By Gideon Nomdo
Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has left nothing but devastation in its path. On the educational front, its adverse impacts on the teaching and learning project have been (and continue to be) unprecedented. As committed employees of the South African higher education sector, we are all still hard at work in trying to come to terms with the impact of the pandemic on the social fabric of our world, aswe knew it. The reference to ‘as we knew it’ is important here, as it foregrounds recognisable aspects of ‘the way things were’ – when we were all caught up in the organised chaos of a complex and evolving higher education system grappling with maintaining its momentum whilst dealing with the harsh realities of transformation and equity. This window to the past also allows for a particular type of reflexive gaze to be cast upon our present state of turmoil brought about by COVID. What is apparent, is that there are clear signals that our collective grappling with ‘what exactly is happening now?’ is very much in flux, as we try to carve out some semblance of order in a higher educational system trying very hard to regain its composure. But what does this shift towards a ‘regaining of composure’ mean for us as academic development practitioners, who are all too familiar with the hierarchical systems, procedures, perspectives and attitudes that have often side-lined the work that we do, and which have ‘kept us in our place’?
We can all agree that COVID continues to have a destructive, devastating, alienating, and thoroughly exhausting effect on our professions and our well-being. It has forced us to move into isolated and uncomfortable spaces that have stretched us, and what we are employed to do, beyond our limits! It has made us question our sanity, doubt the nature, sincerity and impact of our inputs, and has imprinted our psyches with metaphorical scratches, bruises, and deep scars, as sure-tell signs of the battles being fought (but not yet won) to claim a sense of presence and acknowledgement in our emerging ‘new normal’.
As rational beings, I would like to think that we all learn from our experiences. Our roles as academic literacy practitioners means that we actively engage in critical reflexive practices. It’s part of who we are and what we do. I have come to realise that COVID has left us at a crossroad: It has forced us to take stock of our situations under warzone like conditions: we have had to reflect, to (re)assess and to (re)consider on the run, our various locations and functions within the higher education setting. I surmise that part of what COVID has left in its wake, is an opportunity for us to explore our strengths and also our vulnerabilities in the betwixt-and-between spaces we often inhabit and have come to know so well. At my institution, Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) in 2020 morphed into Physically Distanced Learning (PDL) in 2021, and what has surfaced in these modes of operation, is the recognition of the dire need for academic literacy support across the faculties. Teaching and learning in the online mode, forced disciplinary specialists to quickly become acquainted with various literacies. The online mode surfaced and exposed (even if it was unintentional) the existing ‘cracks’ in teaching and learning practices, ‘cracks’ which academic literacy practitioners were all too familiar with in the traditional face-to-face setting. These are the ‘cracks’ which disciplinary specialists often regard as ‘soft skills’, and thus, as ‘less important’ than content. What ERT and PDL have exposed, therefore, is the real and dire need for the types of work that we do in the institution. My institution (and hopefully many others) has acknowledged the importance of that role during lockdown, especially through the commendable efforts of our Academic Development Programme, which is the base from which many of us ply our trade of improving access and increasing equity. It’s a role we must be unapologetic about, especially considering the vast inequities in higher education which have been exacerbated by the shift to teaching online.
Let me end off by saying that part of our reflexive gaze over the past 21 months, has (hopefully) included a more positive and affirming reimagining of our roles as academic literacy practitioners. The multiple identities which we constantly have to navigate and negotiate, and yes, which we ourselves have had to validate, has been reforged in the crucible of COVID, and has allowed us to add to our arsenal of finely honed skills, both in the effective and affective sense.
We carry our experiences with us, and we cannot simply go back to the way things were. Things will not be the same again. If we have learnt anything from navigating the immense challenges thrown our way over the past two years, then it is that we have a shared responsibility to help shape the future of teaching and learning. Ours is an innovative and transformative agenda. It’s a necessary challenge, dear colleagues, that we must embrace.