How our not-so-glorious return to campus is changing the way we communicate. Again.

By Archie McLean (2021-09-29)

This isn’t how I imagined the start of term.

In my optimistic moments — as the third wave waned and vaccines went into arms — I had pictured happy, healthy faculty, students and staff returning to campus and resuming normal life at Mount Royal. In this imagined utopia, COVID was something in the past, something we were moving away from, the worst behind us. It’s a hope many of us had, even as we expressed skepticism about the plan.

Instead, here we are. The province’s ICU’s are nearing capacity and Alberta’s healthcare system is being crushed by the weight of the ongoing pandemic. We have been let down by provincial leaders who declared the pandemic over, encouraged everyone to have the #bestsummerever, and then watched from the sidelines as the predictable fourth wave swamped our shores. COVID is hardly in our past. 

Given that reality, our return to campus in Fall 2021 has been anything but normal. We are masked, distanced and weary from the toll of the past 18 months, but we are in our classrooms nonetheless. Once again, we are all being forced to communicate in new ways, to straddle the line between the virtual and in-person world and move between them as needed.

The current masked world has its challenges large and small. I’m a bigish guy with a bald head and I worry at times that I can come across as intimidating to students, especially given the power dynamics at play. I try to mitigate that by smiling a lot and using body language to convey openness and a sense of welcoming. In our new world, the body language can stay, but the smiles cannot. I told my students I feel like the character Bane from the Batman comics — masked, muffled and threatening.

These sorts of small indignities are manageable, especially given the challenges many in our campus community are facing with regards to their health and safety as well as their financial health. We’re back and excited, but we’re at a different place than we were when the pandemic began. 

This time last year, I wrote about our emerging digital relationships and their inability to bridge the so-called “uncanny valley” between the digital and in-person world. For me, those Google Meets and Zoom calls had all the hallmarks of a normal relationship, but inevitably fell short.

This fall even for an introvert like me, it has been wonderful to reconnect, even briefly, with colleagues and friends in person. COVID has forced us to reckon with the necessity of some parts of academic life, such as in-person conferences, classrooms and offices. This will continue after the pandemic, but it seems unlikely they will all go away, given the human need to be around other people.