NOTE: Parts of this article were first published on Feb. 19, 2018. I wish I didn’t feel it necessary to bring them back again.
“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.” – Toni Morrison (1931-2019)
Students will soon be returning to classes across the country as well as in my hometown of Oberlin, OH. They will face the pleasurable prospect of a year of learning, the opportunity to reconnect with friends while making new ones, and the excitement of forming new communities. They also face a set of challenges that are rare, perhaps unequaled, in their intensity. They face well-known financial challenges. While the rate of increase in college and university tuition has eased significantly over the past 5 years (just below 2%, i.e., even with inflation), college remains a difficult reach for much of the population, particularly in light of four decades of attacks on wages and the unions that support workers. Tuition increases in the public sector have been driven by state cutbacks in their higher education budgets. Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the 2016-2017 school year was nearly $9 billion below its 2008 level after adjusting for inflation, with 44 states spending less on higher education in 2017 than they did in 2008.
Students will return to class in the face of a fierce partisan attack on the very idea of higher education. A majority of Republicans polled think it is having a negative effect on the country, which is one reason why they are gradually (or abruptly, if you’re in Alaska) defunding it in the states they control. At the same time, the data is unequivocal that those with a college degree do better in a large number of outcomes, especially the economic, than those without one. Students and their families know this, which is why they continue to pay for college and why student debt has soared over the years to its current $1.5 trillion level and climbing.
And paying for a college education might not even be the biggest challenge students face. Our undergraduates head to classes confronting a climate crisis which, according to a recent United Nations report, suggests that a brief 12 years remain if we are to avert global catastrophe. They face the crisis of living in a democracy in which, nonetheless, children are separated from their parents and put in cages; the crisis of living in the richest country in the world which hasn’t figured out a way to repair its roads or bridges, let alone provide food or health security to its population; the crisis of living in a post-civil-war, post-civil-rights, post-Obama country where school segregation is more intense than before Brown v. Board of Education and one political party continues to look for and find ways to deprive black and brown populations of the vote. More? Students face a country so divided along partisan lines that not only do Republicans and Democrats disagree over plans and policies, but nearly eight-in-ten polled say they cannot agree on basic facts.
The challenge students face when they return to class is how they will maintain their moral clarity and strategic perspective while the country teeters on the cusp of the president’s reelection campaign in which he has already dug deeply into the bitter earth of racial hatred and xenophobia. The challenge students face when they return to class is how they will maintain their resolve and direction when faced with the monstrous, now daily, news of young white men with assault rifles, seemingly closely attuned to the weatherman-in-chief who has spent two years signaling just which way the wind is blowing,
All of this takes its toll on our students. A new study by Jean Twenge and her colleagues,* drawing from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationally representative survey of U.S. adolescents and adults, found that rates of major depressive episodes among young adults 18-25 increased 63% from 2009-2017, and serious psychological distress and suicide-related outcomes (suicidal ideation, plans, attempts, and deaths by suicide) increased by 71% from 2008-2017. These trends seem to impact younger adults above all and are not nearly as evident in adults over 26. In the 1980s, perhaps 1 in 10 college students could be readily characterized as needing/wanting/using some form of mental health treatment. That number is now 1 in 3, with trend lines rising.
And the challenge we face? How can we best help them, support them, encourage them, teach them? How can we respond in the most positive ways?
“We are not all that is possible,” June Jordan, the remarkable poet wrote in “Outside Language.” “None of us has ever really experienced justice. None of us has known enough tenderness.”
“None of us has known enough tenderness.” The answer suggested in Jordan’s poem led me to Becky Thompson’s most recent book – which opens with Jordan’s poem as an epigraph. Thompson, who describes herself as anti-racist and feminist, a sociology professor, and yoga instructor, invites her readers to practice a “pedagogy of tenderness.” In Teaching with Tenderness, she suggests how we might adopt “gentler ways” of teaching. For those whose new-age-bullshit antennae have begun to waggle uncontrollably, stay with this, at least for a few more paragraphs. I’m not going to talk about sitting in a circle and holding hands – although I could, and she does. And I’m not going to suggest that our fundamental purpose as teachers is to make our students feel better — although there’s nothing wrong with that. Teaching with tenderness, Thompson offers, is about locating our teaching not just in models of intimacy, but also in forms of intensity and intellectual depth. Teaching with tenderness is about improving student learning, as well as their mental health, by lending attention to emotions as well as cognition, body as well as mind.
