Director’s Blog

What Makes Us or Breaks Us

by | Nov 1, 2022 | Director's Blog

As we begin the work of pedagogical wellness in DTEI, there has been a number of reactions to the idea of wellness in the classroom. Much of this was expected on my part – there is a pretty consistent spectrum of buy-in from faculty when we present something new. Part of my job is to recognize that spectrum and how that influences the design of my workshops, my discussion groups, and my blog posts. With pedagogical wellness, reactions are following the expected pattern with faculty early-adopters, faculty who are curious, faculty who are skeptical, and faculty who reject it. This isn’t unique to UCI – this is teaching center 101, no matter the institution. For this blog post, I’m diving in to some of the concerns coming from the skeptical and the thoughts I have in response.

For some faculty, pedagogical wellness potentially crosses a line into hand-holding, coddling, or lowering standards in order to not stress out students. College is supposed to be challenging, and students need to learn how to deal with challenges. We aren’t preparing them for the real world by using strategies such as flexible deadlines, trigger warnings, or alternative assignments. They won’t get these things in their future workplace, so we aren’t doing them any favors by giving it to them now. I have heard these same concerns regarding active learning and other teaching strategies in the past, and there’s often a sentiment beneath it that doesn’t always get voiced – I faced challenges growing up/in college, I overcame them, and it has made me who I am today. I am better for it.

Now I’m guessing, dear readers, that there are a number of reactions to what I just wrote. If you are nodding in agreement then stick with me a little longer. You may remain a skeptic by the end of this post, but I hope I will have at least giving you something to consider.

First, if you fall into the category of people who overcame challenges and feel you are better for it, I do not want to negate any of those feelings or beliefs. Let’s make that clear before moving forward. Here’s what I want to offer when it comes to your students. Not everyone survives the school-of-hard-knocks, and while many feel that’s the point, I wonder how many students would if they just had more support. Who is falling to the wayside, what potential is squandered, when we don’t throw a rope to someone who is drowning? Because a few survive without that rope, do we eliminate the use of ropes? I don’t see pedagogical wellness as coddling or lowering standards. Rather, I see it as an opportunity for more students to meet your high standards. There’s an interesting tension in academia between compassion and rigor, as if those things cannot co-exist. Many of us have our “war stories” from graduate school, how we barely came out alive, waving our PhD above our heads in exhausted glory. Would that PhD mean something less if we didn’t emerge exhausted but instead intellectually fulfilled with a strong sense of self? Is there anything in between what makes and what breaks us?

I faced some challenges my first year of graduate school. I moved from sunny California to an isolated farm town encased in snow and ice in Washington state. My already unstable mental health deteriorated quickly as the cut-throat competitiveness of my program shook my confidence to its core. Without getting too personal, let’s just say I wasn’t being kind to myself, both physically and mentally, which resulted in me hiding in my apartment, missing class and assignments. I found the courage to tell one professor who said I needed to turn in the assignment by the end of the week, and that was that. My parents tried to bring me home but a snow storm closed the airport the day of my flight. Long story short, I stayed, and pulled myself out of a hole with the help of medication. While you might applaud me for “pulling myself up by my bootstraps”, I can’t tell you how helpful a culture of compassion and understanding would have been that first year. And if the story were different, had I boarded a plane never to return, some of you might say that graduate school clearly wasn’t for me. I’m just not comfortable with the idea that a dark moment with mental health means I was never meant to earn a PhD. Pedagogical wellness means students can experience things outside of their control – a setback, an emergency, a tragedy – without it derailing their academic goals.

In terms of preparing students for the real world, I also have thoughts. Many students will enter the workforce after graduation and face deadlines and expectations for high quality work, and many of them will have bosses who don’t give flexible deadlines or alternative work arrangements. But instead of reinforcing this in higher education, couldn’t we instead use this as an opportunity to disrupt the status quo? Could we instead teach them this is how you hold people to high standards while also supporting and empowering them to be successful? Students can carry these lessons into their future workplaces and change the “real world” mentality.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, thank you, and I hope that you might be a little more curious and a little less skeptical. Remember that you can send me questions anonymously or email me.

In other news…

What I’m Currently Reading: Right now, I’m in the middle of Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. I was hesitant to pick this up because I expected a predictable romance, but I am surprised by it in the best way. Elizabeth Zott is a brilliant chemist but unfortunately it’s the 1950s so no one is taking a woman in the field seriously. She is stubborn, determined, and I am rooting for her from page one. And did I mention that Garmus is a chemist? I can’t wait to finish it.

Songs from my introvert playlist: Apparently Lizzo was a big hit from my last post. So I give you another Lizzo hit, Good as Hell. I dare you not to do a hair toss after watching this video.

Andrea Aebersold

Andrea Aebersold

Director, Faculty Instructional Development

Andrea Aebersold is the Director of Faculty Instructional Development at University of California, Irvine. She earned a PhD in English and was an associate professor of teaching before coming to UCI. She specializes in active learning, evidence-based teaching, and reading mountains of books.