The aim is to teach students to prioritize non-homework activities that support mental health and emotional well-being, and that are critical for building cognitive function inside and outside of the classroom.
In my previous post, I reflected on the impossibility of today’s full-time, undergraduate students’ completing the two “independent student learning” homework hours for every “instructor-led” class hour as standardized by Carnegie. Fulfilling these mandated homework hours was not possible before the pandemic because students did not have enough time in their weekly schedules. After the pandemic, students face even more obstacles. Still lacking enough time to study, students seem to be missing critical independent study skills and are experiencing limited cognitive capacity as well as increased mental health concerns. In this post, I will offer a few concrete ways to address these two concerns in our syllabi and support the vocation of student learning.
Jethro’s wisdom matters today, not just because he spots that Moses has a problem, but because he spots that Moses’ problem is about to become everybody else’s problem, too. “You will surely wear yourself out,” Jethro says, adding, “both you and these people with you.”
Remember that booth from the Peanuts cartoons where Lucy used to offer Charlie Brown psychiatric care for five cents? That’s roughly where Moses is halfway through the Book of Exodus, sitting in his wilderness booth, chin in hand, the leader of a newly formed nation of ex-slaves spending his days fielding endless disputes.
It does make you wonder what quarrels the Israelites raised in the wilderness. How do you make a class action lawsuit about manna? How do you have a meaningful dispute about sandals that never wear out?
But humans gotta human. And I confess that on most days in 2022, I would gladly take a number and stand in line for some Mosaic adjudication.
What began as a way to share what she had learned about self-care quickly transformed… Inside Caysi’s blog is praise but also promise—the promise of a student taking on a subject explored together in class and making it their own.
My good friend and fellow religion professor, Dr. Sonya Maria Johnson at Beloit College, once reminded me, “You have to have your praise singers.” Translation: current students could sing the praises of my classes to prospective future students. This was such a wonderful moment to realize the power students hold. It also countered the idea of “student as client” by instead bringing to mind the beauty of nature and songbirds. It was about the power your current students hold and how that relationship is sacred in and of itself. Like me, she teaches at a small liberal arts college and knows how students hold power in how and who might sign up for your next class.
In this light, I am honored to have my former student Caysi Lewis take on singing the praise of my work on self-care by expanding it to incorporate her own perspective, interviews, and in-depth writing on the subject. After Caysi took my class (Caring for the Self, A Global Guide) she decided to make her senior capstone project a blog on the value and importance of self-care, called Caring for the Self.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
When we discuss vocation and calling with undergraduates, are we peddling a version of self-help?… Without dismissing the important activities of self-reflection and value formation, we might turn students’ attention beyond those activities to the here-and-now of their “unhelped” selves and to the present work that they can do for the common good. We can remind them that their calling is to the present moment—to their relationships, work, and communities in the now.
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.
During this unprecedented pandemic that has evacuated our campuses and sent us all home, we may not be able to offer sophisticated vocation programs. But insofar as vocation is about “whole personhood,” those of us committed to vocation in higher education are more than equipped to offer and to encourage this basic practice: to meet students where they are. In order to do that well though, we must be able to meet ourselves where we are.
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.