In our next guest blog post, Rob Walker provides reflections regarding his experiences of completing an undergraduate degree during national lockdown. With the post starting with comparisons to dystopian societies; it then shifts to considering well-being and no detriment policies implemented by universities. Given that this no detriment policy has had a ‘profoundly stressful’ effect on Rob, do we need to carefully consider the complexity of student response to how Higher Education tries to cope with difficulty moving forwards?
It’s like something out of a dystopian sci-fi film, isn’t it?
Given the politics of our time, I had visions of Children of Men, turning into a form of future Terry Gilliam would fantasise about. Turns out it was rather less apocalyptic than anticipated (thus far), but so estranged and surreal in equal measure; an ethereal experience for all.
Higher education wasn’t exactly in the greatest place prior to lockdown, though I don’t think many could have predicted what was to happen (except Dominic Cummings, obviously). Like dominoes, universities, institutes, companies and places of interest fell into my inbox with their attempts to position themselves as the purveyors of moral arbitration; evoking ‘heartfelt’ rhetoric to reassure me that the C.E.O., the company as a whole, they, were the ones that I could depend on in ‘these uncertain times’ (I would wager a LOT of social media managers Googled ‘empathy synonyms’ during late March). For my own university’s part, the landscape changed as dramatically as it did hastily. Each day saw a different email, from limited library access to closure, from ‘everything will continue’ to all teaching suspended in what seemed hours.
For many students, the lockdown proved to be an extremely stressful and panicked time. Whilst many institutes promoted advice from academic to well-being, many students experienced anxiety, worry and didn’t know what on Earth was happening. This climate of confusion focused upon a plethora of concerns. From tuition fees and jobs, to rent, study and an intrinsically instinctive fear for their families, with international students in an even worse state of anxiety.
As an aside, I feel that when the history of the lockdown is written, it will be drawn out erroneously as a coming together in the same regard as the Blitz (incidentally, arguably a mythic fallacy) and will be portrayed as national stoic heroics, from Cap’n Tom to middle-class sing-alongs. Then came the unrest. I won’t comment here too much on the summer we have seen, though suffice it to say, my Children of Men anecdote left me feeling Nostradamian.
I, however, cannot fully relate to much of the above; for myself, lockdown was actually quite pleasant (forgive the macabre undertones). I never bothered working out with Wicksy (I never rated his bar skills in the Queen Vic, so couldn’t trust him to teach me to lunge), nor did I worry about the desperate desire for a haircut (I must be one of those frugal weirdos that cuts their own). For myself, lockdown was spent cooking, teaching my daughter, enjoying more time with my family and berating of the Conservative government at the dinner table. As I said, pleasant.
I cannot relate to the seeming majority of students’ experiences, as a disabled student prone to missing lectures and chasing up for further clarification, it all meant that I did not really experience too much of a shift, academically. I was well-accustomed to communicating with my lecturers via email and playing catch-up; well-placed to continue as I had done previously. Like many universities, mine employed a ‘no-detriment policy’. This no disadvantage rule (in case you’re unfamiliar) meant that, your first semester scores were now the baseline; if you had achieved a 65 overall in your first semester, then this would become the minimum mark (provided your work was submitted, if you could submit it at all). You knew it was serious, as the chancellor sent an email. My first semester scores had left me potentially achieving a first classification, providing I complete the work on time. The initial reaction, given my other submission marks during university, was one of utter elation: ‘this policy has left me with a first-class degree!’.
For about three days.
Despite being designed to allay fears and concerns, this no-detriment policy actually elicited the contrary. It is a very strange and bizarre feeling knowing that, as long as you produce a body of work on time, your grade is already given.
I found myself completely obsessing over what would constitute a 40% mark, whilst forcing, forcing myself to relax and not board the ’loco express’, which was my modus operandi. I was left agonising over how to perfect something, just to have it look like it was merely ‘passable’. I built such a frenzied worry within myself, that I actually struggled a lot more than I thought I would have. Whether this was merely myself and my penchant for providing stress and guilt where there is none (I am Catholic, after all) or something else, I cannot attest to.
I just know that, for myself, the no-detriment policy had the polarising, profoundly stressful effect on me.
I could only thank the two lecturers who both went above and beyond in accommodating an at times non-sensical and angst-ridden student, not only academically but also on a personal, more humane level, from (what I consider) an empathetic standing; both were and are exemplary professionals, managing and facilitating my worries, helping me achieve what I had long considered impossible.
Fortunately, the no-detriment policy was not required on any of my remaining modules, as I achieved marks of 72, 85, 78 and 81 respectively (he states modestly, with a puffed-out chest and wry smile of smugness). In all sincerity though, I know that without my support network at home and those two lecturers, I would not have been able to get through my studies during lockdown; a simple fact, acknowledged
I know my experience of lockdown as a student is not the norm. I do not know whether other students felt the harrowing torment I did with any similar policy. I just know that during lockdown, I was very fortunate and thankful to have such individuals, that supported their student with empathy, compassion and a sadly withering professionalism within higher education nowadays.
EDIT: Given what is occurring currently with several universities and a seemingly enforced imprisonment masquerading as lockdown, it would appear more pertinent than ever for universities to listen to their students.
Author Short Biography
After a career within the hospitality industry, Rob Walker chose to switch fields into something more aspirational for his daughter, Evie; education. Due to his disability, he has experienced a myriad of educational formulations, including: home schooling; no schooling; hospital schools; on-site industry training; sixth-form; further education; universities; and parochial education. He thanks his disability for providing him a deep sense of empathy and consideration. His overall aim is to one day achieve a doctorate at BCU. Interests include research into educational inequalities, raging against the machine and procrastination.
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