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Adventures in Academe

Combatting toxic positivity with critical hope

Together we can transform for the better if we can model purposefulness and empathy – and avoid saying everything is great when it isn’t.


The way we tell stories about our situation matters. In the midst of a global pandemic, I have been following how leaders – and particularly higher education leaders – talk about the current COVID-19 crisis. Two narratives have emerged that imagine very different futures, which in turn exposes invisible power structures: 1) toxic positivity and 2) critical hope.

Toxic positivity promises us that everything is going to be fine. We are reassured that life will be back to normal in no time. That our institutions can pivot seamlessly to online delivery without diluting student experience. We just have to stick together and look for the silver linings. We are encouraged to shelter in place so we can get back to “business as usual” and look back on this global pandemic with a twinge of nostalgia for pajama pants and pandemic puppies.

Critical hope acknowledges that the world as we know it is changing rapidly. We ask ourselves how we might remake the post-COVID-19 world to be more just, equitable and inclusive. That our institutions cannot “pivot” easily because moving to online delivery changes the relationship we have with our students and threatens our ability to connect in meaningful ways. We double down on collaboration and community just as we understand that silver linings are not always afforded to the most vulnerable and marginalized populations. We are willing to open ourselves up to imagine a new model of education that moves us into a future that is better than our present and more humane than our past.

Toxic positivity effaces conflict and doesn’t allow room for disagreement or discontent. This narrative denies that we are in the midst of radical transformation and instead advocates for a return to normality. Critical hope understands complexity and discomfort as a necessary process of transformation, and holds spaces for candid and uncomfortable conversations as a way forward. This narrative recognizes that “normal” was a system based on inequity and injustice that benefitted a privileged few.

One narrative threatens to break us apart because it denies the fact of our transformation. The other narrative offers us a way to be broken open, to occupy the position of learner, to embrace empathy, and to relinquish authority in favour of collaboration – with our students, with our colleagues, with our communities.

Theorizing these two narratives has not been merely a pedagogical or professional exercise. This week my spouse is in hospital after undergoing an invasive surgery to remove a tumour. The path to a diagnosis began the day schools closed in Quebec and the world as we knew it irrevocably changed. Cancer and COVID-19 are intertwined for my family; over the past 12 weeks we’ve had to navigate the narratives of toxic positivity and critical hope as we talk to our young children about what this all means. We’ve been candid and careful to make space for the complexity of not knowing all the answers. Perhaps because children are in a constant state of transformation, our kids have responded calmly and with curiosity to the messiness and disorientation – and trusted us enough to know we would come through this together.

My disciplinary research and public scholarship have focused on critical hope and resilience for the last few years. The confluence of personal and global disruptions has tested my theoretical frameworks to their limits; and yet this experience has reinforced my belief that together we can transform for the better if we can model purposefulness and empathy – and avoid saying everything is great when it isn’t.

One of my favourite philosophers, Parker Palmer, asserts that “wholeness does not mean perfection, it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of your life. … These are the broken-hearted people whose hearts have been broken open instead of broken apart.” This moment in time offers us an opportunity for clarity in the midst of disruption, of finding meaning in uncertainty, and of distilling purpose to make the world anew. In a recent webinar, David Sylvester, president of the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, talked about universities as “anchors of hope” for our communities. Our world is in desperate need of leaders and learners who follow the path of critical hope with the courage to be broken open and, in doing so, transform.

Jessica Riddell
Jessica Riddell is a full professor in the English department at Bishop’s University, holder of the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, executive director of the Maple League of Universities and a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Her column appears in every second issue of the print magazine.
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  1. Mark Roseland / June 20, 2020 at 19:55

    You’ve captured the challenge of these times eloquently – thank you for writing this.

  2. Lynn Aylward / June 22, 2020 at 18:42

    Thank you Jessica for writing so personally, professionally and powerfully about the multiple levels of making your way through 2020. Living in Nova Scotia, I recently described my mindset to a colleague and friend as “realistically hopeful”. Broken open… no question that has happened for us all and now how will we transform? And I am not speaking to the realities of our “day” jobs.

  3. Patrick McGrath / June 24, 2020 at 14:31

    Combatting toxic positivity with critical hope is a thoughtful and meaningful approach that can be used, as Jessica Riddell illustrates, in numerous contexts. Critical hope can also be useful in sidelining that all too common stance in universities, “know it all cynicism”. Thanks Jessica for an enlightening comment.

  4. John Vernon / June 30, 2020 at 11:00

    thank you for this message Professor Riddell. Here’s to critical hope.

  5. Leah Sifuentes / October 27, 2021 at 00:28

    Wow… as an educator, I needed to hear this. Although, I prefer the word ‘unrealistic’ positivity rather than ‘toxic’. I am of the later, being unrealistically positive myself. I hate Covid, I hate teaching online, I hate the lack of community, I hate being isolated from my peers…. but being realistic about the situation is what our students need to hear.

    Thanks for changing my mindset 🙂


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