This post was authored by Dr. Shalini Jayaprakash and is part of a series of posts from participants in the Hub’s Small Changes: Course Improvement Studio experience.
As a part of the Social Presence track at The Hub’s Small Changes: Course Improvement Studio two week intensive course, I read the article entitled “They Need us to be Well” by Sarah Rose Cavanagh. This article was posted under a module on how instructors can improve social-emotional contagion in their course. The article immediately resonated with me. Being a part-time faculty teaching multiple courses at multiple places, I go through cycles of excitement, anxious mess, exhaustion, and depletion. I am aware of the role of emotions in the instructional context and that students grasp their teacher’s emotions, but I was always inquisitive about how this contagion functioned. This article was thought-provoking and transformative for me.
Cavanagh argues for the need for rest and joy in the lives of instructors to deliver their best in classrooms. She talks about the importance of social-emotional contagion in the classroom since our internal state reverberates with our students. Students tend to observe the keenness and commitment of the instructor and copy that. The more the teacher is passionate about the subject and engages critically with it, the more the students are likely to do so. Cavanagh tightly links the physical and mental wellbeing of instructors to the emotions that they exude in their classrooms. She also suggests that instructors get some rest in summer to rejuvenate, reflect, and plan for the coming semesters.
Maybe I am already doing a lot of things suggested in the article. Nevertheless, I sat down to think about my own pedagogical ways. As I am a contingent instructor, I typically teach 4-5 courses every Fall and Winter. I often don’t have the luxury of relaxing during summer since this is the only time I get to catch up with my life and family. This summer, I am working on publishing a paper since this is the only time of the year I teach fewer courses than the rest of the year. Being in Michigan, summer is the only time I get to do some gardening, catch up on my cleaning, outdoor activity, or traveling with my family. I recognize the need to balance the personal with the professional. It is challenging but workable. I totally relate to Cavanagh on the importance of replenishing myself this summer to give my best to the students in the Fall semester. Otherwise, I realize that I risk losing ‘sustainable teaching’ or injecting my passion for the subject into my students.
Reading this article helped me reflect on my own ways of balancing my intellectual labor and life. One way I have learned to take care of my mental wellbeing during the post-pandemic years of teaching is to realize how my community of friends and colleagues are important to my growth and development. As a part-time instructor in the department, I look up to all the professors in the department. I am blessed to have a vibrant team of women studies colleagues who inspire me every day with their wisdom and academic contributions. It allows me to cultivate an urge to get back into active research. I have managed to do three publications in the last two years. Balancing different courses in different spaces and at the same trying to get back into active research has not been easy. But I realize that these challenges shape me into the person that I am and contribute towards my growth as an instructor who has managed to consistently teach at Universities in the US for the last 12 years despite being a second language speaker of English and coming from a different educational background. These trials have shaped me into a passionate and empathetic instructor.
I have also been able to stay sane and on track with my multiple teaching assignments only because I have created healthy boundaries between my teaching and the multiple intersecting identities that I assume. I am a South Asian woman, wife, mother to two teenage boys, and socially active in my Indian circles. I am associated with many Indian cultural and literary groups. I tutor school students, I translate books and do editing jobs, I help with college essays, and I am an editorial team member of an Indian community magazine. I have a personal blog where I journal, write poems, travelogs, impressions of life, book/movie reviews etc. I love doing DIY projects and home décor. Baking to me is an act of meditation. Being a bibliophile, I also make time to bring reading consciously into my life. On the other hand, my inner critic keeps pushing me. I had a great teaching career back in India before I moved here in 2011. My colleagues back in India have attained tenure tracks, and here I am still struggling to get a Lecturer position. The constant disappointment pushes me to overdo things. That relentless nagging voice within challenges me to do better every time. Yes, I adorn so many hats but seek joy in each act. I guess these are ways that I take care of myself to make my teaching sustainable. I keenly balance these distinct selves within me. I acknowledge every voice and mess within me. Each feeds my ego. These activities provide me with brave spaces for exploring and challenging myself. This is what makes me the person I am and supports me in making my teaching sustainable.
The second point Cavanagh raises is the need to personalize the course policies and syllabi to reflect our values. I make sure to make my syllabus a reflection of who I am as a person. My biggest teaching pet peeves are students who aren’t willing to try on their assignments. To handle this, I give feedback on their assignments trying to motivate them on a personal level and to positively approach their resistant attitudes. I personalize every feedback so that the students feel acknowledged for sharing about their personal experiences. At the same time, I meet up with them on zoom to get a feel about what possibly I can do to help them deliver more. Personalizing my teaching along with getting to know who my students are, matter to me the most.
Another valuable point Cavanagh raises is to create assignments that you get some measure of satisfaction in evaluating. Women’s writings and gender issues are topics that I am extremely passionate about. I absolutely assign my students readings that I like to read. Gender norms and gender socialization are topics that I still engage with since I grew up in a patriarchal culture that insists on gender demarcation and roles to a great extent. I assign my students assignments that allow them to reflect on the readings and concepts for the week along with revisiting their own personal experiences of gender, class, race, and other intersectional identities. Cavanagh brings up the example of Karolina Fucikova, the Biology professor who assigned a plant identification project that allowed her students to get outside the classroom and explore not just nature but their own possibilities. I design assignments that help me understand my students better and their gendering journey. There is one specific assignment I enjoy giving them which is about revisiting the gender norm instructions they received while growing up. I primarily share the norms from my Indian cultural context which a lot of students resonate with. Even though most students come from diverse cultures, religious backgrounds, and nationalities, it allows us to recognize that we all are connected in some sense since gender norms to a great extent are shared in most parts of the world.
Additionally, I took away an example of a sustainable teaching practice that Cavanagh shared from Robert Talbert, a professor of mathematics at Grand Valley State University, who proposed making the courses around 12 weeks of content instead of the usual 15. I liked his suggestion of using the first week for ‘onboarding’ activities and the last two weeks to reflect on their tasks, their missing assignments, and their lives. I had given my students the second last week as a no HW week during the pandemic. Many students thanked me for that. At the same time, it allowed me to catch up on my grading which too was so overwhelming with all the online teaching. I might try this again this Fall semester.
Staying open-minded especially for my course is one way I can help students improve their understanding of concepts. The ideas and perspectives they gain from this course will surely help them navigate a more equitable world. I want students to bear witness to their own growth as a human being with the knowledge they gain out of the course. I want them to feel that their choice and voice matter too in this world. That’s when I will feel a sense of purpose and contribute to the collective vision of the Women’s and Gender Studies department at University of Michigan, Dearborn. This article by Cavanagh surely informs my pedagogy to create a classroom environment for students where they will feel emotionally welcomed but will not be tiring for me as well. I firmly believe in what L.W. Fox said, “What you teach today may someday light the world.” The article reminds me that I will be able to do that only if I take care of myself first.
Dr. Shalini Jayaprakash is a LEO Lecturer I in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan Dearborn.