So much about this issue of the Queen’s Alumni Review speaks to the future and to the potential for positive change and development that attends this moment, as our university and communities everywhere are daring to imagine again a life not shaped and constrained by the COVID-19 virus. There is certainly great hope in the moment, but undoubtedly there must also be apprehension, because one important lesson of the pandemic that will stay with us for a long time is that our agency has limits: humans can dream and prepare as they wish, but nature may have other plans.
I believe that heightened consciousness of this fact – which many of our current students will be experiencing as a sudden loss of youthful innocence – is a significant factor in the dramatically increased need for mental health supports both on campus and in society at large. The challenge is not that COVID-19 has emptied the future of promise, but rather that it has revealed the vulnerability and fragility of our longings and aspirations. It has forced us to revise what we take to be “normal” in the trajectory described by the lives of individuals, organizations, and societies; and in doing so it has encouraged us to look more deeply for meaning in immediate, rather than remote, opportunities.
That cooking, pet care, cycling and cross-country skiing have found new popularity during COVID-19 illustrates the point – not just because such things provide comfort during confinement, but because they do not require belief in an assured future. In this way, the pandemic has required us to scrutinize and reconsider the values that underpin our life choices. And because they are such powerful engines of personal, social, cultural and economic development, universities are a natural and inevitable venue in which we might expect this reappraisal to take place.
At Queen’s over the last twelve months we have seen that process play out in countless different ways: shifts in the form of academic assessment, flexibility introduced in funding eligibility for graduate students, modified approaches to performance review for faculty members, radically changed assumptions about productivity and working from home, a rapidly evolving relationship to technology for teaching and learning, a new understanding of what is owed to and might be expected from international students, an evolving sense of the physical campus and of what the “Queen’s experience” is or might be in relation to that physical space, and a doubling down on questions of relevance and value.
Not all of this was driven by COVID-19. The advent of the pandemic happened to coincide with a planning process for the University which as early as October 2019 had begun to ask questions about our values and purpose – questions that were amplified and invested with greater urgency by the health crisis and the peculiar social reset which it precipitated and which continues today. Like every one of the individual students who make up this institution, we as a community are looking to our future and as we do so, pondering our agency. What do we imagine for the University in the coming years, and how do we negotiate those aims and ambitions in the context of what COVID-19 has taught us is a profoundly unpredictable future?
That unpredictability is cause for apprehension, as I remarked at the outset, but it is also cause for hope, in that it leaves us no choice but to embrace change, creativity, and the reliance on human empathy that has brought us through this exceptionally challenging phase in Queen’s history.