On April 2nd, I had the pleasure of hosting WCSU’s sixth Scholars in Action event. Twice a year I bring together faculty who are doing scholarship in very different fields, but with themes that connect them. These interdisciplinary panels always spark fun and interesting conversations and, I hope, a sense of camaraderie among all who attend. While all of these events have been thought-provoking, this most recent one was particularly compelling.
The panel, “Acts of Violence, Acts of Grace,” explored topics that were of great cultural significance. Communication professor, Jay Brower focused on media coverage of violent and traumatic events, reminding us of our complicity in its popularity and repetition. Brian Clements of our Professional Writing program, described the ways in which he has drawn together his art (poetry) with political activism in his work, From Bullets to Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence. Deneen Harris and Karen McLean of the Social Work program illuminated the concept of historical trauma (trauma arising from hundreds of years of ill-treatment and oppression) and the strain of empathic engagement in the field of social work, and the connection between the two. George Kain, former police officer and professor of Justice and Law Administration, described his experiences studying and teaching about the death penalty and his own transformation from pro- to anti- death penalty sentencing. Finally, Greg Haynes of the Music programs described the project of constructing a piece of music called Peace.
The importance of these topics is undeniable and the audience enthusiasm was palpable. Each professor described ways in which this work has become part of their classes, applying their scholarship in ways that easily illustrate the value of continued investment in the growth and development of the scholarly endeavors our faculty. There is plenty to follow-up on, but I want to highlight an important take-away from this conversation for all of us in higher education.
In a nutshell, education is a listening profession, obsessed with the holistic of the student experience that extends far beyond the classroom. Listening professions need room for rest.
I arrive at this thought as a result of the conversations connecting these interesting works of scholarship. As each participant described the ways in which this work informed their teaching, and the deep emotional connection to it, I started to imagine the psychic energy required. When Drs. Harris and McLean then discussed the self-care practices they are teaching future social workers so that they might manage the emotional exhaustion that arises from the deep empathic connections to their clients, I thought, we need to do the same in higher education.
Here’s the thing, we do not just deliver content and let students figure it out. We build relationships with students, meeting them wherever they started in this education process. They come to us with varied assumptions and experiences of education (and life) and these assumptions and experiences shape their performance in the classroom. We then task ourselves with listening to their stories and finding ways to bridge differences so that all students have a chance at success. This alone is an amazing juggle, asking us to continuously imagine responses to our teaching from multiple perspectives so that everyone might succeed. This juggle is little understood outside of the classroom, and it is not easy, but we do it every day. But wait, there’s more…
Topics of discussion can be controversial and we are expected to handle them without alienating anyone in the room. This isn’t just an issue for humanities disciplines: we encounter controversy in business, chemistry, nursing, and, well everywhere. We have to be attuned to the many ideas our students bring to the dialogue and coach each one fairly in their understanding of a controversy. We must suspend our own emotional connection to an idea, as best we can, and hop between arguments and evidence with agility and fairness in a way that no other profession demands. We don’t just need doctorates in our disciplines, we need to continuously pay attention to the values of all, so that we might encourage close scrutiny of ideas, values, and evidence. We listen to the students, to the public, to the media, and to the research, refining our approaches every semester. But wait, there’s more…
Most of us also engage our students’ day to day realities, which can be incredibly challenging. We hear tales of the transitions from adolescence to adulthood that are often unsettling for the student. Their images of their strengths, weaknesses, and values are all emerging and changing and they talk to us in person or in papers in ways that require, or at least encourage, response. Some are dealing with traumatic events, homelessness, general financial insecurity, so we try to help them get the resources they need. Some have had a lousy educational foundation and now we’re trying to help them succeed without destroying their sense of self-worth. We reach out as best we can, trying desperately to get them to use the resources available. And this is just the list I can remember, today. I’m sure there’s more.
In other words, information delivery or explanation of a subject is the easiest part of this job. It is so much more. Like social workers, therapists, and health professionals, we are tasked with listening carefully and reading closely the signs that are the clues to how to help our students. This takes a tremendous effort. Like those other professions, we are also unsuccessful part of the time, which takes a tremendous toll in terms of our emotions, and in this field, in terms of our budgets, enrollment, and how the culture (state) sees us.
And yet we do all that extra work, the rest of the job, willingly and habitually. Those of us who choose education as a career hold the hope of success for all students dear. We are committed to the notion that every one of them can succeed if they will just meet us halfway. We are not satisfied when we aren’t successful in reaching them, and so we continuously reflect, revise, and try again.
It is draining work, this listening profession, and it isn’t limited to the classroom. It is part of all aspects of the university, from teaching faculty, to advisors, financial aid counselors, resident assistants, coaches, and even those of us in administration. We are all listening carefully and taking action as best we can. Like our faculty supporting future social workers by teaching them self-care, I’d like to suggest we need to teach ourselves the same.
So today I am congratulating my colleagues for the incredible work that they do, and reminding them to make room for a little rest, recovery, and forgiveness for any failed attempts at reaching a student. We cannot continue to care at this pace without acknowledge the cost and celebrating the value of our efforts. Take a deep breath, reflect, rest, and yes, repeat.