Eduvation Blog

Compassion, Camus and COVID

Good morning, whether you’re celebrating sunscreen or cellophane tape today.

Personally, I’m convening another roundtable of university CMOs today, to talk about the challenges of communicating campus re-opening plans for Fall. While I thought it would be appropriate to catch you up on Fall 2021 plans today – that’s frankly too big a job for a “school night.”

Sometimes it’s just as well that I don’t commit to a topic in advance anyway, since current events can sometimes steer me towards a much more timely priority. So is the case today, as thousands of Dawson College students boycott in-person exams starting at 8:00am today in Montreal…



Invoking Camus

You may recall me mentioning last summer that it seemed only appropriate for a year in quarantine that I re-read Albert Camus’ famous 1947 novel, La Peste. I certainly wasn’t alone…


Journal of a Plague Year

Nobel prize-winning Albert Camus’ 74-year-old existentialist novel, The Plague, was back-ordered everywhere last year as sales doubled and tripled in Europe, the book re-entered the top 10 bestsellers list in France, and a new translation provided the opportunity to reconsider it in the light of COVID19. Thousands of writers invoked the account of a fictional plague in Algeria to illuminate our context, from bloggers in Vox and Open Culture, reporters for the BBC, or columnists in Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Maclean’s, to ethics profs in Canadian Dimension and the Healthcare Ethics Committee Forum, and medical researchers in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings.


Illuminating the “Unprecedented”

Of the hundreds (thousands?) of novels I had studied across a 10-year university career in literature, La Pesteseemed like essential reading last year. The most striking thing about the fictional plague in 1940s Oran was of course how very little times had changed by 2021. The best recourse of public health officials was still social distancing, fresh air, and mask mandates. Borders were closed to prevent the spread of contagion. Politicians were in denial, until they themselves fell ill. Business owners protested. And frontline healthcare workers, volunteers or not, were forced to confront an immense death toll. By 2021, iron lungs had been replaced by ventilators and monoclonal antibody treatments, but human nature was surprisingly unchanged. The Great Pandemic of 2021 was not at all “unprecedented,” as Camus made plain: “There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”


“There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” – Albert Camus, The Plague, 1947



Opportunity for Introspection

I acknowledge that I was one of the fortunate ones in 2020: for the first time in decades, I was thrust unexpectedly into a 5-month summer vacation by the abrupt cancellation of all the campus workshops and conference keynotes that had filled my calendar. My grown children and retired parents were both self-sufficient. I already had a well-equipped home office. And I had so much free time on my hands that I started this daily newsletter! Camus’ characters find likewise that unexpected quarantine in the heat of Algeria (and, admittedly, the imminent prospect of mortality) provides an incredible opportunity (and impetus) to reflect on one’s life and humanity, and to observe others in action.


Rising Above Ourselves

The crisis provides selfish villains and cowards an opportunity to reveal their true colours, but also gives many heroes the opportunity to display compassion and selflessness. My most-used slide in presentations about COVID19 features a quote from Camus, that “plague… helps men rise above themselves.” Although, sadly, the pandemic has also provided an excuse for plenty of xenophobia, racism, nationalism and class warfare. The immense gulf between haves and have-nots, those who can work from home and those who must commute to work, those who accumulated immense wealth and those who faced financial ruin, was illuminated in the harsh light of the pandemic as well.




Campus Compassion

But in my presentations, I have increasingly focused on the positive innovations and accommodations in the world of higher education, only made possible by the abrupt pivot to remote delivery and the collective trauma of COVID19…


Community Engagement

On college and university campuses around the world, examples have abounded of acts of compassion and generosity, from donations of PPE and 3D printed face shields to student residences opened to frontline healthcare workers and athletics stadiums repurposed as emergency field hospitals. Under lockdown conditions, on most campuses the only research activity permitted to proceed was critical research in virology, immunology, vaccines and medical therapies. (Although I reported some interesting new examples in the Insider when they first surfaced, I admit all of these quickly became so widespread and consistent as to become no longer “newsworthy.”) Ironically, just as social distancing required us to evacuate our campuses and step away from neighbours and social interaction, our institutions were called upon more than ever to engage with their surrounding communities, and their research efforts became more vital than ever. (Of course, the relentless public focus on COVID19 research also meant far too much media attention on pre-print and unreviewed preliminary findings from clinical trials, and the sequence of evolving results and implications ironically undermined faith in science, among those unfamiliar with its actual operation.)


