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Crossing the COVID Threshold: How Have We Changed? How Do We Know?

Viewed through a stone arch, an old stone building on a field floating above a mountain range.

As we look back on the past three months, we’ve done and experienced (and felt) so many things. Time has been, as Hamlet remarks, “out of joint,” insofar as it expands and contracts in ways that seem to bend the space-time continuum. Our days feel like weeks, while hours sometime stretch on with an elasticity that has us asking “what day is it?”

A woman with a clock superimposed on her head like a Greek helmet.

Time has animated the two courses I have had the pleasure of teaching this term; the regular weekly connections with students alongside intrepid literary guides (Milton and Shakespeare) have helped me frame our present experience in the context of the past (those early modern writers knew a lot about plagues and lock downs). And yet the question at the top of mind has also been “what does the future look like in a post-Covid world?” We train students in the humanities to go back to the past to illuminate the present and innovate the future. This skill set is particularly urgent at this moment in time.

In grappling with the complexities of past, present, and future, John Milton (17th century author of Paradise Lost) counters linear time with the eternal present. In his formulation, a divine presence exists beyond earthly constraints, occupying a spiritual dimension that embraces and contains all expressions of time. (Milton anticipates we might feel disoriented by this: in Paradise Lost Raphael reassures Adam that our puny human brains will find it hard to grapple with such overwhelming metaphysical concepts). Now, while we cannot sit, “dove-like … brooding on the vast Abyss” as Milton’s heavenly Muse is wont to do, we can still step outside of our present moment to engage in critical reflection on what has happened and prepare for what is to yet to come.

One way to mark time is by reflecting on our own transformation.

How have we changed?

How do we know we have changed?

As living things we are always in the process of transforming, but the pace can vary. COVID has provided contexts and convergences where our transformations – individually, socially, institutionally – have accelerated, for better and sometimes for worse. Critical reflective practice helps us to name this transformation and make it visible; by doing so can start to understand its contours and conditions that have created change. Only then can we take that information and move into generative, future-facing spaces.

The influential theory of transformative learning (cf. Meyer and Land, 2005) is particularly helpful for us to make visible these processes of transformation Although this theoretical framework (with its seven characteristics, below) has been used to understand the process learners undergo in the context of disciplinary knowledge, it has broad applications for us as we imagine a post-COVID world.

Two newly-emerged owl-eye moths hang from their cocoons.

1. Transformative learning is likened to crossing a threshold, whereby you move through a liminal space from one state of being into a new one. Once you have crossed that threshold, you change the way in which you view yourself, your context, and your place in the world. For those working in the knowledge economy, COVID has forced many to stay at home: travel has been suspended, work from home is the new norm (for particular sectors of the workforce), and social gatherings have been banned. The COVID cocoon is a liminal space, an in-between space, but it is NOT a resting stage. Indeed, if we extend the metaphor of a cocoon into the natural world, the caterpillar’s “old body dies inside the chrysalis and a new body with beautiful wings appears”. A lot of work happens in a cocoon that is only visible over time and in hindsight.

2. Transforming is troublesome. It feels counter-intuitive, alien, incoherent, and uncomfortable. We cannot “skip to the good part.” Instead, we need protected spaces to sit in our discomfort and ask: “What do I have to learn from this?” As educators we design our classrooms to ensure spaces are safe for learners to be brave, but we also have to do it for ourselves and our colleagues.

3. Transformative learning is irreversible. Once you cross that threshold and you transform, you can't go back. The butterfly can't revert to being a caterpillar. Once you see something, you can't unsee it. As a society we've seen a lot of things that we can't unsee this year, and there is no going back to “normal.” Even going back to “in-person” will be different because we are different; the question will be, how do we move forward and resist a backwards slide?

Blue jigsaw puzzle depicting a strand of DNA.

4. Transformative learning is integrative. You have to bring all of the different learning moments together in an integrative, synthesized way so that the collection of distinct experiences make sense as parts of a whole. It is like a jigsaw puzzle: things that might not have been related before are now related in complementary and connected ways to form the big picture.

5. Discursive is my favorite as a literature professor because it gets to the heart of tricky questions: not merely “How have you transformed?” but “How do you know you've transformed?” Meyer and Land assert that transformation “will incorporate an enhanced and extended use of language.” In other words, the way we tell stories transforms as our perspectives shift. The words we use to articulate ourselves changes as we change.

6. Reconstitutive. The shift in identity is more likely to be recognized initially by others and also to take place over time. Just as you cannot fast forward the process the caterpillar undergoes in the chrysalis stage, you also imagine that, if a caterpillar has subjectivity, they might not realize they are a butterfly when they first emerge. They might require a mirror, reflection, or friend to illuminate and make sense of their own transformation.

Woman with long hair looks at her reflection in golden water. The image is tipped on its side so that the water looks like a wall and she is being pulled into it.

7. Finally, the concept of liminality is key. Meyer and Land assert that there's no simple passage in learning from easy to difficult. The mastery of a threshold concept often involves messy journeys back and forth across conceptual terrains. The messy in-between spaces and non-linear journey (i.e. no clear line from point A to point B) is essential to transformative learning.

As individuals, institutions, and as communities, we have been in COVID cocoons – in the liminal, in-between spaces – where we have had to sit in our own discomfort without a clear sense of when this will all end. But as I mentioned above, cocoons are not places to rest but rather crucial spaces to transform over time. We have not yet shed the chrysalis and emerged into the world, but our restlessness (and for many, deep fatigue) suggests that a new phase is imminent.

Macro image of black and yellow "eye" spots on a moth's wing.

When one is crossing the threshold, it is impossible to know what is on the other side. What we look like when we emerge – personally, professionally, socially – is yet to be determined. Will we be butterflies? Moths? Will we know how to use our wings? (I have posed these questions to my very wise 7 year old, Sophie; her advice was, “but Mummy, they know deep down in their butts* how to do it once it is time.” (*when examined on her choice of ‘butts’, she exclaimed with some disdain that “caterpillars don’t have bones”). While I am always sensitive to narratives of toxic positivity, we have the power to harness collective critical hope to emerge as butterflies. We might be wobbly and tentative at first as we find our new wings, I have no doubt we will be beautiful in our metamorphoses.

~Jessica Riddell

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