Though we do our best, nothing beats face-to-face.
by Hammad Ali, Contributor
Since the middle of March, the landscape of the university has changed. The few times I had to be on campus, back in April, it was unnerving to see the familiar spots deserted like in some post-apocalyptic movie. Back then, it was not clear when we might expect a return to campus. Now, six months have passed, and a few days ago we got word that the Winter 2021 term will also be mostly online. For most of us, this means not having to be on campus for nearly another year. Due to this change in circumstances, several campus services besides classes have also had to move mostly online. However, some services have simply not been available. Both these movements and cancellations are impacting students, and they might well come in the way of academic success.
Unlike most students, I am currently done with courses and focusing on my doctoral dissertation. While I have been having weekly meetings with my supervisors, both of whom have been most helpful, I do miss the ability to sit in our lab space, doodling on one of the whiteboards, and bringing a coworker in to sound out some ideas. In addition to the weekly meetings, we also used to be able to clarify various issues that now have to be done over email, and it is just not the same. Even the weekly meetings are not the same without a board to write equations and proof sketches on. The majority of our undergraduate students must be facing something similar this term with online office hours. While for some courses it might actually be just as acceptable, I find it hard to imagine office hours for a math class being held completely online, without any scribbles on a board or with pen and paper.
Also related to coursework, there are several writing tutors, as well as tutors for other subjects, available through the Student Success Centre and the Global Learning Centre. While I have never really used any of these services, I know many who have. I also understand that all of these have moved online for the present. I have friends who have been tutors, and friends who have gone to tutors. The level of interaction needed to refine a first draft, underlining words and phrases, leaving comments or suggestions in the margin, has to lose something when the whole process moves online. In a similar vein, I am not sure how students are faring with their academic and career advising appointments. I have absolutely no doubt the relevant offices are doing their best, but some experiences just don’t transfer well online.
On a less academic note, the library is allowing curbside pickup for books, and presence in the library is now by bookings only. While this is also bound to have some impact on academic work, for me the real impact has been personal. I enjoy browsing bookshelves, finding that little corner with a plethora of books on topics I love reading about. Every time I have gone into the Archer library to borrow one book, I have come back with more like six, because they happened to be around the one I went in for and captured my interest. Booking a few specific titles online and then picking them up later just does not offer up the full library experience for me. I realize that bemoaning the lack of pleasant hobbies in the middle of a pandemic may not be mature, but we all have our little escapes. Mine is now available online only, and that just can’t compare.
This brings me to the last two services on campus that I miss the most: counseling and fitness, albeit in slightly different ways. School is stressful. Well, life is stressful. One way I coped with all the demands on me was to occasionally go into counseling services. While I am still able to do that, now it is all online. Sitting face to face with another person, surrounded by books, feeling relieved as you share what has been weighing you down is so much different than looking at an iPad screen, hoping the WiFi doesn’t drop in the middle of an important conversation. I have still been able to have a few appointments, but they are no longer the stress-free hour it used to be for me.
Lastly, fitness – I want to mention the issue that has been foremost on my mind as the harsh Saskatchewan winter approaches us. Many are saying this will be the coldest winter in history, but honestly I see those articles before every single winter. Regardless of how much worse this winter is that our usual, though, I think it is safe to assume that outdoor activities will become less and less common and comfortable. In the middle of a pandemic, being healthy and active seems like a good idea. Usually, my winter lifestyle involves frequent use of the Fitness Centre in the Kinesiology building. This year of course, the centre is closed. With winter term being online, it is likely to be closed then too. I am not looking forward to being indoors for nearly eight months, with no access to a gym.
I am not blaming anyone; I do believe everyone is trying the best they can. But these are concerns I have for myself and for many others like me. With the harsh winter, the lack of social interaction, and the inability to access resources that support a good lifestyle, it fills me with trepidation when I think of the next eight months or so. As always, I do not have answers, just concerns to raise. If these concerns are not somehow addressed, even if only partially, we might be adding more mental health, physical health, and academic-related stresses on all our students.