As self-reports of anxiety and depression are on the rise for our students and suicides continue to impact small and large college campuses alike, we have hit a moment of reckoning: how mental health is viewed, represented, and accepted in the academy. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, administrators, staff, professors, and students are being asked to stretch themselves in new and inventive ways. Uncertainty surrounds us all. The silver lining might be officially recognizing and naming the need to care for ourselves.
As we are being asked to radically accept this new world order of teaching, whether it be over Zoom or behind glass shields in masks, we too must come to terms with the need to stop and care for ourselves. How often have you viewed caring for yourself as a form of professional development? Therapy can be a tool for self-care and an official way to care for yourself. A yoga app that you use at your leisure or a mindful meditation can be your self-care ritual. Self-care can be focusing for 5 minutes on your breathing—just thinking intentionally about your breath in and your breath out. I am extending the invitation to you all to add a small shift in your day, of either extending your care rituals or starting a care ritual (however long or involved) as a way to sustain us on this voyage of teaching and learning amidst a global pandemic.
If I do not provide deep moments of care for myself, I won’t be able to extend that care to my students. Creating a culture of care for myself also allows me to model that care to my students and encourage them to take time for care for themselves. I have adopted a form of self-care pedagogy where I define, normalize and institutionalize self-care in my classroom. I insert self-care days, so students see that it is as important as the content I am teaching them. We talk of self-care as a form of ritual and practice, a way to center ourselves for the learning before us and to rejuvenate from the learning behind us.
My own story is familiar to many first-generation college students suffering from imposter syndrome and perfectionism. As an undergraduate student I worked part-time, took an overload of classes (usually 21-24 credit hours each semester), and simply drove myself to the limit. I felt that if I slowed down, if I stopped and took a break, I would not make it; I would be seen as a fraud and kicked out of this academic space. I was in the middle of my struggle, and I couldn’t get out. Graduate school didn’t help: financial precarity, unlimited academic work, and the anxiety of the academic job market intensified the heat of stress and anxiety in my life. I was surviving on fumes.
It took me nearly a decade before I learned how to thrive using deep self-care, thanks to a summer retreat in 2018 for early career academics at the Wabash Center in Crawfordsville, Indiana. It was one of the first times I was away for multiple days and nights from my then one-year old daughter, Liv. My life had exploded with happiness upon motherhood, but the workload more than doubled, too. I learned that the role of mother is often a thankless job where everyone has endless advice and opinions. It seemed like no matter what I did, or how much I worked, there was always more I could be doing. The scene for a disaster was set.
At Wabash, I had time to connect with a community of scholars all teaching religion across the U.S. Together, we had time to reflect on our work and life. We were asked to view the world through the lens of abundance instead of scarcity (for time, energy, intellectual discovery, etc.). This was a seismic shift for me. It was the needed push to get me to reassess what I was doing with my life and how I was doing it. I began my awakening to deep care for myself and my new goal: making my life sustainable.
Self-sustainability is a term I have come to promote in terms of why to do self-care. Sustainability practices can be self-care practices, but they can also involve systems and structures that help us sustain ourselves (policies, rules, boundaries). They can also be done in communion with others—as a community. They do not have to exist on their own as the responsibility of the “self.” When I think about my love for what I do (I do believe I have the BEST job and I feel absolute privilege to get to teach at my small, liberal arts college), I also think about cultivating a care practice so I can sustain this passion-fueled, caregiver role; I think now in terms of sustaining my vocation.
Care for All
Some of you reading this might think, “this is great; however, I don’t have time or energy for building in yet another thing.” Or your image of self-care is one of the wealthy, white actress telling us to buy yet another $125 mood candle to heal our soul. But consider Audre Lorde’s view of self-care: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” And as Sarah Amed states in her reflection on Lorde’s claim, “Even if it’s system change we need, that we fight for, when the system does not change, when the walls come up, those hardenings of history into physical barriers in the present, you have to manage; to cope. Your choices are compromised when a world is compromised.” In a blog post from last year, my colleague Katherine “Trina” Janiec Jones called upon us to “create cultures where the caregivers with whom we work don’t have to feel like they need to feign stoicism and feign productivity until they are at a breaking point.”
We need this care revolution. It is time.
So, in this compromised world in which we currently find ourselves, with global health crisis, politics, and ongoing oppression staring us head on, I invite you to take a moment to care for yourself and to replenish yourself. When you’ve rejuvenated yourself, I invite you to take one step further, and to extend that care to your colleagues and students.
In future posts, I will share resources that can be used to promote and practice care pedagogy in the classroom setting; discuss my upper-level religion course called A Global Guide to Caring for the Self; and highlight a workshop I led at Wofford this past summer (funded by the NetVUE Program Development Grant) that invited faculty and staff to participate in a deep self-care retreat, incorporate self-care activities to first year student courses in the fall 2020, and evaluate the impact. Stay tuned.
Courtney Dorroll is an assistant professor of Religion and Middle Eastern and North African Studies at Wofford College, where she co-coordinates the MENA Program and is currently the PI of a NetVUE Program Development Grant that extends self-care pedagogy across the incoming student curriculum. She has a 3 year old who keeps her playing with paints, crayons and playdough. When she is not teaching or playing she is taking care of herself with yoga, meditation and listening to awkward comedy podcasts (her favorites right now are I Said No Gifts and Everyday Decisions).