Transitions are liminal spaces. We move through them from one place to another. In writing, transitions build bridges between paragraphs. They give readers a sense of where they’re headed. But in some transitions that space in between feels less like a bridge and more like a fog. You catch glimpses of where you’re going, but then there’s no sense of direction. Many of you may be feeling that way after a semester of unexpected transition.
What makes transitions hard? The uncertainty. Are we going to be teaching face-to-face? Will our courses be remote? Completely online or just mostly? Will we be on campus or at home? How many students will come back? Should the course schedule be adjusted? Anxiety festers with not knowing.
What makes transitions hard? The sense of loss. The still emerging “new” normal doesn’t offer the security the “old” one afforded. Courses started and unfolded according to the plan. Unexpected things did pop up, but we could handle them. We had a policy for late submissions, knew what adjustments could be made to the calendar, and had good advice to offer when students had problems. Providing that kind of leadership engenders confidence, and we’ve had less of that as we moved through recent courses, poking at the fog with flashlights.
What makes transitions hard? A less than perfect performance. Given the circumstances, we tried hard and kept our classes going, but to many of us it still feels like we delivered less than our best. Even though we know it takes time to learn a new routine, who enjoys stumbling on the dance floor?
As difficult as transitional times are, they present opportunities for learning, and if there’s one thing we academics love, it’s learning. That love isn’t always felt when the learning is difficult, frustrating, and error ridden, but when learning transforms into learned, it precipitates a joyful knowing and a need to learn more.
Learning during transitions requires looking for what we haven’t yet learned. Maybe the place to start is with that less than perfect performance. Beyond that we need to look at students (what didn’t they learn?) and at our departments, programs, and institutions (how can their responses be strengthened?). There’s more to learn from mistakes than from successes.
Learning during transitions requires considering conclusions as tentative—deciding what we should do today with the recognition that we may need to change our minds tomorrow. Like a flag we blow in the wind—ripple, snap, wrap around, and then unfurl. It’s looks like it feels—pretty wild but not out of control. We’re there on the flagpole and we’re flying.
Learning during transitions requires looking back but moving forward. We don’t ever want to forget where we’ve been. We’ve learned a lot, been through other transitions, and taken our teaching to a better place. At this point we’re on the move again, and although we can’t see where we’ll end up, we’re getting a sense of where we’re headed. That’s enough for us to start thinking, planning, preparing, and organizing.
Learning during transitions requires that we embrace change. That doesn’t mean we have to love it, because a lot of us don’t. Change is a complex interplay of forces, but we’re not powerless in the face of them. When it comes to courses, it’s pretty much the teacher who decides what to change and when and how to change it. Is there an academic discipline or professional program where there aren’t implications of the pandemic to explore and education to adjust as we move forward? What we need to embrace is the power to change.
This is a time of transition for me too. We’ve moved to what we affectionately call “the grow-old house”—all one level, with wide doors and a big shower with grab rails. My office is now a nook. My teaching and learning books? Downsized to fit on four shelves. I’m wondering whether most hard transitions don’t share characteristics that make them ripe for learning.
To learn during transitions we pause, we reflect, we recharge. We give ourselves credit when it’s deserved, we squarely face what’s ahead, and during a pandemic, we text each other for support. Transitions begin, and we muddle through the middle and find our way to their end.
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