The Invisible Institution: How pandemic troubles have re-shaped our understandings of institutional education, and reminded us of our communal and bodily existences

Response April 16, 2022

By Ella Adkins

Between January and March of 2021, my Monday to Friday ritual went a little bit like this: 

I’m sitting on Zoom, and a grid of familiar strangers looks back at me. I see myself in the top left corner next to my professor. My hair is slightly unkempt after my daily pilates workout, and I hadn’t cared to look in the mirror—a regular occurrence these days. After some awkward virtual small talk (“How’s the weather in California, Andrew?” and “How is everyone coping?”), the professor clears his throat to begin class. He begins with a reading of the Archibald Lampman poem “Heat:” 

Beyond me in the fields of sun

Soaks in the grass and hath his will;

I count the marguerites one by one; 

Even the buttercups are still.” 

I walk over to the stove to stir my oatmeal, carrying my professor’s voice to the kitchen through Airpods. 

“On the brook yonder not a breath, 

Disturbs the spider or the midge. 

The water-bugs draw close beneath

The cool gloom of the bridge.”

I burn my tongue on the oatmeal and hiss to myself; Lampman’s rhyming scheme continues to echo in my ears. It’s February but the sun is out and beaming through the cracks in the curtains, making fragile shapes on the kitchen table.

“In the full furnace of this hour, 

My thoughts grow keen and clear.” 

We then discuss the poem, and classmates contribute glitchy responses about the poem’s syzygy.1 We talk about place, land and sensation. My cat has now found a spot in the sun atop the couch, his little ears just visible in my now three inch-by-three inch Zoom portrait, the size of which changes depending on how many people are in the room. Today it felt detailed enough to see some books on my shelf and my cat’s ears poking up above the table.  I wonder if my professor notices. I look at my professor, checking over his shoulder, wondering if he lives alone, or if he has a cat. I wonder how tall he actually is, what he had for breakfast, and are those his nose hairs or just a blur in the image? I unmute and chime in about the poem’s enjambment,2 theorizing on how it adds necessary pauses and a lethargic tempo to the poem that forces us to experience the words in a lazy and sluggish manner, as if in the midst of the same heat Lampman describes. I see the same sun heating the back of my neck coming through my professor’s window, giving him a halo-like glow. His features suddenly disappear and he becomes a white orb, as if he is about to ascend. He freezes, so I can’t even find out if he agrees with my comments. But for once, to my strange relief, I don’t think it really matters.

The paradox of physically being far apart, yet strangely feeling more connected than ever seems to dominate my quarantine experience. Entering the COVID-19 pandemic looked and felt different for everyone—for me, it was losing things I assumed to be a permanent part of the fabric of my existence. I missed bumping elbows with strangers and seeing people’s teeth. I missed sharing a table with someone at the coffee shop. I missed constantly and anonymously colliding with people, places and things. There was also a looming lack of safety and security in the air, much like the virus itself—a feeling that I have the privilege of not seriously experiencing for most of my life. It was unknown if I would have a job next week, and what the government would do to support me in the event that I didn’t. There was even the fear of getting sick, despite my young age and health. There was a fear of loved ones getting sick and not knowing if that was going to be okay or not. Everything became instantly charged. Tasks like seeing my parents, going for a walk, getting a coffee were followed up with frantic questions: “How am I feeling?” “Is that scratch in my throat actually there?” and “maybe I should just stay home.” So when everything was up in the air, and nothing felt real, I did what any anxious, pre-career, post graduate, somewhat economically stable, writer/stroke artist with two thousand dollars a month from the government would do: I went back to school.  

There were obvious differences to going to university during a pandemic. However, for the very first day, I immediately noticed how often the question: “How are you doing?” was asked by my professor and peers alike. Unlike any other time in my education, we were all collectively experiencing COVID-19 and that connected us. And it was that connection that starting to transform, for me, what being in institutionalized education could and maybe should look like. Being in a university class suddenly became as much, if not more, about my peers and their personal intricacies as it was about discussing the problematic canon of Canadian literature. I found myself giggling at my classmates’ pets sniffing at the webcam and being intensely interested in the different spaces that each of us inhabited every session. I purposefully changed my webcam view daily from the kitchen, to the bedroom, to the living room, as if silently giving everyone a tour of my house over the course of the semester. Not to sound too cliché, but we really were all in this together. We, as classmates, were experiencing a collective moment in history that we were and still are scrambling for the words to describe, and there was a small comfort and sense in seeing everyone and their homes each class, a brief reminder of how sometimes all we need to connect is just remembering we are all human. Even if we remained on mute, as many of us do for the entirety of a semester, just by showing up we were all sharing bits of ourselves with each other, something that I have never quite experienced in an institutional learning environment. The pandemic’s necessity for distance transformed how I related to other humans within an institutional framework. I began to feel an intimacy and a comfort I never knew I craved during my education, but which I now can’t imagine going without. 

