Probably one of the most overused words in the academic lexicon is liminality. Many would argue that it lost its meaning as soon as we took it out of its anthropological context and started applying it all across the disciplinary shop. One of the key concepts critical to understanding what it means to be in a liminal state is the rite of passage. Van Gennep (2019) describes a rite of passage as a process where individuals transition from one social position or structure through an uncertain, ambiguous liminal state into another, more stable and defined social structure. This is affected by a process of separation, where the individual detaches from the established social structure they are bound to and find themselves transitioning through a liminal state that exists on the margins of structure. The final stage of this journey is where the individual (or passenger) arrives back in a stable state, complying with the norms and behaviours of their new social structure (Turner, 1987). Individuals within a liminal state often find communion and connection with others in what Turner describes as a communitas, observing that a liminal communitas ‘…breaks in through the interstices of structure, in liminality; at the edges of structure, in marginality; and from beneath structure, in inferiority…it transgresses and dissolves the norms that govern structured and institutionalized relationships and is accompanied by experiences of unprecedented potency’ (Turner, Abrahams, & Harris, 2017, p. 128).
Well book nerd, what does all that mean and why are you making me read all of this before you stop speaking academic and start saying stuff?
The pandemic (an experience of unprecedented potency!) has pushed all of higher education (and much of society) into liminal spaces. The things we do to deliver to education (and the experience of the education itself for our students) are now rent with uncertainty, ambiguity, messiness and a sense of discomfort. Textbook liminality. We have gone from having structure within our social and educative societies to having anti-structures, where the inversion of our rituals (teaching and learning practices, pedagogies etc) is hopefully ephemeral and temporary. Sure, there are things we are doing now to cope with the trauma of what is happening around us that we would want to see last past the pandemic. There are hundreds of blogs on that topic, so I will leave that commentary to them. What I am interested in debating is what happens when you cease to be liminal; when you return to your stable social state (or discover or design a new one), where the norms of practice come snapping back. What happens when the pandemic (crisis, black swan moment, opportunity) ends and staff and students want to stop feeling liminal and transition back to certainty?
Now this time might seem a long way away for many of us. Lockdowns, second waves, insane tier systems, leadership vacuums and closed borders represent a pretty overwhelming disruption to our normal state of being. Whilst we have all gained some catharsis from the communion and connection this engendered amongst colleagues across the globe, I have begun to observe the first shoots of what I term ‘the snapback’. The strength of the desire to return to ‘normalcy’ and live our lives again litters the discourse about the vaccine, controlling the virus and even defining what COVID normal looks like. And without a doubt, stopping people dying, allowing people to see and enjoy the company of friends, family and colleagues and supporting business to come back to life are not just laudable aims, they are SO DAMNED ESSENTIAL. But what does normalcy mean for teaching and learning?
Within my faculty at the University, we have made several existential pedagogical changes over the course of 2020 and into 2021 as a result of the pandemic:
- We have moved all our lectures (large, being up to 1600 students and small) online, with clear support for staff and students to benefit from the affordances of the mediums used to share these (see here for examples);
- We have abolished streams of learning, eliminating repeated content delivery and focusing on the effective use of the interpersonal time through more effective collaboration tools, better learning design and active methods of engagement;
- We have shifted assessment not just online but have made fundamental changes to the way assessment is designed building in authenticity and active learning;
- We have built a program of intra and extra-curricular engagement to support connection making between students through research, through leadership development and through crowdsourcing critical global and local challenges;
- We have recognised how lonely and isolating this has been for students and staff. We have built and nurtured online communities of sociality and practice sharing, encouraging staff and students to find fleeting and lasting meaningful connections.
Whilst all these changes were borne out of the pandemic, would I want to go back to large didactic lectures, social isolation, mass exams and tutorials driven by repetition and memorisation? Firstly, that was never the exclusive way we taught, so many colleagues were doing amazing, innovative social pedagogies before and during the pandemic. But across the sector I reckon face to face lecture/tutorial/exam was a pretty dominant pathway for learning pre-pandemic. So, what happens when we can do those things again, face to face? What happens when we don’t have to worry about Zoom bombing, invasive proctoring solutions and the impersonality of online learning? Will we learn from this mess and value the ‘human interaction’ that a two-hour lecture using PowerPoint or a three-hour handwritten exam affords us?
