“Then we came forth to see again the stars.” This is a rough translation of the final line of Dante’s Inferno, published in the fourteenth century, a time which saw the effects of another raging and devastating pandemic: the Plague. The Inferno is one of a three-part epic poem called the Divine Comedy written by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri. It details vividly the poet’s journey through hell and its final line brilliantly encapsulates Dante’s long-awaited sense of relief as he emerged from the depths of the ninth circle of hell and back into the world of the living, faced now instead with the sight of the calm and star-filled sky before him.
It’s striking that a line written seven hundred years ago resonates so well in our current conditions as we begin to slowly emerge from our own personal hell through which many of us have travelled over these past fourteen months.
Dante did not make this journey alone but was guided by the spirit of the poet Virgil, who died over a thousand years before the Divine Comedy was written. In many ways, College has aimed to act as our Virgil as it tried to steer through the difficulties we as a campus community have encountered. With the development of multiple vaccines and their rollout due to ramp up over the summer, an end to this pandemic is now finally – hopefully – in sight.
The central question moving forward is the shape Trinity will take and how College will approach the slow transition back to a normal life over the coming months and years, and what will await us as we begin to step into the post-pandemic world.
Many of us will remember a Trinity bustling with students and long lines of tourists outside the Old Library. We remember a Trinity where we struggled to balance study time with society events and nightlife. We remember a Trinity of weekend matches, drinks in the Pav, guest speakers at the GMB. We remember a Trinity where coffee and smoke breaks dominated the Arts Building like construction works consumed the Hamilton. We remember all these things distinctly, but will we experience this same Trinity again? Or will the future of college experiences be fundamentally different?
With this big potential for change in mind, will we return to the days of thousands of students from different disciplines and years being packed under one roof for exams in the RDS? Or will we instead move toward more continuous assessment and less of a reliance on end of semester exams – perhaps mirroring what has already been traditionally done in many US universities? Maybe we’ll see a mix of approaches whereby students have in-person exams in smaller settings with some other assessments being held online. After a year of online exams, the study habits of the student body have been evolving and adapting and this must be remembered by those who have the power to make these decisions.
It was pointed out to me recently that we have students in Trinity who have not sat in an exam hall since their Junior Cert. Many students may favour a possible shift towards more continuous assessment, while others might prefer a return to fewer and more condensed exams. The questions about our future, and the vast potential answers, are likely being carefully considered by College – including Provost-elect Linda Doyle, who takes up office in August – and it will be fascinating to see how and to what extent Trinity is a changed college after the pandemic.
The effects of the pandemic raise a few pertinent questions about lectures. Online learning has had many drawbacks but the convenience and flexibility it often offers both the student and the lecturer may not be ignored. Given this, are the days of large lectures and a packed Edmund Burke theatre gone forever? Will future students ever experience that awkward sensation of asking a question in front of several hundred of their peers only to be told to speak a bit louder? It will be interesting to see if Zoom lectures, or an integrated digital and physical approach, become a norm for large lecture groups moving forward. Equally, the structure of smaller lectures or seminars, and the format that’s best suited to them, will need to be considered on a case-by-case basis – not to mention classes that rely on a physical presence like labs and demonstrations.
We’re still facing significant uncertainties and it’s difficult to predict what long-term public health policies may remain in place and the precise effects they will have on teaching. However, now is the time to begin to carefully consider the answers to these questions. It’s apparent that we have all learned how important the social aspect of college and of life is to us being healthy, happy and successful.
At the time Dante wrote the Inferno, he had been thrown out of Florence due to his support for the opposite side during a change of leadership in the city. Many of us find ourselves currently feeling separated from Trinity, but unlike Dante, who never again returned to Florence, many of us will soon make our way back. Now with this academic year drawing to a close, I think it a valuable exercise to reflect on what has been an extraordinary year. As the rollout of the vaccine progresses over the summer and society begins to slowly reopen, how we emerge as a college community remains to be seen.