One year later: FASS acting dean on surviving and thriving during a difficult year

- April 7, 2021

(Provided photo)
(Provided photo)

When COVID-19 forced Dalhousie to close its campus in March 2020, it created unprecedented challenges and disruptions to people’s lives, educational experiences and careers.

Since then, the Dal community has found new and notable ways to teach, forge connections and be of service. As we complete a full year within these circumstances, we’re checking in with a few of Dal’s academic leaders to learn how their communities overcame obstacles and found opportunity, and to commemorate the effort that’s gone in to getting it done.

When Roberta Barker assumed the role of acting dean in Dal’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences upon her return from sabbatical last July, she encountered a very different reality than when she’d left. In-person courses were replaced with virtual, advanced research projects disrupted, performances cancelled. But she also saw sparks of ingenuity and inspiration, students persevering in the face of obstacles, new research projects beginning and staff and others overcoming the day-to-day challenges of remote working.

Below, Dr. Barker reflects on what the past 12 months has meant in FASS:

How did the upheaval brought on by COVID-19 impact research in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences?
COVID-19 affected FASS research on every level. Many FASS researchers are engaged in field research or archival research, which depend on the ability to travel. Some of our faculty members and graduate students found themselves trapped abroad when the pandemic was declared and had to shut down their research activities in order to get home. Some found themselves unable to visit the archives and libraries where they had hoped to spend their summer research time; others—such as our performing artists — faced cancellation of public performances and shutdown of the theatres, clubs, and concert halls where they usually practice their craft. Perhaps the most widespread impact, though, was the fact that the demands of prepping online classes while working from home — often while supporting home-schooling for children or providing care for sick or aging family members — made it extremely difficult for our faculty and graduate students to find research time this year. At the same time, many FASS faculty members were inspired to begin new and very relevant research projects into the social, political, and cultural impacts of the pandemic. To help support both faculty and students in their research, FASS offered special RA positions during the pandemic year that provided employment for undergraduate students while also supporting the continuance of faculty and graduate student research.  Despite all the challenges of this year, FASS researchers are incredibly resilient and have continued to show in many, many ways how crucial their work is to creating a better world.  
What do you see as some of the lasting impacts of the pandemic on education in the Arts and Social Sciences at Dal?

The pandemic has had some positive impacts on education in the Arts and Social Sciences at Dalhousie.  We’ve learned a huge amount about how to make our public lectures accessible to a much wider audience via online platforms, and have been able to share our work with people all over the world in this way. We’ve also learned so much about what does and doesn’t work in online education in the arts and social sciences. Helped by extensive feedback from our students, we’ve striven to find the best ways to create community, encourage active and critical learning, and foster creativity through virtual media.

Further reading: Rewriting the script on film studies during a global pandemic

At the same time, I think one of the most lasting impacts may be a profound rediscovery of how much we value learning together in person. So many disciplines in the arts, humanities, and social sciences focus on the subtleties of relationships (between people, between communities, between humans and the natural world, and so on). I hope one of the lasting impacts of the pandemic on education in the arts, humanities, and social sciences will be a permanently deepened appreciation for how much learning in these fields depends on the subtleties of interpersonal interaction, as well.
What has been the most inspiring aspect of leading the Faculty over the past year?
By far the most inspiring aspect of serving as acting dean of FASS during this challenging year has been the opportunity to experience the strength, resilience, and determination of our community. Our students have persevered through extremely challenging circumstances and have found ways to pursue their passions, dreams, and interests despite all the obstacles the year threw in their way.  Through our open forum on online learning this fall, students gave us extensive and honest feedback about the difficulties they were facing. Our faculty members have worked incredibly hard to listen, learn from, and respond to this feedback, repeatedly adapting and changing their course delivery and assignments to better support students. Our staff members have worked overtime to help make these teaching and learning relationships possible. All three of these communities — students, faculty, and staff — have come together to help with recruitment, outreach, and retention efforts (for example, by participating in online interviews and orientation sessions introducing their departments, participating in virtual open fairs, sharing recordings of lectures, etc). Our members have also had to reimagine ways to successfully offer and execute experiential learning in FASS – not an easy task in the midst of social distancing! I’m blown away and inspired every day by the many ways in which our learning community has managed to survive and even thrive through these difficult days.  
How has your Faculty contributed to the efforts to combat and raise awareness about the different impacts of COVID-19?

Many of our faculty members have been featured in the media, sharing their research on the social and cultural impacts of the pandemic. To name just a few: Bob Huish’s research on the stigma associated with COVID infection has been featured in the New York Times.Emma Whelan, too, has underlined the ways in which moralizing narratives about who does (and doesn’t) get ill can have harmful effects on individuals and populations. Katherine Fierlbeck has advocated for transparent and accessible data around the pandemic. And Christina Haldane has contributed her creative work on ICARE, an interdisciplinary workshop and digital performance project, to the Royal Society of Canada’s web installation, Engaging Creativities: Art in the Pandemic. All of these and many other FASS colleagues have helped us better to understand how COVID-19 is impacting diverse communities and how those communities might emerge stronger from these challenges.

Further reading: Ask an expert: Political scientist Ruben Zaiotti on the pros and cons of the 'Atlantic bubble'

Ask an expert: Robert Huish on pandemic‐fuelled stigmas and what can be done to prevent them

What innovations, adaptations or creativity have you seen emerge out of your Faculty as a result of the pandemic?

FASS has been incredibly innovative in response to the pandemic. In record time, we saw the creation of new courses such as The Politics of Pandemic by Larissa Atkinson in the Department of Political Science and Pandemic – The Class by Bob Huish in the Department of International Development Studies.

Further reading: Pandemic politics: Course explores the implications of our moment

Pandemic, the class: Real‑time simulation‑based course challenges students to prevent virus outbreaks

We also saw the Fountain School of Performing Arts create its first ever digital production, which led the way for numerous online concerts, plays, and even operas to follow.

Further reading: The (digital) stage is set: Fountain School performance season begins online with "Concord Floral"

Fountain School's Beyond Windows opens doors for remote creation

What have you missed the most about in-person operations and what are you looking most forward to getting back to when the pandemic is over?

Maybe I’m biased by my own discipline (live theatre), but what I miss most is the exchange of energy that takes place when people learn together in the same space. I’ve really missed seeing students respond spontaneously to one another’s insights in the heat of in-class exploration, or colleagues laughing together at a joke that lightens up an otherwise heavy meeting. I can’t wait to be back in the classroom or the rehearsal room with students and to have the chance to bounce off one another’s discoveries in physicalized “real time” again. And, I must admit, I’m looking forward to giving a hug to a number of heroic colleagues once we’re able to do it safely!
Any parting thoughts?

Thanks for this opportunity! And thank you so much, FASS students, staff, and faculty, for everything you’ve done to keep our Faculty afloat in a truly exceptional year.


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