I have two examples of where the snapback is already beginning to surface, even where the pandemic is still disrupting the rituals of teaching and learning. What is your take on these? How is your institution dealing with them?
Let’s start with exams. Online exams are tough. Replicating the established practice of running an exam in an online environment (without mode specific redesigning, which is a good thing BTW) increases the complexity of making reasonable adjustments for disability, ensuring integrity and managing expectations and limitations of students using their own equipment in their own spaces. Now, every vendor promises that all of these issues are entirely within the realm of the functionality of their platform (or their promised roadmap) – which they are not. Compromises need to be made, right? Simpler exams, more invasive forms of proctoring, limited exam questions, remotely ‘supported’ or AI help for students and staff, a changed assessment policy environment. The list goes on. Students hate the new systems when they involve proctoring. Privacy, data security and a shifting of the resource burden to them (networks, equipment, spaces). Unless redesigned entirely for the new models of delivery (or designed away entirely, but that’s a different argument, for a different day), everybody hates online exams. We can’t wait to be able to run face to face exams again soon. They overcome ALL of these problems. And that’s where the snapback takes hold. Instead of learning from the experience of an uncritical but necessary switch, the pressure from staff, students and administration is to go back to what we know best. Exams, in big rooms, with invigilators watching students write pages and pages of longhand. It is the reversion to norms that Turner warned about as individuals transition from liminality.
Let’s take a second example. All the thinking, ideating and development undertaken by the community of educational technologists and developers over years of pilots, rapid change (such as MOOCs) and in the face of the real or apparent threat of micro-credentialing, badging and micro-learning has been critical in how all our institutions have been able to cope with COVID. We built capacity and capability. We dropped everything and we helped our colleagues make the changes. Yes, some of our colleagues approached this role with a sense of triumphalism, but they were in the minority. Most people were part of the team. But staff and students are tiring of Zoom. They are over talking to a camera and not seeing the faces of their students. They don’t have the energy for the cameras on or off debate. They were good at what they did (and their student satisfaction scores told them that every semester). They want to go back to that way of teaching. First year students are over online as well, having done their last of year of high school that way. They want the ‘experience’ of University as well as the learning, the career and the network. They demand a fee discount for online learning, especially where last year’s lectures are replayed, and tutorials are nothing more than gloried Q&A sessions. A University experience must be more than that right? So, the snapback puts pressure on a return to face-to-face teaching, large group lectures and ‘traditional’ teaching and learning. Why do we need those educational developers and technologists? We were good at what we were doing. They will just tell us to do it different all over again, and we have been there, done that.
In both these cases, we can see the snapback already happening. The campaign against proctoring (for whatever right or wrong reasons it is occurring, that is not my point) seems to have only one resolution point for many of those making the point– back to where we were in December 2019. In Australian Universities, who almost universally have engaged in swathes of voluntary and involuntary redundancies as a result of the pandemic and its impact on international students, many educational developers and technologists have been made redundant despite the pivot to online that continues to happen in 2021. Once again, the snapback is cited in that common assertion ‘when we return to normal teaching and learning’…
As people who are either developers or technologists or lead these teams, we need to have a better story to tell about what we have learnt in our liminal year (or two). This isn’t’ about case studies, conference papers or vendor demonstrations. It is about knowing the human impact of what we have all been doing. It is understanding the affordances of a horrible situation and knowing what we have learnt from experience, and telling those stories, to the right people, at the right time. And knowing what you will do next. We need to be able to show what we have learnt from being part of a learning and teaching communitas that is a ‘…product of peculiarly human faculties, which include rationality, volition and memory, and which develop with experience of life in society’ (Turner et al., 2017, p. 128)? How do we enact conscious volition over our purpose in the University and ensure that the snapback takes that away from us? How do frame that narrative so that it feeds into the critical decisions taken by senior management as they set their new social structures, rituals and norms for the post-pandemic university?
Turner, V. (1987). Betwixt and between: The liminal period in rites of passage. In L. C. Mahdi, S. Foster, & M. Little (Eds.), Betwixt and Between: Patterns of masculine and feminine initiation (pp. 3-19). La Salle, IL: Open Court.
Turner, V., Abrahams, R. D., & Harris, A. (2017). The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. Oxford, UK: Routledge.
Van Gennep, A. (2019). The rites of passage: University of Chicago Press.
The image in the header has been adapted from this one, which can be found at https://unsplash.com/photos/2UUrpB880fQ. And no, I am not selling these hats!