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Changing environments

‘Great is the power of steady misrepresentation.’

– Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species Tweet

I was going to open this blog with a different quote: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.’ The internet served me up this perfect piece of Darwin – ideal science bro inspo for a welcome-to-what-is-sure-to-be-a-weird-academic-year blog. A little too perfect it turns out: Darwin never said this. How annoying. But also, how fitting to have stumbled on another alternative fact in the misinformation soup of our digital lives. We are going to be spending even more time plugged in this year; this misquote gave me pause – learning online requires us to navigate a space where facts and falsehoods blend seamlessly. We know how to tell them apart, right? 

This question has been buzzing around in my head as I have been looking forward to the start of the new term. Perhaps you have already started back at university or maybe you are preparing to start your first year with mixed feelings about what starting university in 2020 will be like (particularly after the A-levels fiasco). The end of summer always makes me feel a bit sad – cooler temperatures and longer nights foreshadow the grimness of winter – but it also marks the start of a new stage. This summer’s end definitely has a different flavour preceding another season of uncertainty. If, like me, you have not yet returned to teaching, you might be full of questions about what many universities are calling ‘blended’ learning – a mixture of online and in-person socially distanced teaching. If you are a student in your clinical years, perhaps you have already started back on placement. I have been thinking about the implications of covid-19 for medical education at all stages, and the elements I most fear losing from the experience are intangible: serendipity and spontaneity. Combined, these result in the informal teaching and learning from peers that happens when you just happen to be in the right place at the right time, having asked the right question. Spontaneity is generally not covid-safe and serendipity is difficult to replicate online. How do we maintain these two key elements of medical education when we have to keep our distance from each other? I would love to hear your thoughts. 

One thing we do know for sure is that the 2020-21 academic year is going to be a weird one. We cannot foresee what course the pandemic will take or what further disruption there will be to our studies. However, as a person with autonomy, I have been thinking about what will be within my control over the next few months in a changed learning environment. This is my list:

  • Sticking to a routine: trying to get up at the same time every weekday, eating breakfast at the same time and not having dinner too late if I can help it. Getting into good habits will hopefully mean that I can keep my working hours within certain limits and make sure I have enough time to relax, which is just as important.
  • Checking in with study buddies: my friend Amber Knapp-Wilson has had a really good idea about checking in with each other at the beginning and end of each day for just a few minutes to help each other stay on track. I think the encouragement and accountability that comes from teaming up will be helpful, particularly on those dark winter days. 
  • Being as sociable as is humanly possible: I had only been at university for six months when lockdown started, so I am still in the process of getting to know the people around me. I am going to try to meet people face-to-face wherever it is safe to do so – Zoom is just not going to cut it. 

What is going to keep you on track this year? Have you got any new habits you want to inculcate or any old ones you are determined to kick? Are you simply determined to make it to next summer, when hopefully we will have more clarity on how we will obtain the full suite of educational opportunities we need, both formal and informal? Whichever way you are approaching this year, I hope you can find the resources and develop the relationships that you need for support. I am sure we will all learn a lot in the process. 

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