Compassion for Coworkers

I have devoted considerably more time, in the Insider and my presentations, to the wellness initiatives promoted by CdnPSE leaders, such as limiting evening and weekend email, encouraging meeting-free lunch hours or Fridays, or providing additional days off for employee appreciation. In most cases, we have come to treat each other more holistically as full human beings, now that our meetings include household pets and young children, and work hours have become flexible around personal obligations and emergencies. (See my Insider Recap of “Pandemic Upsides” for plenty more examples.)


Academic Policies

In particular, I have been tracking institutional announcements of new compassionate policies affecting add/drop deadlines, pass/fail grading, waived documentation requirements, and even the elimination of high-stakes mid-term and final examinations. Thousands of faculty members have taken the opportunity to be more conscious of pedagogical principles and curriculum design, and to rethink their approaches to assessing student learning. Many universities cancelled final exams entirely in the spring of 2020, and quite a few banned in-person exams last Fall too. (One of these days I will tackle the stack of hundreds of articles I have collected about the controversies over remote proctoring software, a topic in itself.)



Recent Announcements

Since I last summarized compassionate academic policies in mid-April (see “Compassion, Cruelty and Pay Cuts”) there have been several more announcements…

Brock U Senate extended credit/no credit grading options to Winter term courses, “to support ongoing student success and to recognize the challenges students continue to face during the COVID19 pandemic.” Students can convert up to 5.0 credits per degree, after final grades are available. Brock

uManitoba has compassionate grading options in effect for the Winter 2021 term, and students have until May 31 to exclude grades from Fall 2020 or Winter 2021. “I know this has been a tough year. Please know that we are here to help you get across the finish line.”  UM

uToronto’s Faculty of Arts & Science has permanently extended the CR/NCR deadline to the final day of classes, after months of advocacy by the Arts and Science Student Union. “The Faculty recognized that our students felt that a later deadline would alleviate a large amount of stress surrounding their grades.” The policy will be in place for Fall 2021 onward.  The Varsity

Wilfrid Laurier U’s Senate announced a credit/no credit grading option for up to 0.5 credit per term, and a maximum of 1 credit per degree, for the Winter 2021 term and “until the academic disruption caused by COVID19 is declared over.” (NCR options taken prior to this term do not count towards the maximum.)  WLU


Permanent Pass/Fail Options?

Many experts in pedagogy believe that grading student work is a significant disincentive to learning, but accreditation, transcripts and credit transfer all seem to make grading a necessary evil. “Why would we be quibbling about the details of an A or B amidst a global pandemic?” MIT had been experimenting with pass/fail options for upperclassmen even before COVID19, to encourage collaborative work and focus on learning, instead of competition for grades. While many institutions may revert to pre-pandemic grading practices, at least the crisis has sparked conversations and “pushed the needle” a little.  Ed Surge



La Belle Langue Sans Merci

While compassionate HR and academic policies were widespread in CdnPSE during the past year, depending on the ebb and flow of pandemic waves, examples of the opposite have been particularly glaring… and ironically, many of the dispassionate austerity measures have impacted those who share Albert Camus’ mother tongue…


Francophonie at Risk

I spent yesterday updating you on the “Fresh Crater in Sudbury” as CCAA restructuring has hollowed out half of Laurentian U, and much of the community’s morale and economic confidence. (See my Insider Recap, “Laurentian in Limbo,” if you want an exhaustive – and exhausting – look at the story as it has unfolded over the past year.) That mess, combined with threats to uAlberta’s francophone Campus Saint-Jean and abysmal enrolment in Université de l’Ontario Français, has prompted a National Dialogue on PSE in the Francophone Minority Context. Without a doubt, institutions facing demographic, revenue and enrolment challenges prior to the pandemic have been pushed dangerously close to the edge.


“Unfortunately, COVID19 has exposed the precariousness of many Francophone post-secondary institutions. Although the challenges they face are not entirely new, this past year has been particularly difficult. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation, raising major concerns over the future of PSE for Francophone minorities.” Denise Amyot, President & CEO, Colleges & Institutes Canada



Of course, the challenges faced by minority francophone PSE in Alberta and Ontario don’t justify the draconian measures of the Quebec government to preserve the French language by strangling anglophone CEGEPs…


Anglophonie at Risk?

