The Unknown Unknowns of September 2020

The Unknown Unknowns of September 2020

Hi everyone – welcome and welcome back to McMaster and BHSc!

I’m sure many of you are feeling the way I am about the upcoming school year – a heady mixture of eagerness, excitement, uncertainty, and sometimes, anxiety.

On the one hand, I am looking forward to starting classes again: getting back into the rhythms and routines of the school year, and the rewards and challenges of learning and teaching, and excited about testing out some of the new initiatives and plans we have in place for learning together in a virtual environment.  And September is always a bit of a roller coaster, because we always have to do a lot of problem-solving for those issues that tend to bubble to the surface once things get started.

I know that every September will have its ups and downs, that’s normal.  But this year, I’m feeling more unsettled about that than usual.  I think that’s because usually, even though I don’t know exactly what September might throw at me, I have a pretty good idea about what to expect.  I’ve been in significant university leadership roles for Septembers for the last 15 years, and it’s been quite a long time since something cropped up in September that really, truly caught me off-guard.

But 2020 is a different story.  It reminds me of a quote from the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.  Back in 2002 he was responding to media questions about the situation in Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11, and famously said:

Reports that say something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know.  We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.  But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.  And if one looks throughout [history], it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Now I’m not normally one to quote Donald Rumsfeld, but this resonates for me pretty hard right now.

The known knowns are the things we’ve been planning for, things that are already in our schedules and on our to-do lists.  For me, that’s getting slides and activities ready for my teaching, finishing the grant proposal I’ve been working on for the last six months, and the usual list of Assistant-Deanly stuff that fills my calendar.  I know that I’m going to have a few late nights and scrambles in trying to get that all taken care of (as is often the case in September), but I know that and can plan for it relatively easily.

The known unknowns for me are the usual types of Septembery problems that crop up, like oh no, I have to replace an instructor at the last minute! or this student was sick and missed the first 3 weeks of classes! or my Zoom breakout rooms aren’t working!  Another one for me right now is the discomfort of not knowing yet how the epidemiology of COVID-19 will shape our Winter semester, and eagerly awaiting a decision on that so we can plan accordingly.  I don’t know exactly how these are going to play out, but I know to expect them, I can make some contingency plans around them, and my previous years of September leadership responsibilities tells me I can probably handle them pretty well.

But it’s the unknown unknowns that rattle me a bit.  I’ve never done September in a pandemic before – and neither has anyone else.  What might crop up that I can’t even imagine right now?  I can’t plan for things that I don’t even know about, and that is what makes me most uneasy.

What keeps me from losing too much sleep over this though is knowing that I won’t have to do any of it alone.

There are a lot of people who have my back, and I have theirs.  There’s the BHSc Office staff, our HTHSCI instructors, and the university leaders across the whole campus; the last 6 months have shown me very clearly that these people are committed to the Tim-Gunn-from-Project-Runway “Make it Work” philosophy, and are flexible, kind, generous, supportive, smart, and creative; I know I can count on them, and collectively we will figure something out no matter what 2020 cooks up for us next.  Then of course I have my social support network outside of work – my friends and family who make me laugh, cook me dinner, send me videos of my nieces singing Daniel Tiger songs, a cat to sit on my chest and purr.  Whatever happens, it isn’t something I will have to confront alone.

And the same goes for you.  As members of the BHSc Community, I hope we will all have each other’s’ backs this year more than ever, in big ways and in small.  I want every one of you to know that the BHSc Office is here for you – if anything crops up for you and you need someone to have your back, please feel free to come talk with a Student Advisor (Andrea or Ghazaleh), the BHSc Navigator, or frankly any one of us that you feel comfortable with, and we’ll do our best to help you out.  That is literally what we are all here for.

And there is actually a lot to be excited about too!  I’m really impressed by the creativity and dedication I’ve been seeing in so many corners.  Some of the things I’ve changed in my own teaching for this upcoming semester for the virtual environment are actually things I’m so pleased with I will probably keep them even after we return to face-to-face classes.  And of course, it will be way easier to attend those early morning classes and evening activities when all you have to do is roll over and turn on your laptop!  My dress pants haven’t seen any use in months, it’s all sweatpants all the time over here!

So BRING IT ON, September.  Patience, flexibility, creativity, compassion, adaptation, collaboration, and mutual support are always good, but if you ask me, they’re imperative right now.  We’ll all be feeling our way through September this year, and that’s ok – if we bring those traits to the table, I know we can tackle those unknown unknowns, together.