Rituals are important in life events, from birth to death, and, Thompson argues, in class events, from first class to last. She begins the semester with her students’ names. I’ve written before about the importance of learning names at the start of class, and, when possible, taking steps to help everyone remember each other’s name. I’ve always thought of this as a form of simple politeness and inclusion. But Thompson suggests that there are deeper reasons than courtesy for this practice. We start with names because unnaming, removing names as was done through enslavement or during the Holocaust, and as is done in prisons today, or by referring to those fleeing persecution as “aliens” or “invaders,” are all radical form of dehumanization. Naming, then, is a step toward recognizing each other’s humanity by calling attention to the fact that names matter, “they hold stories to people’s heritage, to what they know or don’t know about their ancestors, to gender. It is a start in seeing each other” (42).
Thompson starts each semester with all the students sharing their whole name, where it came from, what it means, and how they feel about their names. The process begins with the first student, and each student thereafter has to repeat the names of all who preceded them.
Naming is one ritual, and Thompson’s classes are marked by others, such as checking-in at the start of class, and reflection at the end. It is her way of always honoring the students as individuals, as humans who stand at the center of her practice of teaching. It is a means of teaching with tenderness.
After many years of teaching, Thompson came to the realization that she “was passing on to my students some of the same costs I had paid to become an academic. When I was finishing one of my earlier books…I began to realize that the academy asked people to trade in their body parts, anything below the neck, in order to be successful. I remember feeling like I had ransomed off all of my body parts, except my head, in order to finish the book…After I finished, I realized that I wanted my body parts back – my legs, my arms, my core, my feelings especially…” (pp. 36-37). Tyrone Simpson, one of her colleagues at Simmons College, speaks of the academy as a “decorporealizing process.” Holding a Ph.D., he observes, is the proof that you have been “willing to be out of your body for an extended period of time.”
Which is kind of weird, when you think about it, because both learning and teaching are fundamentally embodied practices. Stephen Cope writes that mind and body are “different points in the spectrum of subtlety…The body is a gross form of consciousness. The mind is a more subtle form of consciousness.” But we know this on a more obvious level: the process of imagining, studying, planning, analyzing, and creating continually bump into and interact with the limitations of our physical selves. We are tired, hungry, suffering various aches and pains. Thinking has embodied limitation. As does teaching: since we haven’t yet been replaced by robots, we still teach in our bodies, whether standing or sitting, whether we want to or not.
When Thompson remarked that the academy “asked people to trade in their body parts” other than the brain, in order to succeed, she was speaking not only to the fact that most of us live extraordinarily sedentary lives, parked in chairs, staring at computer screens. Even if we move around class when we teach, our students remain largely stationary. (Indeed, one frightening aspect of the state of education today is that young children, beginning in the pre-school years, are required to spend more and more time glued to their desks, toiling away at “paper and pencil” tasks.)
Does “disembodiment” really matter for us, who teach college students who (generally) know how to stay (relatively) still for 50 or 75 minutes or longer? Absolutely. Consider the following: It’s Tuesday afternoon at 1:45. Class has been going on for 45 minutes and your students’ eyes are glazing over; even you are feeling the energy leaving you drop by drop. What do we do? If I’m any example, we probably just soldier on, ignoring the tired or restless bodies. Or, we could take approximately 1 minute to have the students stand up and “shake it out.” Now, which approach will have the greatest impact on student learning? You can answer that.
Thompson was one of Maurice Stein’s graduate assistants at Brandeis University. Stein, a sociologist, was already a legendary instructor 50 years ago when I was an undergraduate there (he retired in 2002), and he evidently got even better over time. He always resisted the notion that there was one specific model for good teaching, suggesting that “there are probably as many possibilities as there are varieties of human beings doing the job of teaching.” When Maury felt a lull in the class’s energy, Thompson reports, he would insist that everyone get up and do the hokey pokey. “People thought that was hilarious, embarrassing, and silly,” she writes, “allowing them to roll their eyes at him as they twirled around. Perhaps because Maury is a serious scholar, and chose seriously intense books, he could get away with this frivolity, knowing that tenderness is a quality that balances between joy and rage, despair and hope” (35).
Embodied teaching, of course, is neither easy nor straightforward. Tyrone Simpson, Thompson’s aforementioned colleague, is a “six-foot-one Black man with dreadlocks” who teaches in the “white space” of Simmons College. He can neither deny his body (“I am a walking limb,” he remarks), at the same time that his context requires him “to render invisible his own thoughts and experience of embodiment.” Further, the important feminist work to politicize sexual harassment has been used to render problematic attention to the body in the workplace. Nevertheless, keeping these in mind, there is pedagogic value in recognizing our own embodied ways and those of our students.
