This ovation, delivered by Dr Mary Benton, was given at a recently graduation ceremony where she reflected on the impact of the pandemic on our teaching.
By late March 2020 the city was almost silent but for the sound of those irritatingly early-rising seagulls. Most of you went home, some expecting to be back to pick up your belongings and in a few admirably optimistic but unwise cases your books and work, within a couple of weeks. It wasn’t to be; restrictions dragged on for 2 years and we haven’t seen some of you again until today. The massive doors of the Wills Memorial Building were locked and Ucards were disabled to stop any of us thinking we could come in through a back door to check on a lonely ion probe or to pick up some vital aid to teaching. We stayed at home, resolving not to panic about supplies of lavatory paper and pasta, and got on with devising ways of delivering the year’s remaining teaching as best we could with some pretty awful equipment. In Earth Sciences we cancelled our annual field programme. This was a huge loss because field courses offer the best opportunities to build cross-school community. They are also fun. Exams went online, papers had to be tweaked to suit and coursework had extended deadlines to make up for the shock and fear some were undergoing.
We knew that some students had gone home to difficult situations, perhaps to crowded housing or to other duties like helping home-school younger brothers and sisters or caring for ailing relatives. Others were stranded here very far indeed from their families. The university supplied laptops to students who needed them, and financial help with connectivity, although there were still people in rural blackspots who could not be helped. We were all unnerved, not being used to so much uncertainty or to reduced control of our lives.
Once your assessments were marked, and they were of an impressively decent standard, the work to deliver for the next session began. It had become clear that face-to-face teaching would not resume rapidly or normally. Academic staff had to get to grips with all kinds of new delivery mechanisms. The technical and workshop staff in our faculties were magnificent, helping us with some of this whilst at the same time perhaps devising and marking out one-way systems round buildings, fashioning plexiglass screens for lab benches or perhaps making motors to turn the stages of polarising microscopes for producing virtual lab class videos that bore some resemblance to the norm. Some engineers and chemists had home practical kits shipped out to them. The School of Chemistry, with access to large quantities of isopropanol, helpfully produced ample supplies of hand gel to keep us all sanitised.
Best of all, as the summer wore on, sounds of happy students returned to residential areas started and neighbourhoods that had been enjoying unusually quiet conditions were in for a shock. A select few people were allowed back into University buildings and the task of adaptation for the next academic year began.
Aware that residential fieldwork and possibly even day fieldwork would be unlikely to happen, I and supporting spouse/amateur camera man sped north to Arran, Earth Sciences’ usual Year 1 field course venue, to make footage for a virtual field course. As might be anticipated, it rained torrentially on all but one day so the commentaries made at individual outcrops had to be voiced over on return as the sounds of rain on waterproofs and the whistle of wind through vegetation drowned even bellowed words out. It did keep the midges and ticks at bay. Many images and clips were adorned with raindrops. Nonetheless, the task felt like a real holiday what with fantastic rocks and a change of scene.
We started the session with masked, visored and socially-distanced labs, voices muffled and faces hidden. Even so the first years in particular went down with covid at alarming rates and were put into isolation in their flats, sustained by University-issue food boxes. My tutees told me these contained some unusually upmarket ingredients and treats, but were let down by huge quantities of weapons-grade canned macaroni cheese.
The use of Zoom, Collaborate and Teams gave some unusual insights into all our lifestyles. Early visions of students joining classes prone under duvets were a novelty. At least they were there. One appeared in bed at the start of a practical, turned his camera off whilst he adjusted his dress and appeared decently clothed by the wrap-up at the end. The bandwidth in most housing didn’t allow for more than one camera to be on at a time so students usually appeared as black rectangles, whose responses to teaching or engagement with learning were hard to gauge. Students realised staff lived in actual houses and flats and not in their labs and offices, and became familiar with their cats, dogs and small humans. Staff who joined the rallying livestream sessions offered by Senior Management soon became acquainted with their various tastes in designer cushionage and pottery dogs. All these domestic revelations were good levellers in this strange world.
Collaboration between staff, demonstrators and students increased as never before. The number of students who said ‘thank you’ at the end of every online session was really heartening for staff who were wrestling with the challenges of delivering blended or entirely online teaching.
In Earth Sciences we questioned why we had so seldom made full use of what was on the doorstep, travelling 100s of km annually to teach some of the basics of fieldwork. We had discovered new green routes through the city on our allotted exercise hour each day and knew there was enough very close by to salvage at least some of the field programme. Our competitor institutions in the Fens and in London could not equal this. Our students are all now very familiar with the woods, fields and cattle on the west side of the Avon Gorge. They may well have seen enough limestone for some time and no igneous and metamorphic rocks at all but at least know their carbon footprints were impressively low.
By the summer term things were opening up more and the best bits of the year were hearing life in the corridors again and going on field days, residentials still being impossible. Many of our first years met and talked to classmates for the first time. Our School hired a total of forty-two coaches over ten days, all of course socially distanced, to make sure students in Years 1-3 each had five field days. Enjoyment and newfound camaraderie were tangible even in howling winds and torrential rain on Clevedon shore or up in the Mendips. The things that usually lower student spirits went unnoticed.
The zenith of this year is today, seeing and hearing so many of you again. You have found your places in the world under extremely testing circumstances. You have proven that there are jobs out there, that there are postgraduate and postdoctoral positions to be filled, hard though some of these have been to nail. Yours may be the last cohort for some years to have had so much opportunity to learn and to carry out research by doing and experiencing as well as by listening and looking things up. It is so much easier and more exciting that way.
Our current undergraduates have had few of the experiences you did and have rather different approaches to study. PhD students who began last session or this have not had the same chances to take root in research groups as you in the front row had because access to facilities has been restricted or has had to be negotiated because of space allocations.
Think about this magnificent building we are in today. Inanimate though it is, it has great resonance with your experiences. It was engineered and it was faced and floored with rock. It was damaged once and was empty and desolate on two occasions. It is restored and full once again as it was meant to be. You have been locked out but are here again, having ridden out a very difficult time in your mostly very young lives, just as it did. It is like you, engineers, authorities on earthly matters, built up, knocked back by two lockdowns but here again, ready for years of activity and service just as you are.