Back in April, it was clear that Montreal’s English CEGEPs like Vanier and Dawson College were overwhelmed by a surge of applications this spring, with increases of up to 36% for some programs, and they were even turning away applicants with 92% averages. (Thanks to the pandemic, students struggling to complete their programs reduced the number of spaces available for new students, too.) By May, the big story in Quebec PSE was Bill 96, which aimed to protect the French language by capping English CEGEPs at current levels, and pushing them to enrol Anglophone students instead of bilingual ones. The directors-general of Dawson, Vanier and John Abbott Colleges objected in particular to the enrolment caps and a proposed French exit exam for their students. “Many Quebec parents want their children to become bilingual in a French Quebec. Limiting our ability to serve these students in the public sector will push more students to study out-of-province.”


“Some French people, for example, they like to go to English college for example in order to have a better English. Maybe I should’ve done that.”François Legault, Premier of Quebec



Exam Anxiety

Throughout the latest wave of the pandemic, Quebec’s Legault government has been perhaps most aggressive in Canada at insisting that K-12 students remain present in their classrooms, and it has periodically attempted to dictate in-person instruction for CEGEPs and universities too. (Often Legault makes it sound as if Quebec parents are more dangerous to their children’s mental health than a deadly pandemic.) So perhaps it’s no surprise that in-person exams are being hotly contested in Montreal…


Exam Boycott in Montreal

Montreal’s Dawson College hasn’t held in-person exams since spring 2020, but it scheduled mandatory F2F exams for 3,000 students in Chemistry, Math and Physics starting at 8am today, even while the city was designated a red zone. Students at Marianapolis, Dawson, and Vanier Colleges protested publicly back at the beginning of May, hoping they could overturn the decision as they did last semester. (Dawson had to reverse its decision to hold F2F exams late last year.) The Dawson Student Union says it has been working with the administration for 6 weeks, “trying to find a middle ground,” since no accommodation was made for immune-compromised students, or those self-isolating due to exposure. Finally, last Thursday, the DSU filed in court for an injunction to prevent the in-person exams, which they say will put students and their families needlessly at risk for COVID19. (The court struck down that request.) And yesterday, 1,500+ Dawson students voted to boycott exams this week: “At the end of the day, this is about ego. The college doesn’t want to listen to their students. They’ve created this issue.”


After 14 months of academic compassion and flexibility across most of CdnPSE, the response of the Dawson College administration is startling…


Strikers will Flunk

For its part, the administration at Dawson College filed for its own counter-injunction in court this Tuesday (also reportedly denied last night), and warned student protestors they will be automatically failed if they boycott the exams: “the College’s position is that students who do not show up for their exams will be given a grade of zero.” The DSU doesn’t believe the College can afford to flunk thousands of students, since it would create even more enrolment pressure on the CEGEP next year. “The college’s decision to shift to in-person exams at the very end of the academic year is not only puzzling but inconsistent with how it has acted in response to the pandemic thus far.”  Montreal Gazette




In the spirit of compassion and forgiveness, here’s a highly unusual university ad from Taylor’s U in Malaysia (if you don’t mind subtitles, and a few tears)…


A Father’s Forgiveness

Taylor’s U (Malaysia) released an emotional 4-min Hari Raya ad on May 2 that is approaching 1M views on YouTube. It inverts the usual Hari Raya tradition, in which children ask forgiveness from their parents, as a newly-single father apologizes to his children for losing his job, losing their home, as they prepare to visit their mother’s grave. “I was supposed to take care of you all, but I have failed our family.” To which his children enumerate the life lessons they have learned from him during a trying year: “Everything you have taught us, Abah, is more valuable than anything else in the world.” The PSE message is remarkably subtle, about the value of the knowledge our children inherit. (Have a box of Kleenex ready.)  YouTube  |  Marketing-Interactive




As always, thanks for reading!

To practice what I’m preaching, in the spirit of flexibility and wellness, I’m not going to commit to a 100% consistent daily schedule for a while. If you don’t see an issue of the Insider in your inbox tomorrow, rest assured that it’s only because I’m working on a larger theme for Monday! I’ll try to aim for a consistent morning schedule, but cut myself some slack in the interest of quality more than quantity.

Stay safe and be well!


Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please answer the question below to confirm that you are not a spambot * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

All contents copyright © 2014 Eduvation Inc. All rights reserved.