The Problem of Self-Care in Higher Education

Students struggle to care for themselves in higher education, writes Douglas Dowland, and so do faculty.

January 10, 2020
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Yuliya Nazaryan

“It’s easier for me to care for others because I don’t like myself.”

After he said it, I looked at George: a burly, bearded, long-haired redhead wearing a Marvel Comics T-shirt. George was a creative writing student -- why he was in my literature and medicine seminar was not something I entirely understood. He had been a student before in my literary theory course, and even then he struck me as quiet. In class, he would occasionally emit a chuckle that was clearly meant for himself.

George’s eyes were milky red. I couldn’t tell if he’d had a sleepless night or was about to cry. What I could tell was that in the plain tone of his voice, George had said something that was, to him, a fact.

The text under discussion was MK Czerwiec’s Taking Turns, a graphic memoir of her experience as a nurse in an HIV/AIDS ward in Chicago during the early 1990s. The subject of discussion was self-care. In the memoir, Czerwiec struggles to care for herself among the loss of so many patients who were also friends. She admits to the ward’s therapist that “I’ve never entirely understood what it that means, ‘Take care of yourself.’” What she uncovers is something of a paradox: we cannot perform self-care without the guidance of others who genuinely care for us.

Self-care is not a purely solitary activity that we somehow innately know how to do, but a practice that is learned and is guided by those who care about us. Struck by Czerwiec’s insight, I asked the class, “Don’t we need others to help us care for ourselves?”

That’s when George said it. In its wake, the room was very quiet. The seminar had instantly become a profound -- and vulnerable -- space.

Sometimes you have to let the class breathe. In the silence, I looked around: one student was doodling a circle in her notebook, her eyebrows tightly focused. Another was staring intently at the blank whiteboard. I scanned the room, trying to gauge where the students were and where we might go next as a group of individuals. I wondered: How could I bring them back from their private thoughts? How could I get them to look at each other? How could we care for what George had said?

In moments like these, teaching is as intellectual as it is moral. We use the knowledge we have -- the sum of our training, our trials and our failures -- not only for the sake of one person but also for the sake of each person in the classroom. The classroom becomes a space where we, together, care.

***

When I started teaching, my credo was a simple one: do no harm. It’s still a rule I abide by, though the campus grapevine sometimes says otherwise. I’m the professor who insists on interpreting the most conflicted scene of a play: I’m the professor who brings the most vulnerable moment of a story to analysis. I’m also the professor who will not let issues of race, class, sex and gender go by the wayside for more potentially comfortable themes of family, friendship and unity.

Yet in my years of teaching I’ve also observed faculty members who take “do no harm” to an insulating, virtually suffocating degree. They use that credo to turn the classroom into a cordon sanitaire to keep the instability, the fragility, the authenticity of human life outside of it. They presume that a student drops all their burdens the moment they enter the classroom. And they presume that an emotionally unengaged performance is the essence of good teaching. But all that puts behind pedagogical lock and key the emotional energy we need to become intellectually engaged. Our profession too often misreads emotion as danger. In avoiding it, we certainly do no harm. But we also do little good.

It would be easy in George’s case to do no harm. I could have kept going as if George hadn’t said anything at all. But that would only confirm what George thought of himself. And I couldn’t reduce it to George himself: that would dismiss what he had said as unique to him. That would be too easy, and he would remain isolated.

Or I could try to turn this into a “teachable moment” -- but that seemed equally too easy, and the class would feel as if they learned content instead of learning something important about themselves. I was thinking deeply, I was thinking quickly, when I realized that the answer was on the surface of my own feelings. And it was also in the text right front of me: if I could show that I cared, perhaps it might occur to George to care about himself.

“What you said saddens me, because I find something likable in you, and in each of you.”

The doodling student stopped. The student gazing at the whiteboard looked at me. It took me a moment to see the small smiles on their faces.

***

After class was over, staring out my office window, I thought to myself: a thousand subtle pressures keep us from authentic connections. And some large pressures do, too, including the need to preserve ourselves. George had reminded me that academic culture knows little of self-care. If I felt connected to George in the moment he said he didn’t like himself, it was because higher education tries every day to make us not care for ourselves. This is evident not only to ourselves, but to the world beyond the ivory tower: as Neil deGrasse Tyson has said, higher education encourages a culture “where you’re only happy when you’re sad, when you’re overworked.” And so, we make ourselves ill, we exhaust ourselves, as we take on more work, thinking that busyness is the measure of who we are. Much like George, we might come to find it easier to care for others because we don’t care for ourselves.

I encountered George in the hallway a week later. I sat down next to him and told him about the campus counseling services available to him. With his usual flatness, he said, “I’ll think about it.” A few weeks later, I received a small card with a Marvel Comics figure on the front. “Thank you for caring,” it said in George’s telltale scrawl. “It really does make a difference.”

The difference we make in caring is profound. Care does not guarantee an epiphany. But what it always offers us is insight -- into the lives of our students, into our own lives as well. The care I had provided George had also been a form of self-care. George’s opening up had opened me up, and my care for him led me back to caring for myself.

Perhaps this is what the best moments in our careers do. In our moments of care, we transcend the narrow expectations that critics of higher education have imposed on us. We sculpt, just gently, the paths our students follow. And they, in turn, breathe life into ours.

Bio

Douglas Dowland is associate professor of English at Ohio Northern University.

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