“I think we all knew this term would be different”: How UTM’s Community has Adapted to a Time Out from Campus

Kaitlyn Simpson, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended university life as we know it. Alongside previously-unimaginable health and economic fears, the past few months have left us physically and emotionally separated from each other. This distance has caused profound challenges for both the experiences of individual community members and the university more broadly.

Given the rapid pace of our transition to virtual learning and programming, there has been little time to grapple with the impact of the pandemic on our fellow classmates, professors, and ourselves. In an effort to uncover some of these stories, I spoke to community members of the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) to better understand how the pandemic has impacted them professionally, personally, and emotionally.

Virtual Teaching and Learning

I first spoke to one of my instructors—Chris Young. Young coordinates Digital Scholarship, Archives and Special Collections at the UTM Library. Alongside this role, Young is teaching a course titled Critical Game Studies for the Faculty of Information this summer.

“I think about a few weeks before class started, I had to do a complete revamp of what I was intending because the logistics of coordinating what you would normally do in person just don’t work remotely,” Young said. “Remote teaching is very different, it requires a lot more work … because we’re trying to learn a new way of teaching, pedagogically speaking.”

Young’s course involves both theoretical content—which is delivered through online lectures— and a technical video-game-making component that is taught through workshops. While he stressed the technical component of online learning was difficult, for him, one of the most challenging parts of teaching during the pandemic is the emotional labour required to respond to students facing hardship.

“I think faculty are going to have a real tough time in September,” he said, noting that fewer instructors work over the summer. “I think everyone’s thinking, well, I might have to teach differently. I might have to deal with some technical challenges … but I don’t think the university is prepared for the emotional labour that faculty are going to be exposed to this year.”

Young continues to facilitate a welcoming learning environment for his students, responding to these challenges by balancing student accommodations while ensuring academic goals are met.

Celebrating from Afar

The pandemic has fallen on several key occasions, including Indigenous History Month and spring graduation. I asked Tee Duke—Assistant Director, Indigenous Initiatives, at UTM's Indigenous Centre—how the pandemic impacted Indigenous History Month programming.

“It was challenging in the early stages because we wanted to create a space online that still offered opportunities to build positive relationships with the UTM community and beyond while attempting to be experiential or interactive,” Duke said. “I believe we have accomplished this following last month’s programming by offering various themed IC webinars that shared Indigenous knowledge while being aesthetically appealing.”

Like Young, Duke discussed how shifting to an entirely-digital format posed challenges. “From an Indigenous lens, being able to engage and build relationships in-person is very important, you can laugh together, share stories, share a good meal, enjoy nature or take-in the medicines (smudge) together,” she said. “However, since March we have had to create more of an online presence and the month of June was our most successful time online.”

Finding Meaning in Testing Times

Unsurprisingly, this period of rapid change has resulted in significant turmoil and difficulty for many in our community. However, I was pleased to learn that some positive moments were fostered amid these challenges.

Duke spoke about the role of collective support during this time of isolation. For example, the Indigenous Initiatives Unit and the University of Toronto Scarborough and UTM’s Centre for Student Engagement supported the centre’s digital programming. “It was an important reminder that even though the pandemic presented us with challenges, we have a tri-campus community that continues to support us,” she said.

For Young, these past few months have provided him more time to spend with his family and loved ones.

I too have found pockets of positivity since the start of the pandemic. As a student, transitioning to digital learning was awkward and distant at times, but it allowed me to prioritize my schoolwork in a calculated and intentional way. I must admit, though, I miss going to the library more than anything else.

The pandemic has also provided space to reflect on my community. For me, the perpetual worry pales in comparison to the support I’ve experienced from my classmates, neighbours, and family. University students at the Faculty of Medicine launched a grocery-shopping and child-care program for front-line healthcare workers. Several tenants in my rental building joined hundreds across Toronto in the Keep Your Rent movement to stand in solidarity with neighbours who cannot afford to pay rent. Friends, classmates and families have been hosting virtual celebrations for students who graduated this year. And some of my Annex neighbours put on daily sidewalk concerts for those of us living in the area.

These stories do not to diminish the hardship experienced by many during this deeply difficult time, but rather showcase the strength that I—and many others—have gained from my community these last few months.

At the University of Toronto, students, staff, and faculty have managed to maintain community and foster connections under these extreme circumstances. This resilience is foundational as we move forward together.

Kaitlyn Simpson is a Master of Information Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information. Her academic concentration is Technology & Culture. She is a New Media Assistant Work Study student at the Blackwood Gallery this summer.