A conversation with Vanessa De Wilde

Schooling has met its challenges the last couple of weeks. Some have embraced the “weeks-at-home” as the new normal and see no harm in chatting away with their teacher on a tablet. Others have experienced cancellations of huge milestones like graduation parties and long-planned-schooltrips. We spoke to Vanessa De Wilde, a teacher-trainer and researcher at Ghent University. She’s also a teacher at the bachelor program: secondary education from Artevelde University College Ghent. Vanessa guides students during their internships, bachelor’s and master’s theses, which totally turned into a whole different ballgame during this Covid-19 period… On top of everything she received a special PhD grant from the FWO this year to complete her doctorate. This last weeks she’s in the last direct line towards graduating as a doctor in linguistics and is now preparing her final defence in front of the webcam instead of the nice historical aula of Ghent University.

What went through your mind when you first heard about the lockdown?

“There was already a lot of uncertainty days before the lockdown. For example whether or not the schools would close, so I was actually relieved when the decision came. We finally knew where we stood – even though the situation was a bit surreal.”

Were you on team “come on, let’s all have a quick drink” or team “fuck, probably better stay inside…”?

“I am pretty careful myself, so I was immediately down with team “fuck … probably better stay inside…” :).”

How was the news initially communicated at the university?

“We had already received instructions the week before the decision of the real lockdown was made. So, this was even before primary and secondary schools had to close. We were asked to work from home as much as possible, and to also give lessons online. Measures were taken pretty quick.”

And towards the students?

“The students were briefed almost at the same time. I’m not teaching this year, so I don’t really know how the students initially reacted. Last week I stepped in for a colleague and spoke to a number of students. They generally are doing their best, I think, but the lack of social contact (also in a teaching context) is difficult for them. First-year students are often a bit unsure about what is to come. That of course plays an extra role in the current situation: all lessons online, a large part of the exams online.”

Did you think it would eventually turn out to where we are now? As in: complete confinement and only allowed outside when it is really necessary?

“Yes. When the virus was still a Chinese / Asian problem, I was still pretty comfortable with it. But when it shows up where you live and the number of cases increase, you quickly know where it is going.”

What was the initial approach at the university?

“Strict measures were taken very quickly – and these measures will be in place at least until the summer.”

How did you handle it for yourself – being a doctoral student?

“I was fortunate to have submitted my dissertation in February, just before the crisis. Finishing the book requires a lot of concentration and that would not have been the case with a man working from home and two children in home education. So, luckily I had already passed that phase. I had to do my internal defense last week. This was done via video conference, but all went smoothly. My public defense will follow in June. Normally, this is a festive occasion with colleagues, family and friends. This won’t be possible. It will have to go via video conference, but there will be a public link so that friends, family and colleagues can join. That’s unfortunate, but it is not the end of the world.

Regarding research, I was lucky that all data had already been collected. From that moment on I could actually do my work anywhere. I can now continue writing for a few more months (between homeschooling, cleaning, cooking, etc.). It is much more difficult for many colleagues who are in the middle of an investigation.”

Do you have insights about colleagues abroad? How are they doing?

“The colleagues I spoke to are largely in the same situation. It’s a bit the same for everyone. What I find very unfortunate is that your international network is on the back burner. I would normally attend four conferences abroad between March and August. They have all been canceled or postponed and that is very unfortunate because it is the ideal opportunity to present your work to foreign colleagues, to discuss and to set up any collaborations. That’s gone now – and that is a pity. I can see that some conferences are taking place online now, which is nice.”

Will online classes still be able to get pushed out of the system, now that it is actually proven that it is in fact possible?

“Yes, certainly. It’s happening now and it’s going quite well, but I hear a lot of people saying that this is an emergency solution. Real contact with students is much more pleasant, you can still follow up on them more closely (that may not be the case for a lecture, but with education it’s certainly better for a practice session). I hear from colleagues that online teaching is much more labor intensive, students flood them with e-mails to ask questions that are otherwise simply put in class. It is nice to see that it is technically and practically feasible, but I think most people prefer to see it differently.

What I do think, is that teachers will now be less reluctant to record a lesson if, for example, they are unable to give one due to circumstances. But it certainly will not become the norm.”

What does the future hold for academics?

“Gosh, that’s a very difficult question. I think not much differently than before.”

What measures do you think will echo for a long time at schools and universities? And how will this manifest?

“The biggest obstacle to the organisation of education is social distancing. As long as it is expected of us, no education system can be organised “normally” (as before). So a lot will depend on that. I think most of the people involved in education are fervently hoping that everything will run more or less normally again from September onwards, but unfortunately we have to wait and see.”

What are you most looking forward to doing after the lockdown?

“Visiting parents, going for a drink with friends and certainly also: being alone for half a (or whole) day. Everyone that’s in my current bubble outside and me, all alone, in my home with a good cup of coffee. Lovely!”