It is hard to believe that we have reached graduation season and completed perhaps the most unusual academic year—not only for the graduates, but for everyone. Experiencing every facet of our lives virtually, as we have over the last 14 months, will likely influence us in ways we are yet to fully comprehend for years to come.
For the graduates, I would like to describe the time you spent inhabiting, maximizing, and personalizing the online world as a “rehearsal for the future.” Depending on the industry and organization you will join, the work environment and nature of your work will look much different than before—as businesses and large organizations are exploring hybrid models for their employees, customers, and patrons. Your resilience in navigating this new environment—adapting to previously unimaginable changes in your lives and the world—has prepared you to be that agent of change and the source of vibrancy for the place you will belong.
Set the Stage—A Rare Window of Opportunity
For the rest of the Baruch community, I encourage everyone to get some rest and restoration, while mentally preparing for yet another big transition—our return to campus. I will take a hiatus from my monthly blog until September, but I would like to use this blog to frame our transition over the coming year as one of the most important turning points in our recent history. You see, we have a window of opportunity—a precious gift, really—over the next year to conduct an institution-wide dress rehearsal for the future.
Let me explain. From August 2021 through August 2022, Baruch will experience a transition period where we pivot from fully remote to on-site operations. We will migrate from virtual instruction to a mixture of in-person, hybrid, and HyFlex (where in-person and remote students learn simultaneously), as well as synchronous and asynchronous online courses, all while facilitating and maximizing experiential learning. At the same time, we will enter a period of remote work accommodations for the staff, which will afford us unprecedented flexibility to discover the most effective ways to work, teach, learn, interact, and collaborate.
This period of transition will allow us the opportunity to conceive an environment where we serve our stakeholders in a digitally-physically immersed hybrid setting—with some colleagues in the office, others working remotely, and all learning to seamlessly combine the two. Clearly, none of this will happen by itself, and no one is going to hand us a switch to turn on the light for that future—it is up to us to create the future with focus, intentionality, and effort. This year-long dress rehearsal will prepare us to hone the most significant scenes of the play while granting us ample time to learn important lessons then make improvements and adjustments. We know we have a gathering audience—our students—who are eagerly waiting for that future, and we have ongoing responsibilities to them.
A university operates much like a complex theatrical production where numerous actors are assigned different parts. Each actor learns their role and adjusts their behavior by interacting and absorbing what other actors do. This creates a seemingly harmonious system—an equilibrium—where everyone feels comfortable playing their designated part. Our experience over the past year shows that when this equilibrium is disrupted we are remarkably capable of finding a new one. Not everyone in the system is equal, however; some carry a greater burden and suffer more than others, while many others feel worn out and exhausted. As we are about to face yet another new reality, we will fare much better if we are more proactive and thoughtful about what to anticipate. In fact, we can use this window of opportunity to rehearse our future and perhaps learn what to do and what to avoid; let’s try to do this in every corner of the College.
What to Do During the Dress Rehearsal
Let’s consider our coming year using the metaphor as if you are an actor participating in a play. The first thing you need to do is to learn the central idea of the script. You need to know not only the storyline but also the play’s central theme. It helps if you understand what your character does that contributes to the central theme—the mission of the institution, what we are trying to accomplish together, and how modality and technology help in delivering that mission. If you happen to be responsible for a department or an area, you may have to improvise part of the script based on the central theme.
Next, each of you will need to experiment with the different ways your part could play out. There are practicalities that are unique to you, and you will need to spend time identifying actions and obstacles particular to your role. You will also need to think how you may react to different scenarios and circumstances on the stage: envisioning, problem solving, and experimenting as situations arise from the new work modality.
Most importantly, all of us will have to adjust and refine our roles based on how we interact with other actors. What are individuals planning and doing that impact or change your role? In addition to knowing who you are in the play, you also need a deep understanding of your relationship with the characters you interact with as you need a developed rapport and contemporary forms of collaboration with co-workers in the new environment.
How About Some Examples?
One of our stated goals is to create comprehensive support for student success. We are already on the path of designing a hybrid operation for student services that creates a physical and a virtual one-stop shop, where our students experience seamless and integrated support from academic advising to financial aid, life coaching, and career services and development so their distinctive needs and aspirations can be met. Such a physical and virtual one-stop shop might be accomplished by creating a virtually-connected network of technology and people that unifies the information flow and the workflow—systemizing our student-first culture while meeting their individualized needs through attention and mass customization.
What if all of our future College events—including conferences and community engagement sessions—adopt the HyFlex format, where we accommodate both in-person and remote audiences? Rather than a remote audience that “watches” an event, they actually take part while getting feedback in real time. We are already on this path for some of our instruction. With the help of thoughtful design (and increasingly inexpensive) technology, it is possible to achieve a seamless integration of experiences by facilitating participation between a live and virtual gathering. Over the past year, many of our virtual events reached unprecedented levels of attendance due to their convenience, but many missed the energy of in-person interactions. We should find a way to balance the best of both worlds.
In an earlier blog, I talked about the use of hybrid instruction as a way to facilitate and expand experiential learning—following the path Baruch is already on in using New York City as our laboratory and our classroom. While a portion of the population is eager to return to in-person instruction—which will remain dominant—we also have a significant number of students who want flexibility as well as a more dynamic learning environment. I believe it is our distinct advantage as a major urban institution to develop hybrid-experiential courses, where professors give some lectures online while spending the rest of the semester exposing students to field experts and inspiring change makers, taking students into functioning businesses, facilitating community-based work, or curating opportunities for students to secure internships or field work.
Get into the Character—Adopting the Right Mindset
Like acting, adapting and making changes require initiative from each actor as well as collective actions, with the former a fundamental building block. To make this work, each of us needs to get into character by adopting the fresh, exploratory mindset of a dress rehearsal. We may feel frustrated, apprehensive, and worn out; indeed, there is plenty to worry about, and I am certainly not underestimating the real challenges and hardships our community is going through. After some down time and with some patience and reflection, we can get ourselves excited and wide-eyed and ready to try something new.
I previously shared with you my father’s saying, “If you are going to do something, do it willingly.” Let’s relate that saying to where we are headed: We may not have complete control over our future, but we do have control over our mindset. With practice, we can choose to be flexible and adaptive rather than irritated and frustrated; appreciative rather than judgmental; have a sense of humor rather than be worried and anxious; hopeful, optimistic, and resourceful rather than defensive, insecure, and self-righteous; creative, innovative, and insightful rather than angry, hostile, and stressed. Grateful rather than resentful.
Now is the time to get into character for the most important dress rehearsal for our future.