This week, we launch a newsletter that helps build, report on, and connect the New College community in what is, for a while, NEW Routes. We remain rooted in our key principles of supporting students, programs, critical research, and community. We may need to take some new routes to doing so. The past two weeks have been hectic and many of you have been heroic. While all of us have been thinking and rethinking what wellness and safety means and what caring for family both nearby and far away entails, instructors have been adapting courses to on-line formats and students have been adapting to these new formats. Many staff are now telecommuting, while other staff in facilities and in residence and student life are adapting to new protocols and routines on campus designed to protect their own and others’ well-being. Many of students remain with us in residence; other students may not be on campus, but are also away from family and living in Toronto. We are committed to finding a way to make you all feel at home, while away from home, and connected to the wider community. We will continue to send out notices that require your immediate attention. But this newsletter, which will come out every week or two, is a site for reflection, a place to catch our breath, and share what we’re doing and thinking.

Bonnie McElhinny at home

My current Zoom setup

We know many of us are awash in information—but we keep wondering which information to trust. U of T has mobilized much of its considerable research expertise into thinking about the public health, medical, social, ethical and creative responses to and impacts of COVID-19. In this and subsequent issues of this newsletter, we’ll highlight some thoughts and work from U of T experts. This week, we share the link to a podcast series from Vivek Goel, professor of public health, vice-president of research, and the founding director of Health Ontario during the H1N1 crisis. He is considering the questions many are asking: when and how will this end?

We’ll also share stories of creative adaptions to rapidly changing and unprecedented times, and resources for support. This week: thoughts from Jeff Newman on what it means to be a librarian without a library, and virtual mindful meditation from Ellen Katz for students in Buddhist Psychology and Mental Health. We will highlight, with deep appreciation, front-line workers in subsequent issues. We will continue to share notable accomplishments and milestones, including Khalid Ahmed’s teaching award.

And we’ll share some personal stories. I hope you will write to me, or others at the college to share these. Some of you may want to write to the larger New College community, by submitting something for possible publication to this newsletter (communications.newcollege@utoronto.ca). Here’s my story: I’m writing to you as a principal, and a professor, but also as a parent and a daughter and sister. My daughter is taking on-line courses this summer, because the co-op jobs she had applied for have dried up. My son is still hoping his summer landscaping job won’t be cancelled. Both are with family, my daughter on the West Coast, my son in Toronto, sorting through new kinds of assignments, on new schedules, as their terms wind down. I’m telling my parents, who are across the closed U.S. border in Western Pennsylvania, to stay safe. I’m checking in with my five sisters near daily. I’m working on my Zoom background: I’ve added a philodendron, to brighten it up. The part of my office you can see on Zoom is tidier than the other parts! I’ve picked up my banjo again, found an online kickboxing class, and am crocheting a blanket called “Island Dreams.” I don’t do all of these things every day!

And I’m trying to figure out what to read. Suggestions accepted (nc.principal@utoronto.ca). Two works have inspired me this week: Deborah Cohan’s essay, on “What do we need to teach now”, in which she writes:

“I want this moment to be an opportunity for my students to pause and think about how they might be better and healthier selves, citizens and leaders in the face of uncertainty, crisis, fear and change. I want them to think about how and where they can be of the most service and how they can channel their energy to effect change. I will urge them to think about what they want to hold on to and what they could let go of, and I want them to think about how they want to be remembered. I want to encourage them to dream about how they can chart a course for and about hope, even and especially when it feels like there is none. Aren’t these the eternal questions of the human condition and lessons we want to impart on and off campus? It just might be that this current emergency prompts us to re-evaluate our real purpose in teaching.”

And I’m relishing the wisdom of a prescient and artfully collection on “writing in the age of unraveling” published in the Winter 2020 issue of Canadian Notes and Queries and co-edited by Sharon English, the Director of the Writing and Rhetoric Program at Innis College, and Patricia Robertson, with a contribution by Roz Spafford, a New College Writing Instructor. They wanted in their collection to find “more than despair and more than different ways of imagining ‘The End’”—noting that in most post-apocalyptic fiction the focus is on a few protagonists’ survival, rather than building community and thinking about new futures.

The hope lies there: in and with all of you, and the amazing work you are doing to build a community of care in unprecedented circumstances.

With respect, admiration, and love,
Bonnie