coronavirus became understood and social distancing, followed by lockdown measures, were introduced. Suddenly remote learning with a heavy reliance upon technology to deliver academic sessions became an almost instantaneous reality.
There are many debates how the quality of teaching and how successful Universities have been at doing this, which are informing what the next academic year may look like. Behind all the discussions about how best to support students, what delivery platform works better than others, how social distancing may work across a campus, how to maintain engagement and motivation, there is one thing that is vital and must not be taken for granted....human connection. Simple, honest and open connection.
The University of Derby has a rich history of compassion, it's the home of Compassion Focused Therapy/Compassionate Mind Training, developed by Professor Paul Gilbert and others, it's running a Compassion In Education programme with local schools, and has embedded compassionate micro-skills in some programmes.
And together connection and compassion are as important within the relationship between student and staff, between the student and the institution, as ever.
However amongst all the challenges that have occurred over the last couple of months, with everyone juggling academic commitments alongside changes in personal circumstances , that connection can be easy to lose or be seen as something that requires larger effort to maintain that in person. Todd Kashdan wrote a series of articles about remote delivery and supporting his students, noting within it that
teachers believe the emotional resonance and connection cannot be replicated in distance learning.
But just like it's the simple things that we are missing while not on campus, it's the simple things that can make a significant difference to students. Some thoughts for lecturers…
Technology is underpinning remote delivery and everyone is learning how to use new features and platforms that they haven't widely used before. Some features work well, some are not so intuitive. Staff and students have different responses to technology usage and challenges that may crop up, let alone the differing devices used to access it. Things may and will go wrong… and in the middle of an online workshop that is a great opportunity for vulnerability to shine through. Todd Kashdan again…
Use mistakes as opportunities to demonstrate humility and common humanity. So want if the cat or dog makes an appearance or you can't find the option to share a slide straightaway? Students don't judge you for that, it reflects the reality for us all. We recognise the shared humanity of that moment.
Todd also mentions something which sounds so obvious and simple, but maybe it's worth considering how often this happens and the impact it has.
The most beautiful sound in the world for many is the sound of their names in a positive light. Perhaps even more so in an online setting the recognition and validation that this brings can mean a great deal to a student. They feel part of the session not just attending it. It helps to foster engagement and motivation which many students are struggling with.
Being physically distant removes so much of human communication, the loss of body language and with so much information distributed in written formats. While students like using chat functions in online sessions they are there to see and hear you. Take time at the start, before the academic stuff to do the human stuff… check in with how students are, how are levels of motivation, are there any queries… and share some of your own thought and feelings.
And a lot of information has been and continues to be shared by email to students, trying to keep us up to date with what is happening. This is both by academic staff and at an institutional level, and while this is often essential information sometimes a different communication format might help. So next time you are about to send an email about why not consider an alternative. For example, would a short video cover it better… a simple, short recorded message could deliver both the information and deepen the human connection. While most academics are visible to their students, how many senior leaders of a University have considered doing this more ? Paula Holt, one of the Deans at Derby, recently did a video which had extensive views and comments from students, who appreciated her doing it and seeing Paula sat at home. Same message, deeper connection.
Paul Gilbert defines compassion as the
sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it. Students have experienced different level of distress around the changes to University life as a result of the pandemic, which varies individually depending on so many factors and can change across time. Academic and wellbeing staff often do a great job of supporting their students which has been made more difficult when not in person. Supporting students in a non-judgemental way, encouraging and supporting them to meet their responsibilities by being aware of a students circumstances can help the student both with their distress and help alleviate it. This can range from ensuring students have support from their Personal Academic Tutor and Personal College Advisor to the supply of laptops to students who do not have the right technology to complete assignments.
Compassion can be challenging, to be open to another's distress or to share your own vulnerabilities. It underpins our connection and shared experiences. It has many flows, to and from others, but we often leave out ourselves. So to all the academic staff reading this , please remember to give yourself the same support, understanding and encouragement you do to your students. We are all trying to our best in unusual circumstances and we have a long road ahead, so we need you to be looking after yourselves too.
A last thought, from Julie Sanders, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University, via Wonkhe that the future of University life will be
not without its risks or its challenges, but something caring and creative and full of hope for the future. Our students deserve no less. And so do academics and staff.