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.
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.
Faculty and staff have welcomed returning students back to campus and to the virtual classroom, with each week bringing new concerns and challenges. These multiple uncertainties create stress, anxiety, and worry. Students are likely asking significant vocational questions—How do I find purpose amidst new learning and living environments ? How do I take care of myself and others? What is this teaching me about my present and future vocation? NetVUE hosted a webinar on September 22 with three speakers who discussed experiences and strategies of how we can care for students, each other, and ourselves as we navigate this uncertain present.
Self-help literature has had an amazing shelf life. From medieval morality plays to Renaissance courtesy books to Victorian conduct literature to contemporary best-sellers, it pushes transformation while itself being continuously transformed. On Amazon today, anyone beginning a search for self-help will find 28 different categories for browsing. The S’s alone tell us volumes about our culture: Self-Esteem, Sex, Spiritual, Stress Management, Success.
In preparation for helping my congregation both think about and live into new ways of being the church, I have been re-reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. It is a lovely text—accessible yet profound, grounded in deep knowledge of the Christian tradition and also of the earth. Many chapters have spoken to me, but especially timely is “The Practice of Saying No.” It meditates on the gift of Sabbath practice and how difficult it is to choose to engage in such a practice when our world is calling us constantly to either produce or consume. How radical it is just to stop, to sit, to observe, to breathe… to say no to the cycles of production and consumption that dominate our society.
Now that many of us have been forced by the Covid-19 pandemic into a withdrawal from our usual activities, the chapter reads differently than it has in the past. On the one hand, social distancing and shelter-in-place orders have slowed our participation in commerce and literally called us home. On the other, most of us have moved our jobs from our offices into our homes, in some cases right next to family members and their work. How do we manage the contradictions and blurred boundaries brought about by this collective upheaval? There are some striking reflections making the social media rounds about the silver linings of this crisis, specifically how it might bring us back to some simpler ways of living and sharpen our eyes for what is truly important. Especially notable is Lynn Unger’s poem Pandemic, which explicitly names the calls for social distancing and sheltering in place as opportunities to reconsider the practice of Sabbath.