Casualties of COVID: The pain of the undergrads

COVID has imposed pain on everyone and all demographics, as you’d expect from something known in the past as the Plague. It touches all and “passes over” none, except by dint of chance, privilege or divine dispensation. .


Pain is pain, but there’s special tragedy for the young since they’ll miss moments in the life cycle that can’t be revisited. That varies too, but I’m thinking now of undergraduates. For older students, they likely missed graduation: parties, farewells to friends and the ritualized ceremony — which is one of few things, I’d say, that universities still do very well. That’s hard to understand until you’re actually within it, in cap and gown, or watching.

For first- and second-year students, they missed the moment of leaving home, living on their own for the first time and making friends who’ll last a lifetime. Instead they got virtual, online classes, which shrank the undergrad experience to covering curriculum and getting course credits.

Since the rise of COVID that’s how I’ve taught, if you can call it that, the half-course I’ve long done at the University of Toronto each winter on “Media and culture in Canada.” I was in fact pleasantly surprised by some components: how close-ups on Zoom let you into student reactions when they spoke, or being able to call them by name in a large class —though the numbers who never went on visual were a frustration, along with the dispiriting technological penumbra.

That broke, like a summer storm, in the exact middle of this last term; we did six classes on ZOOM, then the final six in person. I’d say with fair confidence that the transition was stunning for all or most of us. We’d looked forward to it but hadn’t anticipated the real, living impact.

Students looked around, spaced as they were, and almost immediately started making friends — some of whom, based on past experience, will be permanent. They glanced to each other for verification of things said by others, including me, that were insightful or irritating. There were intense collective reactions, as you feel in theatre audiences, even when they’re silent.

At the end there was even a ripple of applause, which only ever happens (sometimes) in final classes. I don’t think it was for me; it was for us being there together. As they filed out and I focused on packing up, they said Thanks or See you next week — like a scene in “To Sir, with Love,” or “Mister Roberts” when the crew bid him goodnight after realizing he’s been on their side after all. It was my most memorable class ever, which I never dreamed I’d be able to say.

For the final exam, which was, alas, virtual, I put in a question about online versus in-person teaching. It fit since the course is largely built around former U of T prof Harold Innis’s writings about the Oral and Written Traditions. Innis admitted his own “bias” was for the Oral, especially its unfortunately diminishing role in university teaching, even in his days, the 1920s to early ’50s.

The student answers were intensely personal, with many full of pain and sadness. They talked about the isolation and distraction of trying to “attend” class in your family home, often still in bed, somewhere in the world, with the temptation of watching YouTube videos simultaneously, though that can happen in-person too. Or the isolation of “asynchronous” classes, where profs tape lectures that students watch at their “leisure.” Versus, in actual class, picking up “subtle” body language and facial cues when a discussion isn’t entirely clear, making a “connection” that can’t be created online. It lets them feel less alone and more likely to speak up, since they aren’t the only ones “struggling.”

I’m hoping Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, so keen on imposing online courses in high school, and educational publishers, eager to cash in on those courses, pay some attention.


This column first appeared in the Toronto Star.

is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[