As we moved our classes onto Zoom and the walls of institution stretched a little more in the virtual learning space, I find some clarity of thought in poet and teacher Tiana Clark’s thoughts on her role as professor in her piece, “New Ways of Surviving: Writing Through a Global Pandemic,” from the spring 2021 issue of Poets & Writers:

We laughed and wept together. We read and discussed books by Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Siken, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maggie Nelson, and Mary Ruefle. We relied on workshopping poems with care as a way to make it through the thickness of uncertainty during a pandemic summer. My students later said that they were more honest in their work because they felt a sense of safety from being at home with some distance; they were able to access the pain with prosody and excavate the essential truths because videoconferencing offered the metaphorical curtain of the confessional booth.3

The video conferencing platform of pandemic learning brought about a sense of kinship and connection that allowed for accessibility and equality within learning spaces. The lack of security and loss of in-person connection with our communities of strangers and friends was isolating, and scary. When we logged on, we immediately found some relief in everyone’s individual expression of humanity, whether that was the types of plants they had in their kitchen, or the books on their bookshelf. A sort of situational surrender occurred, a relaxed discovery that yes we are all humans with interests and anxieties, and rather than having our personal intricacies wiped clean the moment we stepped into the lecture hall, I now knew the names of everyone in my class and could see their faces rather than their backs. Suddenly all of us, professor and students alike, occupied the same three-by-three Zoom squares. Suddenly we were all in this together and openly talked about it; I did not feel as alone as I had previously felt—just a student number on the 99 bus, trying my hardest not to look in the eyes or fall asleep on the shoulder of the person next to me. 

On a particularly aggressive day of my period, I was able to show up to my Zoom class in just my underwear and an oversized sweater, with a heating pad on my stomach and a washroom nearby. As I bled throughout the 50-minute lecture, I thought back to how I did it before: after sitting in a wooden chair bolted to the ground for the better part of three hours, I would have had to pick myself up, bleeding and bloated, for the two-hour commute to sit, sweaty and uncomfortable, amongst strangers that I don’t know the names of, because we aren’t encouraged to talk or even look at each other in lecture. As I dealt with my cramps in the comfort of my home, I felt able to feel my body as well as exist in academia, an embodied experience that was new and surprising.

The pandemic is now in a state of ebb and flow around us. Yes, people’s masks are off and you can go to that rescheduled concert from two-and-a-half years ago. However, the reality of COVID-19 and its ever changing strains, is still, quite literally, hanging in the air. Regardless of the present predictions and the unforeseeable future, as we move back into a more in-person face-to-face routine, I can’t seem to unsee the essential truths and values excavated from the past two-and-a-half years. The pandemic’s attentive “temporary” adaptations have taken on an unexpected yet welcomed power, slightly cracking the previously impenetrable titanium structure of institutions such as academia, letting small beams of light shine through to illuminate new possibilities for navigating it.

Entering yet another version of a potential “post-pandemic” future, I not only feel as though I’ve experienced a more inclusive and accessible version of the institution through small adaptations, but I have also experienced unique contemporary ways of learning that have further allowed me to question the status and efficacy of institutional learning. Video conferencing is nothing unique, however, the phenomena that is the current pandemic paired with existing on Zoom and video calls allowed for new types of learning to form from within the institution of academia. Suddenly, the firm walls of the institution were becoming more flexible and we were seeing each other, classmates and professors, as humans who eat breakfast and have pets, before humans that we must academically compete against or impress with jargon and high marks. 

The academic still persists, as it most likely always will, however, pre-pandemic, I felt that an uncomfortable anonymity in my education, as if it didn’t really matter if I was crumbling under the pressure, no one would notice or care anyways. The institution has never been a place where we have felt or been encouraged to lean on each other. Learning within a university framework within this pandemic, I have been able to re-understand the complexity of humanity, just by seeing someone’s poster collection. These small discoveries of what learning communities can be, are unique, not in the fact that they take place on Zoom, but in that they were born out of a place of “trouble” and loss, acting almost as a radical necessity for a chaotic-collective-growth, rather than an adapted continuation of previous systems of power and control. I call upon Donna Haraway’s thoughts on trouble and what can emerge from troubled spaces: 

Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters and meanings.4

As a mortal critter myself, I scurry along with many others to make sense of and find stability in the chaos during the last year and a half. Recently, I participated in the Salt Marsh Kin-Making Collective, an ecofeminist writing collective founded by a group of women in Victoria, BC for women and non-binary individuals located in the Salish Sea Region interested in engaging in kin-making practices through writing, in order to explore gendered and colonial relations to the land on which we reside. Completely free and virtual, this space brought together writers and scientists alike, with a playful and chaotic cross-pollination of knowledge and practice. We each took responsibility for leading discussions and lectures, as well as listening and learning. With no prerequisites, this space allowed for organic, unadulterated creation, discussion and workshopping. While this could and would have existed pre-pandemic, the tentacular reach of the virtual setting provided during the pandemic would not have otherwise made it to me. The group would most likely have met physically, and may not have extended outside of the certain comfort of an immediate community. It was the pandemic that really allowed the possibility of the collective to extend outwards, and for us to realize that we have always had the power to make these sorts of connections and opportunities for ourselves. The pandemic caused a loss or at least the very least, a threat to what makes us comfortable, and feel safe within our lives and communities, causing us to extend our reach for community and connection even further, since we now are more aware than ever of how vital it is to our survival.  

Next, I joined poet Ariana Reines’ seminar group “Invisible College” a few months after the Salt Marsh collective’s publication had been sent to print—I was eager to stay with the trouble and discover more chaotic creativity. Reines’ pandemic project was slightly more structured, with a loose syllabus, offering weekly reading and learning sessions to poets, dreamers and alchemists for a monthly fee of fifteen dollars. Reines had some simple requirements for her participants: “I ask from all participants what I ask of myself: Daily meditation, the pursuit of a new skill or accomplishment, regular acts of service to your community, the creation of courageous works of art.”5 What struck me about this community of learners was the active tenderness, which is not something I had seen before the pandemic. There was a “syllabus,” a term Reines used with the same sarcasm she intended with the title of the project, but each week’s topics and content ebbed and flowed with the collective feelings of the group. We would meditate for people’s loved ones and read texts in the round, infusing the fertile learning process with joy, community and endless love. I was surprised by how much I began to love strangers in this “school,” but realized that may have been because I had never felt I could love anyone in the conventional classroom—a space not designed for love. 

As we attempt (once again) to crawl out of the trouble that is COVID-19 into a potential post-COVID future, I feel strongly about what I plan to bring with me and what I will leave behind. In regards to my education, the pandemic allowed for a transformation of how I view the inner workings of academic institutions. I have always been aware of the overarching inadequacies of institutional learning spaces: racism, gatekeeping and relentless ableism, to name a few. While in these spaces, it is difficult to see a way out and imagine an opportunity to transform them. Under these circumstances, one develops a hopelessness causing a complex and shameful surrender to power and control. What the current pandemic offered was a crack in the control, as an unexpected trouble requiring adaptation. In the adaptations, amidst the collective grief and loss, new ways of existing were formulated and new ways of learning emerged to challenge the old system and its values. 

As I now venture back to in-person learning to complete my Bachelor’s of Education, I do not expect great change from the institution. However, I will bring with me a changed perspective on how I exist within that structure. I hope to advocate for rest and love where possible, and turn towards my peers rather than away. I hope to lean into the community and find support there, rather than feeling as though I must have things figured out. I hope to value the learning that happens outside of the classroom just as much as what happens inside. I hope to embrace the chaotic reality of living within capitalism and its climate crisis, finding innovative ways of navigating trouble. The pandemic has not been a blessing, but rather an illuminating disaster where the essentials of learning and how we show up for each other were momentarily freed from oppressive structures. It’s this “Art of Losing,” as poet Elizabeth Bishop writes, that the pandemic has almost begged us to master: 

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.6

It’s there that we are lighter and more nimble, in order to navigate the thorns that always will lie ahead.

  1. In poetry, consonantal or phonetic syzygy can be compared to alliteration, where one consonant is used repeatedly throughout a passage, however, the consonant isn’t necessarily at the beginning of each word.
  2. In poetry, enjambment is the continuation of a line, without pause, beyond the end of a couplet, line or stanza.
  3. Tiana Clark, ”New Ways of Surviving: Writing Through a Global Pandemic,” Poets & Writers (March/April 2021), https://www.pw.org/content/new_ways_of_surviving_writing_through_a_global_pandemic
  4. Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press, 1.
  5. “INVISIBLE COLLEGE.” n.d. Ariana Reines. Accessed October 28, 2021. https://www.arianareines.net/invisible-college
  6. Bishop, Elizabeth. 2011. Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus And Giroux.

Feature Image: Graphic created by using images from various online programs the author participated in over the past year, including the following: Invisible College; Selina Boan Reading event; Poetics of Queer Ecology Reading Group; Banff Centre for the Arts Writer’s Residency; Poetry & the Creative Mind, organized by the Academy of American Poets.