Student antifragility in the year of Covid-19
An antifragile outlook on life is one of the most important tools that students can pick up during their time in university
In Bangladesh, a sudden migration of university courses to online platforms for summer 2020 semester has put a lot of students under tremendous stress and many of them are understandably not coping well.
Lack of appropriate devices and stable internet connection notwithstanding, having to adjust to a radically new mode of learning has noticeably impacted the wellness of many students.
Not to forget, there is also a global pandemic going on which in itself is stressful, due to worries about family finances, the health of elderly parents, sense of disconnection from the world due to lockdowns, and a bleak future with mixed messages about prospects, from local and global leaders.
Being a student, it seems, has never been more stressful.
This article is going to cautiously propose the idea that a by-product of the Covid-19 pandemic is going to be the rapid progression of antifragile tendencies in the students.
The call-to-action for educators and educational institutions is to develop effective systems for students that offer them all the feasible support and understanding that they need, while at the same time not negate the on-set of antifragility.
Fragile systems breakdown in the face of stress or shock or attack. A wooden-chair is fragile; once you break a chair-leg, it will remain broken and is in no way better than what it was before.
A more resilient system is a metal-chair which can survive the level of stress that would break a wood-chair. However, with enough pressure even a metal-chair is fragile.
Antifragile systems, however, thrive and improve under pressure. An antifragile system is at its literal weakest state when it has not been tested.
If human-bone breaks, that does not mean that the human skeleton-system is fragile - the bone can heal itself and the healed newly-formed bone will be stronger and denser than what was broken. The human body is an example of an antifragile system.
Nervous systems, similarly, are antifragile. The more infections and bacteria we are exposed to as a child, the more cuts and bruises we get, and seasonal flu we catch in our childhood, the stronger our immune system is going to be in adulthood.
The human mind, likewise, is an antifragile system.
There is a tendency in us, especially now in the 21st century with all the luxuries of modern amenities, to over-manage our lives to eliminate all random elements and all forms of stress and conflict.
This is true for helicopter-parents who painstakingly plan out every minute of their children's days as well as for large corporations that hire a plethora of consultants and lawyers and other experts to help them smooth out the curves of prosperity.
However, the most vulnerable systems are the systems that have no problems at all.
The global financial collapse of 2008 has since been blamed on the fragility of the system. The financial system was an extremely complex system that was coddled, insulated, and over-managed by policymakers and laws and was never tested and never allowed to identify and strengthen its weaknesses. When a shock appeared, the whole system collapsed.
In a similar vein, a child wrapped in a protective-bubble, never allowed to play rough and gets cuts and bruises will never develop a strong immune system.
A child never allowed to face conflict or exclusion from peers because of overprotective parents will have a tough time later in life when they face opposition in a professional environment.
They will complain about a hostile work environment which may not be as such and toxic friends and colleagues who may not be so.
To a vulnerable mind, all obstacles are insurmountable and unfair. A human-mind has to go through hundreds and thousands of instances of conflict, exclusion, rejection, and failure to fully mature.
If we get rid of the rose-tinted glasses we put on whenever talking about the purpose of education and call it for what it is, then for the vast majority of students of this country enrolled in an institution of higher education, the endgame is to get a good job.
As such, an antifragile outlook on life is one of the most important tools that they can pick up during their time in university.
In a professional environment, one ends up working with a diverse group of people, be they colleagues, bosses, consultants, or clients.
Sometimes they will be accommodating, sometimes they will be demanding. Employees with antifragile tendencies will adjust better.
Stressors, therefore, are good. But some stressors may be ruin-problems - events that exceed the threshold level of antifragile systems and turn them into fragile systems.
As students continue to struggle with their course-load and other academic issues during this pandemic and the initial period of migration to online learning, it is important to ensure that this stress (in conjunction with other stressors) does not become a ruin-problem in the lives of the students.
This brings us to the crux of the discussion: what should student support systems look like during a global pandemic?
In very generalised terms, there are two broadly defined types of support system that can be in place for students: one that aims to remove the cause of a stress and anxiety entirely (a system of over-managing) and one that aims to create a conducive environment for the students where they can competently overcome the source of stress and anxiety on their own. (We are not talking about ruin-problems yet; that will be done in the next section.)
An example illustrates the difference between the two systems perfectly. Suppose a student approaches a course instructor citing debilitating stress and mental pressure inhibiting him or her from completing an assignment.
In a regular semester, many instructors would have reminded the student that the assignment is part of the coursework and the student must find a way to submit it within the deadline.
Possibly during a regular semester and certainly during this and the coming semesters, there is a need for greater flexibility from the instructors.
In an over-managed support system, the submission requirement is reduced for the student without reducing the weight of the assignment. In extreme cases, perhaps submissions of the assignment are made optional or waived completely for the student and partial or full-credit awarded.
This is a short-run solution - the source of anxiety is removed for the time being, but a similar problem will crop up again, soon, in the same or an in a different course. The process has to be repeated indefinitely.
We can do better than this.
In a system that encourages antifragility, steps are taken to create an environment in which the student can submit without any "direct" assistance from the instructor that ruins the integrity of the assignment.
Deadline, for example, can be made flexible for this student; superficial submission requirements, if there are any, relaxed; extra consultation sessions with the instructor arranged; and grading is done with a more accommodating rubric.
Under this system, the student completes and submits the assignment, but instead of developing a perception that hardships can only be overcome with active handouts from the authority, the student is left with a sense of accomplishment and trust in his or her abilities.
An important aspect of the second-system is that we have not tempered with the learning objectives. We have merely made the path to learning more empathetic and inclusive.
And importantly, we have managed to create antifragility in this student.
A support system for students suffering from ruin-problems will look very different from the support system for stressors. The first step is to identify a stressor as a potential ruin-problem. A family bereavement, for example, can be one.
Detection of Covid-19 and subsequent quarantine of whole families is another event that can become a ruin-problem for many students. A steep drop in family income is another example.
Identification of a ruin-problem should ideally be followed by an immediate migration to an over-managed system, lest we risk overwhelming the student.
Institutions should stand ready to offer students going through ruin-problems more than financial assistance and an over-managed support system. For example, counselling units should see their sizes increase manifold and scholarship students should be exempted from scholarship requirements such as a minimum CGPA, course-load per semester, etc.
The support system discussed in this article may or may not be forthcoming in all institutions. As such, it helps to take a step back from the chaos we find ourselves embroiled in and reassess a few things.
If as a student, you are stressing over appearing for a two-hour online exam without access to a stable internet connection, then perhaps you should also consider that beyond academia, a life fully lived often comprise living in a country without a stable economy, working for a client or a boss whose behaviour and thought-processes are often erratic, or living your life without stable health.
Prioritisation is important, especially now that our resources and mental-faculties are dangerously over-extended.
For a healthy-outcome to the issue of student wellness in this stressful period, students, parents, and teachers need to recontextualise the inherent insignificance of a letter grade in the grand scheme of a well-lived life.
Ahsan Senan is a lecturer of economics, Brac University.