Thompson’s teaching-with-tenderness pedagogy is conscious of the impact of emotions on the learning process. She is a sociologist, not a psychologist, but significant psychological research has confirmed the links between emotions and learning/memory (in both positive and negative directions), and suggested that students’ emotions influence self-regulated learning and motivation, and these, in turn, impact academic achievement. Maury Stein, Thompson’s mentor, argued that it was important for students to develop both their intellectual and their emotional amplitude, and it is a lesson that Thompson uses in her approach to “teaching with tenderness.”
Allowing, let alone welcoming, emotions into class is complex and often fraught. It is difficult both for classes like macroeconomics or statistics, where the subject matter doesn’t lend itself as a “natural” outlet for emotion, as well as in classes whose subject matter foregrounds issues of social justice, particularly, she writes, as “colonialism, militarism, racism, and patriarchy remain structural impediments to tenderness” (15). Yet the emotional life of students in either context will not be denied. Teachers need to be aware of their students’ anxieties, their feelings of being imposters in intense academic settings, or the emotional turmoil that may undermine their ability to concentrate, even as we know that we will not be privy to the specifics of their emotional states. We need to be conscious of how emotions can be launched by the subject of the class, and of our own role in dealing with the consequences. Thompson describes how she often “back[ed] people against the wall” when teaching about power and privilege, setting people apart from each other. “What I didn’t know early in my teaching,” she writes, “is that creating multiracial communities required finding ways to teach about power and privilege that loosened people up rather than hardened them, that countered defensiveness, that helped people get to a soft place with each other” (36).
Over time, she became more aware of how to deal with student anger and intensity, and the “complicated emotions that surface when examining oppressions, including how they are reproduced in class dynamics” (46). She now addresses these in a variety of ways, often through ritual, reminding students of their shared humanity by repeating part of the “Who Am I” naming procedure in every class, by changing her mid-semester evaluations (students evaluate teacher and course content, and their own participation and work of class as a collective; these are passed out randomly and, protecting student anonymity, students then read aloud their classmate’s commentaries), and by introducing more literature into her classes. In this she took a lesson from the Puerto Rican poet, Martín Espada, who realized in his own work that the more horrific an event was that he was writing about, the more beautiful the language needed to be, to “keep the readers’ hearts open as they read.”
Nor are these lessons only for our students. “Teaching with tenderness,” Thompson writes, “involves a promise we make to each other, and a way of living, requiring consistent and radical acts of self-care…Tenderness opens us up to grieving, to ambivalence, to anger, to confusion…not easy feelings for sure.”
Teaching with “tenderness” demands that we slow down the pace, helping to pull students out of the frantic rhythms of the news cycle that technology dumps into our laptops, and into more deliberate and contemplative modalities. Practices that slow our students down can help them resist the temptation to jump after every shiny thing that comes across their screens, to focus, and to engage with each other and with the subjects of their study with depth and respect. Holding them in front of a painting in the museum so they can become trained at careful observation, whether for use in their labs or in their daily lives; cultivating the patience they need to read a text closely, whether they are reading the news or a novel: these are practices that can help our students respond to the world around them with resilience and compassion. But above all, teaching with tenderness requires helping our students develop as respectful and active listeners.
“In academic culture,” Mary Rose O’Reilley writes, “we tend to pay attention only long enough to develop a counterargument…In society at large, people only listen with an agenda… Seldom is there a deep, open-hearted nonjudgmental reception of the other…By contrast, if someone truly listens to me, my spirit begins to expand.”
The same theme is woven through Anna Deavere Smith’s review of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, a novel, she writes, which “honors paying attention: seeing, listening, and, finally, singing. The novel inspires me to think that we need new songs, new ways of seeing, new ways of listening.” The importance of fashioning new ways of listening was, for me, the most important lesson of Thompson’s book as I tried to answer the question of how we respond to these challenges, these continual moments of anger, frustration, sadness, and loss. “In the face of individual and collective deaths,” she writes, “we may not be able to fix anything. The most we can often do is listen.”
How can we respond to the challenges our students face as they return to classes? Begin by listening.
*Jean M. Twenge, et.al, “Age, Period, and Cohort Trends in Mood Disorder Indicators and Suicide-Related Outcomes in a Nationally Representative Dataset, 2005–2017,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 128:3 (2019): 185-199.