Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning
The best writing advice I ever received is to write the thing you most need to read. So, I am writing about self-care. As we look forward to a new academic year that, for many, will mean the return to more on-campus work and in-person teaching after a long stretch of remote work during the on-going pandemic, I most need to read about self-care. Given the anxieties about a return to campus many of us encounter on a daily basis, perhaps you need to read about self-care too.
I can’t claim any expertise when it comes to self-care practices. I’m not a psychologist or a life coach. In fact, while I loudly encourage my colleagues and loved ones to prioritize their self-care--I am always saying things like, “You can’t pour from an empty cup” or “Put your own oxygen mask on first” or (my personal favorite) “An empty lantern provides no light”--much of my own self-care plan is aspirational. My confidence in the need for self-care, however, is not. As Senior Director of Faculty Programs and Services at the Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning, I oversee the teaching support for faculty as they return to in-person teaching and learning. I am keenly aware that faculty, staff, and administrators who are returning to campus this coming fall are going to need a game plan and a support system, and I believe self-care needs to be a part of it. Should it be the only part? No, definitely not. Governing bodies and officials, institutions, and local communities have a collective responsibility to support a safe, healthy transition back to more in-person life. My focus here is on the commitments we might each consider making to ourselves as one piece of an overall support system, because taking care of ourselves became much harder in the last year-and-a-half as we all adapted to truly unprecedented circumstances and levels of stress. We are still in the process of adaptation as new information emerges and guidelines change (Gluckman, & Depp, 2021), so with all of this in mind, I offer three self-care reflections to consider as we look to the new semester.
Practice 1: Reach Out to Your Community
It has been helpful for me to remember that as I wade through all of the unknowns of the upcoming academic year, I’m not alone. Teaching can sometimes feel like an individual practice, but it’s one we do in community with others. Some institutions are creating spaces for instructors to come together and collectively process the stress and overwhelm of the upcoming semester (Brown, 2021). You might check to see if your institution is offering teaching circles or similar communities of practice. If that type of structured engagement isn’t available--or it’s just not your thing--reaching out to close colleagues for mutual support can be particularly meaningful as you sort through university policies, protocols, and practices.
There is also a wider teaching community available through social media platforms. I have always found great inspiration and perspective from colleagues on Twitter, perhaps more so in the last year and a half. Folks selflessly shared resources, tools, plans, and workarounds for online or hybrid/HyFlex teaching. The higher education teaching and learning community on Twitter is vast, so if you’re looking for a starting point, here is a not-by-any-means-exhaustive list of some of my favorite follows: Joshua Eyer, Jessamyn Neuhaus, Sarah Rose Cavanagh, James Lang, Flower Darby, Kevin Gannon, and Derek Bruff.
Practice 2: Reflecting Back to Reflect Forward
Pandemic teaching called into question previously accepted teaching practices (Kachani, Ross, & Irvin, 2021), and now many in higher education wonder what lies ahead for institutions (Schapiro, 2021). Individual instructors, too, are working to make meaning of the last year and a half of online or hybrid courses. At the Columbia CTL we encourage all instructors to engage in reflective practice, and we’ve recently released an online guided reflection to help instructors look back on their teaching experiences, evaluate their approaches, and consider how course design decisions impacted their students’ learning (Columbia CTL 2021).
As someone who knows reflection is key to intentional learning and growth but struggles to find the time or space, I find guided reflections really helpful. I use structured processes as tools to help me in my self-care journey, and if you also find yourself intimidated by the “blank page” when it comes to reflective writing or thinking, they might help you too.
Practice 3: Dig Deep (or Don’t)
I mentioned in the introduction that my self-care plan is aspirational, but that doesn’t mean I have any shortage of self-care books lying around my home. I’ve even read most of them. While I could offer many suggestions in this regard, there’s one reflection from Brené Brown (2010) that I have been coming back to in recent months. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown introduces the concept of the “dig deep button,” which describes the traditional idea of digging deep when things get tough: “The dig deep button is a secret level of pushing through when we're exhausted and overwhelmed and when there's too much to do and too little time for self-care” (72). I suspect that many of us have relied a lot on our dig deep button since March 2020. I have, for sure. In fact, I pressed that button so many times it broke. The same thing happened to Brown, and she decided not to fix her dig-deep button saying, “I made a promise to myself that when I felt done, I'd try slowing down rather than relying on my old stand-bys: pushing through, soldiering on and sucking it up” (73). Instead, she advocates for a new way to D.I.G. deep. When you’re exhausted and overwhelmed, you get:
Deliberate in your thoughts and intentions;
Inspired to make new and different choices;
Going. You take action.
The outcomes of the new D.I.G.(ging) deep are going to look different for everyone, but I’ve found I have more mental space to make intentional choices about how I spend my time and energy.
Self-care has always been an important part of teaching and learning. As Jane Tompkins reminds us, we are educators and whole human beings who should nurture the individual as well as the intellect (Schneider, 1998). While those of us in higher education are facing a lot of unknowns right now, I do hope you’ll consider what self-care practices might serve you best.
(1) Consider for few moments how prepared you feel emotionally, cognitively, and physically to return to teaching this fall. What new strengths or understandings have you developed over the past 18 months? What changes have occurred that raise concerns or doubts about your preparedness during the new academic year?
(2) If you are returning to campus, list names of colleagues or mentors that have been supportive of your developing faculty role in the past. How can you reconnect with those on that list? If you are new to campus, what connections within your department have you made that can be developed further? What campus resources are available to faculty and students to support the transition back to in person education?
(3) As you prepare for the rush of fall and return to campus, where can you create space for self-care practices in your schedule? What does self-care look like to you? How do you nurture yourself as an individual outside of your role as faculty?
References and Additional Readings
Brown, Brené. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who Your Are. Hazelden Publishing: Center City, MN USA.
Brown, Sarah. (July 27, 2021). “Trauma Informed” Return to Campus. How one University is
Creating Space for People to Process the Pandemic’s Damage. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-trauma-informed-return-to-campus
Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning. (2021).
Reflecting On Your Experiences with Remote Teaching: Making Meaning of Pandemic Teaching. Retrieved from: https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/teaching-with-technology/teaching-online/reflecting-on-your-experiences
Gluckman, Nell and Diep, Francie. (July 28, 2021). Colleges Envisioned a Near-Normal Fall
Semester Then Came the Delta Variant. A Month Out From the New Term, Some Colleges are Responding to a Covid Surge by Changing Strategy. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/colleges-envisioned-a-near-normal-fall-semester-then-came-the-delta-variant