Emotions in Teaching

Have you ever before heard faculty talk so much about emotions?

Cathy Davidson, author of The New Education, asserted on the HASTAC blog that “our summer of planning for better online learning this Fall will be wasted if we do not begin from the premise that our students are learning from a place of dislocation, anxiety, and trauma. So are we.”

“Precarity, uncertainty, grief and feeling overwhelmed abound,” observed Becca Pope-Ruark in Inside Higher Education. She cautioned faculty to pay attention to signs of debilitating burnout.

Lockdown has caused us to feel “helpless and at the mercy of forces beyond our control… leading to pessimism and a sense of defeat,” explained psychologist Frank McAndrew in a Knox College article. This loss of control undermines our mood and energy level. Worse, the more change events cause in our lives, the more stressful they are.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed reassures us that Zoom fatigue is real.

A Harvard Business Review article making the faculty rounds featured an interview with David Kessler, who asserted, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.” Kessler said that we’re experiencing a number of different kinds of grief, including loss of normalcy, loss of connections, loss of safety, and anticipatory grief about our individual and collective futures.

The articles above have helped me make sense of what we in higher education – and we as human beings – have been experiencing. However, the source that resonated most of all for me as a professor was a podcast by Brené Brown, who is an endowed professor of Social Work at the University of Houston and mega-popular TED Talk speaker.

As a full-time and tenured professor, I know I’m in a privileged position in higher education. I’m getting paid and work for an institution that has a massive and transparent faculty-staff-administrative committee developing plans for the fall and a history of careful budgeting. Although the situation is scary for a tuition-driven private residential university, Elon should be able to weather this crisis. Certainly many faculty are not as fortunate, and very many human beings are much worse off than me in my healthy, safe, well-fed state. 

Still, despite all my good fortune, during the past couple months I have often felt frustrated, stressed, depressed and incompetent.

Brené Brown gave me some insight into why I’m feeling that way and language to name it. She calls the phenomenon “F’g First Times” (FFTs). Brown notes that when we do something for the first time, we feel quite vulnerable and uncertain. We don’t have any experience to call upon; we don’t know what we’re doing. We’re uncertain. We’re scared. We’re “wobbly.” These first times are quite uncomfortable.

Yep. I have not liked not knowing what I’m doing. I’ve worked really hard for a lot of years to figure out how to be a pretty good instructor. I’ve steered far from online courses because my institution has committed to residential learning and community and because I love observing the mysterious dynamics of face-to-face discussions and light bulbs while students do active learning exercises. I didn’t like not knowing why short videos weren’t showing up in my course on Moodle; I don’t know how to read the body language and eyes of one-inch high people on my screen; I despise the awkwardness of WebEx meetings over 5 people; I don’t like spending hours reading help documents and failing at least a couple times a day – on a good day.  

Fortunately, Brown also offered some strategies for dealing with FFTs. The first step is recognizing when we’re in the midst of an FFT – so we can remind ourselves that it’s normal for us to feel awkward, incompetent, and vulnerable at these times.

Second, she encourages us to have some perspective, which means recognizing that the uncomfortable feelings won’t last forever. She says that at some point we’ll be and feel more competent. (Please let that be true!) For some of us, having perspective also might mean we should recognize that even though we suck at online teaching it doesn’t mean we suck at everything in our lives.

Third, she encourages us to have realistic expectations. In the midst of an FFT, everything takes more time to do and is harder than we’re used to physically, emotionally, and cognitively. If we’re not realistic about this – and expect too much from ourselves – we might start blaming ourselves and get into a bad spiral.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not alone among faculty in feeling frustrated and incompetent while scrambling these last couple of months learning to work and teach online.

For a number of reasons, I like the increased attention to emotions. We’re human, and our experiences, emotions, values, assumptions, and identities necessarily affect our teaching. I explored some ways how “Who We Are” affects us as professionals in chapter five of my book – but don’t want to give it all away here!

I didn’t always realize the powerful role ways emotions affect teaching and learning – but am seeing more and more research on the subject – and think my teaching has improved for greater attention to them. 

Meanwhile, if Brown’s ideas sound interesting, listen to her podcast on FFTs – because dry words on the screen can’t capture the humorous and self-effacing way she explains them. And to have a deeper understanding of the power of emotions in the classroom, check out Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s book, The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Class with the Science of Emotion.

Meanwhile, may you recognize how you’ve been feeling and not be too hard on yourself!

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