Reflecting on Uncertainty in Uncertain Times

Hello from another week of the odd times with the Activist Classroom. This week I reflect about navigating uncertainty in this, the strangest collective year in recent memory.

The novel coronavirus is a terrible party guest. It came uninvited. It’s wildly unpredictable. And, it’s armed with a thousand bad conversation starters:

What are the government’s plans for re-opening? Are resources reaching society’s most vulnerable members? What protocols will remain in place? How will they be enforced? When will children return to school? Should they return to school? When will retail open? What about the film industry? The fitness industry? What will universities do? Will we ever get theatre back?  What will the “new normal” look like? Are we already in it?

These questions run on loop in my head, in the news, in the endless zoom calls. They are, in fact, an articulation of one of the defining features of the Covid-19 pandemic thus far: uncertainty.

We don’t have all the information, and so we don’t have the answers. And no one else has them either.

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The uncertainty itself isn’t unprecedented. People’s worlds are routinely turned upside-down by innumerable catastrophes and marvels. What’s unprecedented, at least in recent western memory, is that so many people are grappling with a similar set societal uncertainties at the same time.

In these uncertain times, I find myself turning to my favourite thinkers and writers. One of these thinkers is Sara Ahmed. From examining queer orientation to tracking the logic of happiness to researching diversity work and complaint in post secondary institutions, Sara Ahmed frequently begins with the question, “What does X [an orientation toward an idea, the concept of happiness, a commitment] do?”

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The cover of Sara Ahmed’s recent book, Living a Feminist Life

As we move through the uncertainty of spring 2020, I find myself drawn to this question.

What is the uncertainty produced by the Covid-19 pandemic doing? More simply, what are the multi-layered (personal, social, political) effects of mass uncertainty?

One day, when I’m feeling intellectually sharper than these early pandemic days, I will probably ask these questions on a broader scale.

Right now, I’m drawn to my personal sphere. So, I asked my mother what she thought about uncertainty and the novel coronavirus.

“It’s the little things,” she told me. By way of example, she explained that she and my father didn’t know how to make a virtual doctor’s appointment.

“Do you want me to look it up for you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I can look it up myself!” (Admittedly, I walked into that reply). “I’ve just never had to. I don’t know how it works or what to expect. The uncertainty makes you pay attention.”

Indeed.

Since the pandemic response ramped up in Canada in late March, I have felt the novel coronavirus’s call to attention across my life: at the grocery store, in the daily emails from my university, in hours-long phone calls with friends I may not see for a long time.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on parts of my life. (Also: I chose this image because it’s a theatre stage illuminated by a pair of spots, and I miss theatre stages.)

I have noticed this call to attention in my teaching life, too.

Most folk have now weathered the mid-semester upheavals of the spring outbreaks and institutional closures, but the traditional post-secondary teaching structure has undoubtedly been shaken. As colleges and universities begin to plan for fall 2020 at least partly online, the lasting effects for classrooms — for the entire post-secondary norm — are, well, uncertain.

In terms of teaching, I, like everyone, am curious about all the big questions: Will classes be virtual in Fall 2020? What about Spring 2021? How will this affect teaching in the coming years? But, I find, too, that many more personal questions are floating to the surface:

  • How will I, who so value the “liveness” of both theatre and teaching, adjust to asynchronous virtual teaching methods?
  • How can virtual space prompt me to re-imagine my classrooms in new ways?
  • How will I support students, whose learning conditions and university experience are likely to undergo rapid changes in the months ahead, while also encouraging rigorous, critical engagement with the material we’re meant to be studying?
  • How will I learn from, and remain in touch with, colleagues (without getting bogged down in administration and endless virtual calls)?

My inner coordinator, the part of me that likes to plan and schedule and colour code things, is eager to start answering these questions. And, at some point, she will prevail.

But, for now, I have decided that my pedagogical work is about attunement and inventory: To where am I drawn? What do I turn away from? Where does pedagogical focus lead me? What questions do I return to? 

I am hopeful this work will anchor me – and perhaps, if you choose to borrow it, you – as I navigate the uncertain waters of the months ahead.

 

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