By Dr Kate Cantrell, Dr Emma Doolan, and Dr Kelly Palmer
According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Group, the pandemic not only represents a global health crisis but a global learning crisis too. The UN reports that COVID has created “the largest disruption of education systems in history” and as such, a top priority is “preventing this learning crisis from becoming a generational catastrophe” (UNSDG 2). In other words, this disruption to education is “far from over” (3).
At the time of writing, we find ourselves within a liminal historical moment, floating between what was and what might be. In our shared experience teaching Creative Writing during COVID, we observed common pedagogical challenges across undergraduate programmes at USQ, SCU, and QUT. Granted, some of the struggles outlined here predate the pandemic, since the sector was sick before the virus. However, the silent and invisible threat posed by COVID has aggravated already existing ills in a flailing system.
Taking the Temperature: Ruminations on Pandemic Teaching
1. COVID’s effect on student affect is significant.
Students have self-reported a range of adverse social, emotional, and psychological impacts, from COVID-somnia to doomscrolling to compulsive news-checking and lapses in memory and concentration. In our experience, the most widely reported negative response is heightened anxiety and stress, with common stressors including financial strain (typically caused by employment loss); limited or inconsistent access to the internet (an ongoing concern for regional students); and ruptures in daily routines (for example, the sudden necessity of homeschooling). Not surprisingly, an especially at-risk group for COVID fatigue are mature-age women who are balancing study with caring responsibilities and employment. This demographic, which reflects the profile of many regional institutions (Richardson & Friedman 17-18), is disproportionately affected by the current recession and was already identified pre-COVID as a high-risk population for trauma and PTSD (Read et al; Frazier et al).
2. The urgent imperative to “move online” was compromised by insufficient bandwidth, little preparation or training, and no compensation.
The time-sucking work of redesigning synchronous classes for online instruction under normal circumstances would be completed (and paid) across months, if not years. At the height of the crisis, this work was compounded into weeks and framed as a staff “donation” to “beat the virus!” and “preserve jobs!”. The rhetoric around surviving the pandemic has invoked wartime discourse, with every person called to citizenship and encouraged, if not mandated, to contribute to the cause. At the same time, management’s insistence on “business as usual” exacerbated the already widespread exploitation of staff. Even before the pandemic, academics were unpaid for a whole day of work each week. In fact, the NTEU estimates that university staff donate $1.7billion of work every year (4).
3. Digital pedagogies can leverage e-affordances; however, technology can still be a barrier to student engagement.
Even in high-income countries with advanced technology infrastructure, many students lack basic digital literacy, meaning they will struggle to undertake quality distance learning. Students hesitant or unequipped to engage online may find themselves isolated from support networks that are crucial for success and engagement, particularly in Creative Writing where the collaborative workshop remains a staple. Social isolation, then, negatively impacts online student outcomes and experiences (Baum & McPherson 245). This year’s lockdowns and border closures have intensified isolation, and in the absence of peer-support, students come to rely on teaching staff as their primary point of contact. The result is increased need for individualised attention and pastoral care, which bloats already swollen workloads, inevitably leading to staff burnout.
4. Creative Writing teachers are liminal servants.
The rampant corporatisation and casualisation of the university exploits the teacher’s status as a liminal servant – one who enchants the ambiguous space of learning, supporting students to demystify their education in order to more deeply understand (McLaren). In this way, teachers compress and manipulate time to help students cope with change, turn angst into art, and “wake up” to the inner workings of the university. Naturally, this task – which we might think of as “teaching the world” – requires emotional labour, patience, and immense self-reflexivity. In the precarious limbo of the present, work is a black hole, perilous and collapsible, and distorted by our perception of time itself.
5. The pandemic has changed the way students engage.
The pandemic is also changing the types of stories our students write. For example, in Writing for Young Readers, a first-year course at USQ, there was a noticeable shift in novel proposals, from the usually popular genres of afterlife fiction and terminal romance to pandemic fiction, conspiracy fiction, and post-apocalyptic dystopia. This “Lockdown Literature” is a new genre that captures the fears and anxieties of a time not yet passed. What remains to be seen is whether writing programmes will develop new courses, or adapt existing ones, to teach students about the pandemic in real-time. Framed as a question: will COVID permanently change not only how we teach, but what we teach as well?
Baum, Sandy, and Michael McPherson. “The Human Factor: The Promise and Limits of Online Education.” Daedalus, vol. 148, no. 4, 2019, pp. 5-13.
Frazier, Patricia, et al. “Does Self-Reported Post-Traumatic Growth Reflect Genuine Positive Change?” Psychological Science, vol. 20, no. 7, 2009, pp. 912-919.
McLaren, Peter. Schooling as a Ritual Performance. Routledge, 1986.
NTEU. State of the Uni Survey: Report #2 Workloads, July 2015, http://www.nteu.org.au/article/Media-Release%3A-Release-of-NTEU-State-of-Uni-Survey-Workloads-Report-No.2-17807.
Read, Jennifer, et al. “Rates of DSM-IV-TR Trauma Exposure and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Among Newly Matriculated College Students.” Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, vol. 3, no. 2, 2011, pp. 148-156.
Richardson, Sarah, and Tim Friedman. Australian Regional Higher Education: Student Characteristics and Experiences. Australian Council for Educational Research, July 2010, http://research.acer.edu.au/higher_education/22/.
UNSDG. Policy Brief: Education During COVID-19 and Beyond. United Nations, August 2020, http://unsdg.un.org/resources/policy-brief-education-during-covid-19-and-beyond.
Kate Cantrell is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of Southern Queensland. She is an award-winning writer, editor, and teacher working at the intersection of creative writing and social justice, with an interest in narrative representations of ‘wandering’ and contemporary accounts of illness, immobility, and displacement. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in several magazines and journals, and she writes regularly for Times Higher Education.
Emma Doolan is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Southern Cross University. Her research explores Gothic representations of place, particularly in writing about Australia’s hinterland regions. She is also interested in modernism, feminism, ecocriticism, pop culture, and creative writing practice.
Kelly Palmer is a casual academic at Queensland University of Technology. She has taught Creative Writing in primary and high schools, libraries and writers’ centres, and at the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre. Her creative and critical writing has been published in Overland, Voiceworks, Swamp, Transnational Literature, and Queensland Review. Her research explores textual representations of the Gold Coast and the ways that low-income locals experience “paradise” as an alienating limbo.