Crafting a Compassionate Semester - For Our Students, and for Ourselves

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Gee, it turns out that adding a constitutional crisis to a pandemic makes it extra difficult to plan spring courses. Who knew? I hope we take comfort in being part of a compassionate teaching community, and that together we can help our students who face this difficult moment with fewer life skills than most of their instructors. Students can bring out the best in us, and this is a semester to kindle that compassion—for their sakes and for ours. 


So, how might we all make this a compassionate semester? Many universities are skipping spring break, but our faculty voted for seeding in three “Wellness Days” throughout the semester, to offer mini breaks for students and faculty. On those days, there are no synchronous classes or due dates; these are “breather” days that I imagine will be as welcome to me as to my students as we pull toward springtime, wider-spread vaccinations, and recovery from political trauma. If your institution hasn’t made a similar move, you might build compassionate breather days into your syllabus.

I’m also offering my students the assurance that they’ll control key aspects of their assessment, which I’ve written about before. Anticipating student fatigue, I’m dreaming up creative assignments, as fun “and now for something completely different” experiences, to keep us afloat. For example, in one class, students will collectively write and perform some manifestos as a break from analyzing texts from the genre—and they’ll learn a lot about the genre in the process. For those creative assignments, particularly, I want students to feel free to play and experiment and reflect on the experience, and I want to release them from the worrying specter of instructor judgment. Why not have fun while nurturing the life skill of self-reflection? Grades aren’t forever, after all, but self-assessment and self-evaluation are (says the writer whose annual report is due quite soon).

In this recent Inside Higher Ed piece, Madeline Grimm explains the (il)logic that grades incentivize learning. Often, the opposite is the case. This final (we hope?) pandemic semester is a good time to try out the elements of “ungrading” that are part of a building pedagogical wave. We empower our students when we collaborate with them on learning objectives. We help them focus on learning as a transferrable process when we give them time for metacognition. As Grimm notes, “An abundance of research shows the importance of metacognition in academic success, namely the ability to monitor one’s learning process and plan steps for improvement.” What could that look like for you and your students this semester?

My co-author, Stuart Greene, and I offer a short reading by “ungrading” pioneer Alfie Kohn in the 5th edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing titled, “Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?” Kohn challenges readers’ assumptions about the function of grades, concluding, “A consistent body of social science research shows competition tends to hold us back from doing our best. It creates an adversarial mentality that makes productive collaboration less likely, encourages gaming of the system, and leads all concerned to focus not on meaningful improvement but on trying to outdo (and perhaps undermine) everyone else.” Invite your students to reflect on grading and its relationship to learning. They will have a lot to say. Together, you could apply those insights in the unfolding structure of your class.

Alfie Kohn also wrote the forward to Professor Susan D. Blum’s new edited collection, Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) (West Virginia Press, 2020). I’ve just started digging in but can already feel the creative collaboration, spirit of inquiry, and compassion bubbling up through the authors’ insights. I’ll write more about this book in coming posts.

I’d love to hear how you are building compassion, self-reflection, the space to breathe, and even a sense of play into your semesters. Let’s do it for our students, and also for ourselves.

Photo Credit: "Assignments" by RLHyde is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

About the Author
April Lidinsky (PhD, Literatures in English, Rutgers) is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Indiana University South Bend. She has published and delivered numerous conference papers on writing pedagogy, women's autobiography, and creative nonfiction, and has contributed to several textbooks on writing. She has served as acting director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and has won several awards for her teaching and research including the 2015 Indiana University South Bend Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2017 Indiana University South Bend Eldon F. Lundquist Award for excellence in teaching and scholarly achievement, and the All-Indiana University 2017 Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.