A unique year’s lessons

No one would want to repeat 2020. But perhaps there are ways it will leave us better prepared for the future

December 24, 2020
John Sileo hugs his grandfather, Domenik Sileo through a plastic drop cloth hung up on a homemade clothes line during Memorial Day Weekend on May 24, 2020 in Wantagh, New York.
Source: Getty

Goodbye, 2020. This time we really do hope it is goodbye, and not “until we meet again”.

It is tempting to say that it has been an unforgettable year for all the wrong reasons, and it has. But perhaps that is too simplistic.

It has been a year of universal adversity, although the pain and tragedy have not been apportioned equally, but also one in which many may feel they have learned lessons that will enrich them professionally and personally in the years to come.

This was the thesis that prompted us to commission six academics from around the world to share their reflections on 2020, and in particular any positives they could draw from this annus horribilis.

Our assumption was that we would get a glut of love letters to epidemiologists and virologists, of pieces rightly eulogising the vaccine researchers who look set to release us from purgatory in 2021.

But in the event, the reflections were far more personal, focusing on the human relationships that have sustained our writers through a year of crisis and turmoil at home and at work.

Having read the pieces – and please do, too, they are wonderful – I feel it’s obvious that this should be so.

This year has brought life for many of us down to essentials.

We were not travelling around the world, feeling pleased with air miles accounts or exotic additions to Instagram feeds.

We had time to reflect on what mattered – connections with colleagues, students, friends and, most important for many, family (whether they live in a series of connecting houses, as for one of our contributors, or on the other side of the world, as for another).

Professionally, there has been separation and togetherness. New ways to bond over the uses and abuses of technology (I am not sure which category to apply to the “made you smile” game that one contributor describes, texting colleagues on WhatsApp during meetings on Zoom), and new ways to share the burden of the sudden, energy-sapping jump from face to face to online everything.

There has been a renewed appreciation of the value in what we once took for granted – time with students, time in the lab, time out of our own bedrooms-turned-offices – and a sense of new opportunities, too. As one of our writers puts it: “I was glad to see my colleagues again in the autumn, and I was grateful for the resumption of those chance conversations in the print room. But the opportunity to reflect during lockdown was hugely beneficial to my development as an educator.”

The sense that this year, when the world came to a crunching halt, helped to reconnect us to the environment in which we live will also feel familiar to many. It is captured by Merlin Crossley, deputy vice-chancellor at UNSW Sydney, who describes life in his Sydney suburb seen through new eyes of lockdown: “The evening commute was replaced by tending to the family animals, domestic and wild. The kookaburras and cockatoos, noticing us more often in the kitchen, came down for food and became regulars. Even possums – both ringtail and brushtail varieties – visited. I hadn’t even noticed them before.”

While the memories may fade, “some of us who were not hit by hailstones in the coronavirus storm have enjoyed the consolations of returning to a quieter, more local and more human life”, he writes.

These reflections dwell on the positives, but the quieter life we may be experiencing at home (children notwithstanding) does not extend to the extreme professional disruption and Sisyphean workloads that 2020 has brought.

And in our news pages this week, we present a list of 10 figures from across global higher education who, in our view, exemplify the exceptional efforts and achievements that scholars have chalked up during this unique year.

It is not exhaustive, nor is it meant to be, but it captures the essence of academia’s unrivalled contribution this year. If 2021 is to be what we all hope it will be – a year of re-emergence, with a renewed sense of purpose and what is possible if the world puts evidence and expertise to the fore – then we know who to thank for that.

So thank you to all of you. Happy Christmas from all of us at Times Higher Education, and here’s to a better year ahead.


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