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11 March 2021

Blog two: Everything different, everything the same




Dr Alison Nimmo
Head of Academic Development, Glasgow Caledonian University

Dr Fiona Smart
Head of Learning and Teaching, Edinburgh Napier University

Following on from our first Gathering on 27 January 2021, a band of 12 intrepid Principal Fellows (PFs) came into the Second Gathering on 18 February 2021. We had tasked ourselves with taking a metaphorical view of COVID-19 as a teaching tool, hoping that the pandemic has taught us something in the wake of its disruptive influence. Focused on the bottom left quadrant of the Evidencing Value Framework (EVF) in Figure 1, we set out to explore resilience in the context of our ethos, cultures and identities.

Fig 1: The Evidencing Value Framework

Having done some pre-work in a Jamboard space, we sought to make sense of these five themed questions:

  1. Values - what are these, and how do they carry the message that resilience is a desired asset?
  2. Behaviours - what behaviours -, expected (espoused) and demonstrated (in practice) - reflect that resilience is a desired asset?
  3. Discourse - how do written and verbal discourse reflect, support and reinforce resilience as a desired asset?
  4. Celebrations - how do these demonstrate the value and importance of resilience?
  5. Relationships & Collaborations - how do we build these in ways that reflect and support resilience as a desired asset?

Evident in our discussions before we started to work together on theming the Jamboard post-it notes was the emergence of a paradox in our individual perceptions and experiences of COVID-19 and its disruptive wake. To paraphrase Hamilton (2015)[1], everything is different, but everything is the same. But what does this mean? What were we, as a collective of Scottish-based PFs, experiencing? What are we trying to say now? What was the tension sitting at the centre of our everyday interactions in the spaces represented by the EVF that we are now seeking to speak to?

Perhaps the way to explain the ripple which echoed round our group in the gathering was the sense that COVID-19 has changed so much for us, for our students, for our universities, impacting on the way we function in the everyday to the point where this half-world is both hard to recognise and hard to explain. And yet some things haven’t changed at all - for example, the need to recruit students, to satisfy their expectations, to meet targets. So it is that everything is different, but everything is the same.

Pondering the tension, we returned to the theme of the energy bank (see our first Gathering insight blog) and the extent to which resilience is nourished or depleted.

Looking at the Jamboard (Fig 2), you can see us working with the concept with reference to how, for example, resistance - dig in heels - might have potential to preserve energy as a scarce resource. You can also see measures put in place within the macro space of the university (in the form of senior leader decisions on flexible working, no meetings Fridays etc) as having the potential to help manage energy and therefore capacity. The irony which takes us back to everything different, everything the same is our shared understanding that while extra days off at Christmas were welcomed, they did not take any of the workload away. People still marked with a mince pie to hand.

This leads on to the idea of resilient academic leadership and its potential to buffer the impact of COVID-19.


Click image to view a larger size.


Click image to view a larger size.

Picked up in the Leadership and Role Modelling theme in the Jamboard (Fig 3), it remains unclear at this point the extent to which the PFs in our group are ourselves leading and role modelling, and if so where our influence is locating - at the levels of the micro, meso, macro, perhaps exo? Are we taking academic leadership actions, shaping expectations and institutional responses, or are we in fact as peripheral to the action and decision making as perhaps many staff feel right now?

These are questions for our remaining Gatherings because it may be that the influence of PFs is limited right now - not by intention, but because it has always been that way, and the pandemic has changed nothing in respect of having our feet under the right tables. For now, it is worth contemplating whether we are resilient academic leaders at this point in history - then again, revisiting the sense of everything different, everything the same, were we ever?

What is unmistakeable is how being human matters in grasping resilience - in our Jamboard interactions in micro spaces stand out as being of significance, and this links with the theme of interconnectedness which came through in our First Gathering.

There is still much to think about, but at this stage we’d ask you to think with us about resilience symbolised by the post-it note sitting alone in the top left corner – a form of investment. A little mischievously, we have previously likened resilience to knicker elastic. If resilience and the way we see it in our ethos, cultures and identities has less tangible value than we might have imagined, and this has been exacerbated by COVID-19, what might we learn from this? What do we need to invest in - the quality of the elastic to ‘survive’ and bounce back, or the forces pulling on it to ‘thrive’ and bounce forward? What does this signify for us as individuals and as collectives interconnected in micro, meso and macro spaces? And right now, what are PFs doing to enact the very reason why they were recognised in the first place? Are we expecting to be invested in? Or do we need to invest in ourselves? And is everything different but everything the same?

[1] Hamilton, D M (2015)