uncertain waters

Posted on  by Tesni Ellis

It’s April 2nd, SERT is two short months from completing our project and term as a team, and yet it’s likely we won’t see each other in person through any of that time. How can it be that just a few weeks ago we went to the RIC together and looked at “A Handful of Dust”, contemplating the things left behind, the things accumulated, the things both macro and micro? Is it possible that just a few weeks ago we were setting up our SERT audio-booth around campus and inviting students to talk with us, to share their stories in our booth and on our survey, as we described the goals of our work? When we giggled and admired our creation and saw it in action after many hours of dreaming. How can our bodies and minds process this shift that so quickly and so drastically has us trying to grasp at the memory of simple things like a walk with a friend, a long embrace, a handshake hello?

Since John’s last post in February, it’s hard to describe in detail all the things that have changed. I’ll try my best. It won’t be quite as elegant as John’s, but blame it on the quarantine blues.

We waited for our REB approval to come in, a wait that at times felt excruciatingly long as we were poised to jump to action the moment we saw that “approved” come through. While we waited we planned, we organized and considered all the things left to complete in the project. We went back to our literature. We built our booth! Tristan created our recording device; Gillian created some stunning designs that solidified our identity.

Then the news came – we were REB approved! But for some revisions. We whipped those up and turned our sights on activating spaces with our survey booth and enticing participants to join us and share their stories and ideas about student engagement. From the moment we saw the survey go live, our energy lifted – we saw answers coming in in real time and we dove into the insights already. We looked closely at what was working about the activations, and pivoted where necessary. We shared joyful space together.

We cried when John announced he would be leaving Ryerson for a new opportunity.

We hugged him farewell at the last survey activation – little did we know that hugs would soon be an international faux-pas.

We’d heard of the coronavirus and its devastating impact across the world, but we hadn’t yet understood it was here, amongst us, already. We hadn’t yet understood the massive, sweeping shift to our lives and security and wellbeing that would soon take hold.

We still don’t understand.

On March 13, 2020, Ryerson University announced all classes and exams would shift to an alternative/online format in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, as the spread of the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. All campus in-person events and gatherings were cancelled as well. In the days following, Ryerson University adjusted operations in efforts to encourage community safety and “social distancing” practices to mitigate the spread of the virus. On March 17, Ryerson University announced a shift to an essential services model, resulting in the complete closure of nearly all campus buildings and services, as students, faculty, and staff adjusted to a new learning, teaching, and community reality.

SERT adjusted, too. Our boat, while navigating unprecedented waters, remained afloat if not a bit stalled, a bit seasick even. We learned how to use Zoom and connect in new ways. We considered the pandemic’s impact on our research methodology as planned, its impact on our participants, its impact on us. We felt it all over. We continue to feel it all over.

But when we see each others faces on our screens, invited suddenly into the intimacies of our homes, rooms, kitchen tables, it feels possible. We remain a team committed to students, committed to our project, and committed to our purpose. And we smile and find ways to laugh and support each other through unimaginable grief, chaos, upheaval in all the ways it is manifesting for each of us individually.

Our interviews may suffer – we may only have a couple participants join us on google-maps-digital-walking-interviews. But that’s okay. We understand students are just trying to make it through. And yet some interesting things can be said about student engagement and distance from the institution or feelings of belonging when we can no longer gather on campus. When we are forcibly distant rather than ideologically or emotionally distant. So, as this team is built to do, we switch directions in some ways and continue forward in others.

Our survey data is rich and exciting and now what remains is to understand it, to pull out the insights and make something of them. To draw connections between what our participants shared with us and what we ask questions about in our ambling team discussions and back to the literature. Will our ideas about “student desirability” be confirmed by those students willing to share time and experiences with us? Will we learn something about the barriers to student engagement and students’ perceptions of their own ability or desire to engage? I believe we already have.

Now, to create something of all this. To analyze, to zoom in and then zoom out and then map and consider and loop back. Each of us is dedicated to seeing the project through even amidst a worldwide crisis – and in some ways it is what’s helping us hold onto reality, some sense of normalcy and purpose (is that just me?).

I couldn’t dream of a better group of people, kind and caring and intelligent people, to go through this with.

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