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The role of emotions and connections in higher education: Covid-19 reflections

Image of 13 BILT hackathon participants from various schools, disciplines, and qualification levels at the University of Bristol. The July 2022 hackathon was created to allow the University to learn more about the student experience and to involve students in answering the overarching question: ‘What teaching and learning activities best support a sense of belonging and well-being?’ Photo Credit: Patty Miranda/University of Bristol

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us many difficult lessons, including what happens when we cannot bring our authentic selves – our values, feelings, insecurities, priorities, and quirks – to the spaces where we live, work, and study. For many of us, during the lockdowns, these spaces tended to converge within the intimacy of our homes, in spaces often shared (or not) with other people. Understandably, things could and did get messy.

In terms of teaching and learning, study and work-from-home arrangements have put traditional (and unsustainable) higher education expectations of ‘perfection, expertise, polished experiences, and performances’ (Nerantzi et al., 2021) to the test. The neoliberal perspective that ‘the economy will keep churning, no matter what, even during a pandemic’ (Maddox and Creech, 2022) is inherently harmful. We are all gaslit into thinking our burnouts and breakdowns are due to individual factors rather than the result of harmful broader socioeconomic forces that actively silence our collective pleas for rest, care, and support. The resulting precarity and mental health consequences for students, faculty, and academic staff highlight the inherent instability of institutions and structures that relentlessly demand increasing productivity levels despite ongoing and overlapping existential threats like the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis.

It is not surprising, then, that the University of Bristol’s 2021 Wellbeing Survey results show a steady decline in student mental health and wellbeing since 2019. According to the survey, students had higher levels of depression and anxiety than before the Covid-19 pandemic. Additionally, one in four students reported feeling a ‘heightened sense of loneliness.’ To ensure we look at the bigger picture, it is also critical to survey teaching and other staff to determine how much unpaid care and emotional labour they were doing during the pandemic. University management also needs to ask (and seriously address) whether there was just compensation and adequate resourcing for these extra efforts, often above and beyond job requirements, to fill staffing gaps and to address students’ unmet need for pastoral care and academic mentorship.

These findings, which should be compared to the upcoming 2022 Wellbeing Survey results, highlight the importance of cultivating connections and ensuring that classrooms and other learning spaces allow people to participate meaningfully, relate to one another, and share their ideas and feelings. According to Quinlan (2016), whose work was used to anchor discussions during the recently held wellbeing hackathon organized by BILT, emotions are important because they are at the heart of relationships; and relationships are important in the teaching and learning processes in higher education because these form the firm foundation on which inclusive communities are built. These ‘interrelational experiences that address academic, intellectual and social agendas, where values are explicitly articulated as part of the student experience’ (Quinlan, 2016) will necessarily require transformative shifts, and not just tinkering around the edges, to genuinely promote belonging and wellbeing in higher education.

So, how can we authentically engage with our respective schools and disciplines, and form long-lasting bonds that knit communities of teaching and learning together? For a start, promoting wellbeing and belonging must be more than just compliance add-ons. There must be genuine and joined-up efforts across the University to embed an emotive and relational pedagogy across the curriculum. There have been significant steps in the right direction, such as dedicated staff and resources looking into incorporating student wellbeing and belonging into curricula, and exploratory dialogues around the benefit of integrating reflection into a core first-year unit to provide students with the tools to implement change and seek support, if needed. Conversations are finally taking place about the value of genuine connections and meaningful interactions essential to creating caring and compassionate communities where no one is left behind in pursuing academic, social, and emotional goals. The next steps are not simply to keep communication lines open, but also to transform rhetoric into sustainable action.

References:

Maddox, J., Creech, B., 2022. Leaning in, pushed out: Postfeminist precarity, pandemic labor, and journalistic discourse. International Journal of Cultural Studies 25, 174–191. https://doi.org/10.1177/13678779211047997

Nerantzi, C., Chatzidamianos, G., Stathopoulou, H., Karaouza, E., 2021. Human Relationships in Higher Education: The Power of Collaboration, Creativity and Openness. Journal of Interactive Media in Education 2021, 26. https://doi.org/10.5334/jime.668

Quinlan, K.M., 2016. How Emotion Matters in Four Key Relationships in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. College Teaching 64, 101–111. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2015.1088818

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