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  • Kathleen Bortolin

A metaphor for our higher ed times

Updated: Nov 6

At some point in the not too distant past, a sudden and traumatic event took place at VIU not far from the CIEL, where my colleagues and I work. A deep sadness took over our spaces, and most spaces across campus. A few days after that event, I was in the washroom on the 5th floor of the library and ran into the Provost and VP Academic. We were both in line, said very little to one another, and then she reached out and gave me a hug. It was a good hug too. Not a flimsy one. It was one of heartiness and feeling, and in it we both knew that we were acknowledging the sorrow, the shock and the sadness. We were lifting both of us up. I noticed this hug because prior to it I wasn’t sure the provost even knew who I was. She is kind of a big deal and I just work here. But in that moment, all that hierarchical silliness washed away and we were just two human beings in the same space acknowledging the other and the obvious struggle, reaching out in a good way. I’ve thought more than once since that moment that there was a certain amount of metaphor wrapped up in that moment.


At VIU, a teaching-focused university with small class sizes and an intimate, relational feeling, we are privileged to know each other. We often lift each other up: in the classroom, in the library, and apparently, even in the bathroom. We are not a large, anonymous place spinning around in 100 different directions. We are held together by this sense of community and relationship, one that supports a shared vision. In this place, as much as we can, that which holds us together also seeks to hold us up: relationship, community, empathy, bravery, authenticity, humanness, inclusivity. These are the values that I see, and that I want to see at VIU. The ones I am intent on believing in. These are the values that keep me here when work-life gets rough. When I get battered around by ego and injustice. When a pandemic hits.


Here we are. All of us. Knee-deep in this new world order with its unrelenting uncertainty, its doomy madness, redesigning teaching and learning with new tools and new rules. Although few of us were really ready for this transition to online learning, we love a good challenge. A good challenge is what brought most of us here in the first place. Go ahead, give us a problem. We’ll analyze the shiz out of it and forge a way forward. But PhD or not, we’re not necessarily wired for the long-game, and this game is going into double overtime. Our cognitive, behavioural, psychological, and physical stamina amid such challenges is largely untested. We are struggling to make sense and adapt. We’re climbing a splintered ladder whose rungs just keep shifting, a slippery new order of expectations. I myself struggle on this ladder, forever on the lookout for that metaphorical hug. Where is the shared vision? The acknowledgement of the other? The washing away of power imbalances? If you are experiencing and seeing any of this, hold on with two hands and let gratitude wash over you. And if you’re not, well, you’re not alone.


Admittedly, we are all isolated now, mostly working from home, alienated and without opportunities to wander into bathrooms or libraries or coffee shops; we are unseen, unacknowledged, but very much alive. All the more reason why we need to make great effort to reach out and acknowledge the other, and perhaps why we are making great efforts to be seen, efforts that could in fact be pulling us down, pulling us under. We mustn’t be fooled by our well-worn type A, over-achiever badges of honour. Those aren’t really saving us now. They could even be hurting us. It might be time for a new badge.


I know it’s all hippy-dippy feels, but I want to shine a light on those values I mentioned earlier: community, relationship, empathy, recognition. If those don’t resonate with you, dig deep to uncover what it is that you love about this place, and look for it. And if you don’t see it, then make it happen. Like me writing this blogpost.


I also want to ask leaders, here and elsewhere, to wander into virtual bathrooms and give those metaphorical hugs. You may be doing remarkable work, struggling yourself; you may all see us for what we’re doing, but you need to reach out and let us know all that. You need to see us when we are un-seeable. Higher education needs brave leaders who will absolutely find us, who will absolutely sit alongside us--in the weeds, in the trenches, in the bathrooms. We are taking so many risks redesigning higher education, and we invite you to acknowledge those risks. Whatever that metaphorical hug is to you, give it, and give it freely. This is not the time for caution; it is the time for connection.


I know it is all hippy-dippy feels and blue skies and sunshine, but we can all be leaders now. Find your metaphorical hug, and give it; give it freely, give it to whoever needs it most, give it as though we're all living in the middle of a remarkable, uncertain shift in higher education, like we're in the middle of a pandemic.

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© 2015 by Kathleen Bortolin.