Executive Director’s Report – February 28, 2021

Updated: Mar 24

Picture (above): A recent virtual play-reading for a course called “Shakespeare and Critical Hope” taught by Dr. Riddell. Students, alumni, faculty, and community members from across the Maple League spend every other Tuesday night together doing a table reading of a Shakespeare play. This is one of the many examples of how technology can be harnessed to increase engagement in the classrooms and beyond.

In the first two months of 2021 I have sought to answer two fundamental questions related to sustainability:

How do we foster spaces for curiosity and wonder even in a time of great duress?

How do we summon the energy necessary to design a post-Covid world that is better – more inclusive, diverse, innovative – than our current context?

Collaboration has led to a diverse group of communities across the four institutions. Over the past two and a half years, relationship-building has been a key focus: I have been privileged to work with twelve professional/disciplinary groups and three ML committees who meet bi-weekly/monthly to share ideas, build projects, and engage in strategic visioning. By engaging with thought partners with similar challenges and hopes, we’ve been able to muster the energy to initiate the imaginative work necessary to design a post-Covid world. Imagination is crucial if we are to move beyond the “way it has always been” into new spaces where universities lead the frontline of social and economic renewal. We must be open to doing things differently, whether that is sharing courses across universities, investing in inclusive high impact practices, leading conversations in quality undergraduate education, and creating virtual spaces that foster innovation not just at individual institutions but across the post-secondary sector.

And yet, we must have the emotional and cognitive reserves to engage in imaginative work, which is itself labour intensive. What do we need to keep going that extra distance when we are tired? The answer for me is: critical hope.

We are in the midst of deep uncertainty, but we are also in a time of profound hope and possibility. Essayist Rebecca Solnit, writing in the Guardian newspaper, writes,

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.

As we imagine the future of work – and the future of democracy more generally – we are compelled to think carefully and creatively about our current university system and imagine a model that provides a better, more ethical, and more rigorous education for all students. The landscape of higher education in Canada has changed dramatically over the past year and our understanding of a 21stcentury university has shifted under intense pressures and tensions. As we cross the pandemic portal, we must be willing to think differently, dream big, and lead creatively and courageously.

We don’t have to do this alone. The energy we need to summon for the next few months can be found in communion with one another. The boldest disruption to higher education is collaboration – and the Maple League is an audacious act of critical hope.

— Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities

ML February Report 2021
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