It’s been one year since I had in-person teaching and here’s what I’ve learnt

Not the anniversary I was expecting to celebrate

February 14th 2020. At the time, the day only seemed significant because it was yet another Valentine’s Day I was spending without a date – again. But little did I know it would mark the last time I would be sat in a face-to-face tutorial for a year.

I was painfully hungover, having spent the night before at a Marchmont flat party and had barely four hours sleep. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you what the tutorial was on because the only thing on my mind was getting a Greggs, a Lucozade, and paracetamol.

The one thing I do vaguely remember is talking about the strikes. It was all anyone was talking about for weeks. Did going to the library constitute crossing a picket line? Were you allowed to feel annoyed at your lecturers or should you just be angry at the uni? And what were those student occupiers up to in the basement of Appleton Tower?

The pandemic felt like a distant news story happening in another world entirely. Even a week before in person classes were completely cancelled on March 15th, the only time it featured on my radar was as an opportunity for gossip. There were countless rumours about people coming back from skiing holidays in Italy and going clubbing. And who can forget when people in hazmat suits turned up at Pollock.

Saying the last year feels surreal is an understatement. I’m half expecting to be greeted by the ghosts of uni past, present, and future telling me that this has all been a dream. And it can go back to normal if I promise to never skip a lecture or turn up to a tutorial with a hangover.

That being said, I wouldn’t have traded all the fun I had that caused those hangovers or missed lecturers (sorry not sorry) and to pay tribute to all the missed fun, all the pics are from the first three months of 2020.

So, one year on from the start of all this disruption to my degree, what have I learnt?

1. Motivating yourself to study whilst the world is falling apart around you is difficult

The first indication of how the University of Edinburgh would handle the pandemic came right at the very beginning. The uni decided to cancel all in-person classes at 3pm on a Friday afternoon, two hours before the end of the working week and whilst most academic staff were on strike.

This created chaos and confusion amongst students as no one, including lecturers, had any idea what was going on. I didn’t hear from my course organisers about what was happening with courses well into the following week. And by this point, rumours about lockdowns – even the army being on the streets in London – were circulating rapidly. I found myself chucking all my worldly possessions into a suitcase whilst my dad was driving half way up the country to collect me, and all I was thinking about the deadline I had the following week.

Because funnily enough, if the world is on fire, spending an afternoon doing essay readings can feel slightly futile. And that’s what made the hesitancy for an academic safety net – including a no-detriment policy – so frustrating. Thousands of people are dying everyday and yet uni students are being expected to continue basically as normal.

2. If you expect nothing from the Uni, you can’t be disappointed

So, communication from the uni was initially very poor, but it did get progressively better over the summer. Getting regular emails from Colm and other senior managers made going back to uni seem like the light at the end of the tunnel.

I was genuinely so excited for hybrid learning but what a shame it turned out to be a complete falsehood for many.

All three of my modules in semester one explicitly said there would be no in-person teaching. But, by the time I found out, I’d already signed a lease on a new flat and made arrangements to go back. One of my mates found out she would have no in-person teaching whilst she was quarantining in Edinburgh in September after travelling all the way from Singapore.

So, forgive me for sounding incredibly cynical, but I knew promises of outdoor teaching and a staggered return to campus would never materialise. Because, in accepting the worst-case scenario, anything slightly better feels like a victory.

3. Individual tutors and lecturers are struggling just as much as you

If you feel frustrated at the uni, you aren’t alone. Your tutors and lecturers have experienced the same poor communication and confused messaging as you.

The head of my department emailed all lecturers in July to say the department didn’t want synchronous online teaching out of fear it would disadvantage students in different timezones. But at the same time, students were receiving emails from university senior management promising the opposite. On top of this, the same department reversed the decision at the start of this semester after atrocious feedback from students.

Most lecturers and tutors really are trying their best. And some have gone above and beyond to make up for it. But ultimately, none of that matters if they aren’t being supported by the uni in their efforts.

4. You’re allowed to be frustrated

Not only does it feel like students have been little more than an afterthought in the handling of the pandemic, but so much of what has gone wrong was entirely predictable. I often find myself thinking I could’ve done a better job, and I’m just a third year student.

If you put a whole bunch of freshers in cramped halls – regardless of if they party or not – they’ll probably spread a virus that thrives on social contact. But equally, if you then proceed to lock them in, that’s hardly going to do wonders for their wellbeing.

Simultaneously, if you put classes completely online and expect the same standard and quantity of work, that too will create a lot of unnecessary stress amongst students.

The quality of the teaching is not the same – no matter how hard individual lecturers and tutors try. And I really do appreciate their efforts. But there should be nothing wrong in admitting everyone is trying their best given the circumstances and taking that into account for fees and grading.

After all, my department refused to record lectures before this because they were adamant they were less good than attending live lecturers. For the same department to now be insisting they’re of equal quality is hypocritical to say the least.

5. Finally, always prioritise your mental and physical wellbeing

Because the uni won’t do it for you!

I have received exactly two acknowledgements of the impact of the pandemic on my wellbeing.

The first of these was an email from my personal tutor telling us not to worry about handing work in if we caught Covid – and to take as much time as needed to recover. The fact this email was needed shows the extent of toxic productivity at uni. I know I’m not along in feeling like taking a day off uni – even if you’re exhausted – just isn’t an option because the unending mountain of work isn’t getting any smaller.

The second was a lecturer beginning a seminar a couple of weeks ago by acknowledging that she knew a lot of us were struggling. And she set aside 15 minutes for everyone to talk about what they’ve found useful in coping. I spent the rest of the day feeling on the brink of tears before realising it was the first time an academic staff member had acknowledged this and not just skipped over it and onto the next thing.

If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that your physical and mental health can be randomly taken away by circumstances wholly outside of your control.

In the future, it may not be a global pandemic that means you need to cut yourself some slack. It could be a stinking cold or just feeling a bit blue, but if it’s a circumstance outside of your control, take a deep breath and take some time for yourself.

Related articles recommended by this writer:

• Round one of Edi’s top student creatives to watch in 2021 is here

• Edinburgh VC Peter Mathieson has £340k salary restored after taking six month cut

• We spoke to the producer behind the Edinburgh Uni student mental health documentary