In this third part of a four-part series on care in the academy, I want to share details about an upper-level course I developed for the Wofford College Religion department for Fall 2020 titled A Global Guide to Caring for the Self.
In 2018, Wofford received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for general education reform. One high-impact educational initiative we have piloted is a senior culminating experience (SCE) for all fourth-year students. In our reform efforts for general education, we have focused on strategies that explore the growth mindset, identity and perspective, writing, and critical reasoning. I developed A Global Guide to Caring for the Self as an SCE course which embodies the idea of building cumulative learning.
We use Carol Dweck’s Mindset to position our work in this class. Her research motivates educators to cultivate a growth mindset in students where their efforts transform their learning outcomes, and challenges and failures are viewed as ways to stretch themselves. Students are given the permission and ability to develop themselves, that is, students are encouraged to grow. Dweck warns against looking at the world, and our students, with a fixed mindset where success is always strived for and qualities are carved in stone, so much so that failures and challenges are avoided at all costs, because they become internalized and feed into the grind culture of constant success. I introduce students to the concept of applying a growth mindset to self-care. I invite them to be open to growing in this area (developing a personalized self-care routine and experimenting with different forms of self-care), and we work to move away from fixed notions of this term (self-care equals lazy, unproductive, losers, etc.).
A key course element is student-driven investigation of the idea of caring for the self, bridging different cultures, religions and time periods. The course encourages a broader classification of self-care, deconstructing the term and common characterization from modern, neoliberal, pop culture references. We remove self-care from a contemporary framework and apply readings, research and discovery to better define it in its global context. For example, we investigate how the desert fathers and mothers in ancient Christianity discussed caring for the self. We read Light on Life by B.K.S. Iyengar and discuss his life and mission to introduce yoga into Western culture. We read and listen to Omid Safi discuss radical love in the Sufi tradition, and we discover Tara Brach’s approaches to radical acceptance from a Buddhist perspective.
Typically, A Global Guide to Caring for the Self would be a three-hour seminar class; however, COVID’s impact on space and time in the classroom led to innovative course delivery. We begin in the classroom with mindful mediation and discuss any housekeeping issues (15-20 minutes), and then we migrate to a covered outdoor space for the next 45-50 minutes. The remainder of “class” is done asynchronously; I include a weekly well-being activity that they can do on their own time (30-45 minutes) and include podcasts, TedTalks or other multimedia components for 30-45 minutes.
As a core assignment for the class, I ask students to craft their own self-care ethos. The self-care ethos is an iterative assignment split into three parts: a 250-word ethos, an expanded 1,000-word ethos and then an edited, finalized 500-word ethos.
- 250-word ethos. Imagine you are in an elevator and someone asks you “what do you do for self-care?” and you have about 2 minutes to respond. This is a short, succinct ethos. This is your self-care mantra for the semester, and it is a beginning point to this work.
- Expand that to a 1,000-word ethos. Here you can expand a bit from your initial 250-word ethos and include what influences your ethos, how did it come about? Why is this type of self-care and self-care ethos important to you? Expand and add more detail on what you do for self-care. As you have learned more, feel free to adapt your ideas on self-care.
- Finalized 500-word ethos. This is the polished, final version. Feel free to allow what you learned from our in-class workshops to infuse your self-care ethos. This will be the mantra you take out into the world after the class is over.
With the support of Wofford’s Center for Innovation and Learning, I am piloting contract grading for A Global Guide to Caring for the Self. This method explicitly outlines the amount of work constituting an A range, B range, etc. and requires students to determine their desired grade range. This model of grading is in line with the growth mindset and is more about the process, and not about the products produced in class. I give feedback to student assignments, and they can continue to edit or not. Honestly, I had some hiccups in unveiling and describing this type of grading which meant I had to update the syllabus and resend it in week 3 to clarify many points. It was a rocky start, but we forged on. As we approach the end of the semester, I can say this was a positive step to take.
To ensure better communication and acceptance of this innovative grading policy, I added in one-on-one student conferences early in the semester and again towards the end of the semester to check-in and make sure everyone is where they want to be within their chosen grade contract. The effort once spent on grading is now spent on coaching the students. I have liked that this method gives the students agency to balance the amount of work they want to give to this class. It has taken extra effort on my part to plan and has required me to grow in my own view of “grading” which has always been more traditional, and product based. I plan to keep using contract grading and expand it to other classes I teach.
Along with the ethos assignment, students write reflective, weekly blogs. Their individual care journeys have been powerful. One student has pushed me to redefine and open my own idea of “self” care. Another student focused on the physical space of care—an aspect I had not previously considered. This student reflected on how her peer responded to the idea of her doing self-care:
In an environment where being overwhelmed with busyness is a badge of honor, I wouldn’t help but see the (imaginary, but also probably real) judgmental stares and voices of people telling me that what I am doing is worthless, easy, lucky, lazy, or not “the Wofford way.” Why, out of all of those, does “lucky” hurt me the most and make me the most defensive?
I welcome suggests for future iterations of this course in the comments (readings, activities, alternative perspectives). Also, if you’ve tried contract grading and have suggestions, please reach out! I am all ears to improving this new (to me) grading approach.
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).