This post was authored by Wessam Elmeligi and is part of a series of posts from participants in the Hub’s Small Changes: Course Improvement Studio experience.
I signed up for the Course Improvement Studio this summer, the group I joined focused on social presence. One of the resources offered was an article titled “They Need Us to Be Well,” by Sarah Rose Cavanagh (Cavanagh 2023). Like many resources on teaching and pedagogical improvements, I felt I knew some of what Cavanagh was writing about, but didn’t know what she wrote existed. As an academic, I find terminology matters. It is the textual equivalent of putting a face to the name of someone on campus you’ve exchanged many emails with but haven’t met, and when you finally meet face to face, you feel it makes more sense for some reason. It’s like putting a book in its right spot on a shelf. For me, in that article, it was “social and emotional contagion” that did that for me. That aha moment was when words such as “positive energy” and “good vibes” became more than hype or an overused social media meme. I read further and that metaphorical face became not only associated with a name in an email, but with me, what I do, and want to do, in class. It didn’t hurt that I realized that the article was published on my birthday. I liked the association between “be well” and the date of my birthday but that is far from the only thing that resonated with me. Cavanagh does a good job of making this article a personalized experience – as she also advocates we should do with our students in our teaching.
Cavanagh suggests that professors who are passionate about their subject matter can, and should, try to communicate their excitement to their students. As someone teaching humanities in today’s academia, increasingly leaning towards STEM (a debate for another time), I end up with an interesting mix of students who might be taking my literature class for a humanities credit, or my language class for a language requirement. So far, I designed all of the classes I have taught at University of Michigan – Dearborn and have been active in designing how they fit into the curriculum including certificates and a major. So I am excited about them from the get-go, not that teaching a class I did not design is not exciting, but if it is a class I made, it should reflect what I am passionate about, what I enjoy doing. That’s what Cavanagh captures. Instead of traditionally recommending assignments and exercises that engage students only, the author suggests creating assignments that professors “get some measure of satisfaction in evaluating.” In other words, professors need to indulge themselves by offering what they enjoy teaching. Now that, for me, defines Cavanagh’s approach.
The article proposes a strategy that is spelled out in the title: “They Need Us to Be Well.” Creating assignments that I enjoy evaluating sounded easy, for that’s exactly what I’ve always been doing. In all my classes, I assign a creative project, regardless of the class content. The creative project can be calligraphy for a language class, adapting a short story to a song or short film in a literature class, or writing a poem and translating it for a translation class. My office is flowing with paintings and calligraphy by students, not to mention the folders of recorded songs and skits in my Google Drive. I enjoy the creative energy, and I read in evaluations that students feel they enjoy that energy when they read the assignments. That’s another point that Cavanagh mentions, more of a question: ask yourself what compliment you would like to hear about your teaching? One of those for me would be that class was as enjoyable as it was useful. And here I used to think that creating assignments I enjoyed was a guilty pleasure. It turned out to be scientifically proven, almost as good as reading an article saying that eating ice cream and drinking chocolate mocha everyday is good for you.
The next recommendation Cavanagh gives is building moments of excitement, social interaction, and sustainability. Now that is easier said than done, especially in remote classes. In a hybrid class that I teach on comic books, I take my class to visit our local comic book store and it is always a success. I think that comes close to building those moments of excitement and social interaction. One of my tasks now is building moments like that for fully asynchronous classes. Group work, extra credits for Zoom meetings that are scheduled more than once to accommodate everyone, have had some success for me so far but I want more.
There are items that Cavanagh mentions that are outside of class. One is providing space for teaching commons, where students and teachers can meet for formal and informal gatherings. I like that idea and one of my tasks now is to find whether we have that space and how to best utilize it. This relaxed atmosphere inspired by a faculty lounge brings me back to Cavanagh’s title, “They Need Us to Be Well.” The article emphasizes the importance of faculty well-being, as that reflects on their passion for teaching, and lies at the heart of emotional and social contagion. Cavanagh recommends professors take advantage of this summer to get some rest. Best advice I have heard in awhile. Easier said than done, though, but still, like creating assignments a professor enjoys evaluating, connecting wellbeing to performance is underestimated, and this article places it where it belongs, among priorities.
Cavanagh, Sarah Rose. (May 2, 2023). “They Need Us to Be Well.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/they-need-us-to-be-well
Dr. Wessam Elmeligi is assistant professor of Arabic and comparative literature at the Department of Language, Culture, and the Arts. He is the Director of the Center for Arab American Studies, and the director of the Arabic Translation Certificate, the Comparative Literature Certificate, and the Arabic Studies Major. He is the author of three books, on the poetry of Arab women, cultural identity and migration, and Arabic science fiction. He is also a graphic novelist and artist and has published two graphic novels, Y and Y, and Jamila.
All images are the property of Dr. Wessam Elmeleigi and are used with permission