There’s a reason why the sympathy cards we buy don’t include, above their sombre, understated images of flowers, statements like; ‘Your Feelings Are Wrong! This Isn’t A Loss, It’s An Opportunity!’ or ‘Buck up! You Need To Regard This Moment As A Challenge!’ or ‘Shame On You, Whinger! Your Feelings Of Grief Constitute A Failure Of Resilience!’
Of course, we wouldn’t accept those sentiments from a sympathy card. We’d know them to be unforgivably insensitive, inaccurate, and crashingly stupid. I wonder why we accept these retractions of empathy elsewhere?
Grief is the response to the loss of something to which a bond or affection has been formed. We establish these bonds whenever we take an idea deep into our care. Grief is a consequence of making values-based commitments. Grief is a consequence of deciding to belong. Grief is the price we pay for identifying strongly with someone or something. Grief is a measure of quality time invested, of the number of f**ks given.
Back when I was working as a course leader for a successful undergraduate degree programme, I grieved surprisingly often. These were the micro-bereavements; the introduction of yet another new credit framework satisfying some arcane efficiency-or-other, with its immediate effect of killing dead all the amenities of my existing units and the nuanced teaching and learning cultures they’d come to support; or whenever senior managers pressurised my staff to ‘revisit’ their assessments to ensure they aligned more readily with the institutional bell curve, a measurement surely as doltish as any wayward algorithm; likewise, senior management’s relentless emphasis on the narrowest possible definition of student satisfaction and its – shhhhh! – magical effects on grade inflation.
All the many moments like these – unremarkable, ubiquitous, bureaucratic, impersonal – would nonetheless elicit real sadness from me, not the boo-hoo variety, but a much more insidious grief, triggered by the casual depreciation of my heartfelt values as an educator.
I recall weightier bereavements too: sitting through the grand unveiling of the university’s ‘Business Plan’, which disestablished my job role, and that of every other experienced course leader in the organisation. I sat quietly in my seat, holding an imaginary bingo card, experiencing a strange mixture of jubilation and disappointment each time the Vice Chancellor used the word ‘opportunity’ to reconfigure the bereavements coming our way. I was reminded of the scene in Star Wars, when Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan Kenobi waves his hand in the face of a busy-body imperial stormtrooper, intoning, ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’. The Vice-Chancellor partook in a similar sleight of hand, as with one flash of a desultory PowerPoint slide, he seemed to say, ‘No one is being made redundant today! You’re just being invited to participate in a process of change, adaptation and personal growth.’
In my role as co-director of an online learning design agency specialising in supporting other educators to deliver exceptional online learning, I find myself conflicted. These past strange months, I’ve talked with, Zoomed with, and mentored a large number of teachers, who are meeting the changes wrought by Covid with varying levels of enthusiasm and confidence. In some ways, I find myself in the role of the ‘smiling face’ of change management, as I work with tutors to help them feel more at home in the online teaching space – even going as far as suggesting how some of the characteristics of online learning might enhance their teaching more generally, which I believe. A large part of the successes of my tenure as course leader stemmed from my early embrace of online communities in support of learning and student engagement, and from ‘flipping the classroom’ through making available a rich curricula of quality online video resources.
So my conflict stems, not from insincerity, but from a failure of hypocrisy. I recall very well how often I wanted to slap the smiling face of my own ‘change-managers’ for their breath-taking insensitivity; for the glib way they’d dispense with my feelings of loss by characterising them as recalcitrance, as bloodymindedness, or as pitiable ingenuousness in the face of the irresistible sweep of neoliberalism.
My conflict stems from all those recent conversations with teachers of different kinds in their various institutions, like the late-night email I received from the passionate, highly experienced teacher in textiles, who simply couldn’t stomach the thought of her imminent Google Classroom training, in all its pale comparison with her actual classroom. It wasn’t stubbornness. It wasn’t sloth, and it wasn’t technophobia. It was all much simpler than that. She was being expected to muster enthusiasm for taking on a new pet after her own beloved dog had just been flattened by a car.
More recently, I talked with a senior lecturer, who admitted to feeling physically nauseous at the thought of another day in front of his laptop; another day, on his own, in his room, on his laptop, his face pushed up against the faces of his students, yet devoid also of contact with them, and likewise his colleagues, and with all the smaller, less tangible things once combining to produce the culture of his course and its successes. Green around the gills and exhausted, he sees all of this from his strange remove, as all the things that once felt certain struggle to remain so, his own identity included.
This is the special hopelessness of the bereaved, the secret they keep for fear of appearing weak or uncooperative. Despite the acuity of their loss, despite their discombobulation, they still get up, get dressed, feed themselves, feed the cat – and teach on Microsoft Teams to a classroom of learners with their cameras off.
I’m seeing bereavement everywhere. Sure, individuals are grieving the way things ‘used to be’, but not, I think, because they’re Luddites, or dinosaurs deserving of a jolly big meteor, but rather because their identities are in crisis. They are not who they used to be, and yet the speed of change in the sector insists they bury these feelings in order to satisfy everyone else. Worse, there is as much shame around as you want: shame, because you don’t know how to use Zoom or Teams or Classroom or whatever; shame, because a part of you cannot be bothered to grow, or learn, or adapt, while your heart still smarts; shame, because you suspect your students are unhappy (which they likely are, because, yes, they’re grieving too); and shame, because you just want things to go back the way they were, while other bright and shiny people proselytise about the future; and where there’s shame, there’s resentment, and where there is resentment, there is anger, and so it goes.
Now, before I meet other educators in my role at Ding, I make myself remember sitting quietly in my chair at the presentation of the university’s Business Plan, being cheerled into ‘seizing opportunities’ at the very same moment my incumbent identity was being effaced. I remember to empathise, which is to listen, and extend condolences by showing patience. So I never think, ‘Oh no! Here is another late-adopter’. I don’t think, ‘Why are some academics so bloody difficult?’ I’m thinking, here is just another someone estranged from who they once where and what they once knew how to do, and I’m minded to read frustration, reluctance, resistance and ‘shut-downness’ for what it likely is; bereavement working its way out.
There’s a reason the sympathy cards we buy don’t say ‘Your Feelings Are Wrong! This Isn’t A Loss, It’s An Opportunity!’
There’s a reason change takes time.