Teaching with Depression

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The end of any semester inspires reflection on successful projects and areas that need improvement. This semester, I hope to take that reflection a step further by making plain what I usually try to keep invisible. I want to write about teaching with depression.  


In offering this story, I do not want to indulge in what the late comedian Stella Young called “inspiration porn.” Trying to recalibrate depression medication was not inspiring. It was painful. I have written a great deal about ADHD (See David Bowie, Difference, and Basic Writing) and how the quality of resilience has inflected my teaching. But I have not written at all about depression, which also impacted my work this year. When I was growing up, depression was greatly misunderstood and largely kept secret from outsiders. “You take life too seriously,” people would say, “just snap out of it.” I did not know why I could not snap out of it. For many years, I internalized the shame of feeling “different” and even “difficult.” My ADHD diagnosis felt liberating, and allowed me better access to understanding difference and difficulty. Depression, hovering over this term in an ongoing fog of sorrow, touched every aspect of my life.


After oral surgery a year ago, my anti-depressant medication seemed to stop working. For months, my doctor and I experimented with trying to find a solution. Since I had taken that medication for several years, recalibration and withdrawal became physically painful. I felt tired all the time. I tried going to bed earlier, and found myself awake before dawn. For the first time in many years, I began drinking coffee again. That also did not work. Coffee lessened the effectiveness of my ADHD medication, and also my resilience. Once I realized what the coffee was doing, I gave it up immediately.


Indeed, ADHD resilience helped me gather up the strength to teach. In class, I knew I could hyper-focus my attention completely on students and writing.  Outside of class and the office, depression took hold. I felt distractible and disorganized. I cried often. It became harder to read, harder to write, and harder to grade. The future felt immensely bleak, even as I knew many people experienced great unhappiness through the long election season. When the symptoms did not abate, I knew that I could not blame everything on the election.


I paid attention to the qualities of unhappiness, afraid to speak out because my depression seemed invisible to others. People commented on my optimistic outlook. Like a cat, I felt an instinct to hide my despair. I did not want to listen to comments I had heard in the past: “Everyone feels bad now.” Or: “You need to stop overthinking everything.” I admired Disability Studies scholars who wrote openly on mental disabilities. I did not yet feel comfortable with that openness, and I carried in my thoughts the lifelong caution that I was raised with: keep depression secret. The difference this year is that I learned how to teach with depression. Or rather, by observing the work my students accomplished as writers, I have more perspective on the nature of secrets.


This year my depression was not invisible, and I cannot keep it secret any longer.  Yes, I made it through the semester, and felt relieved to read the writing that came from time spent with students. The students in my Stretch classes wrote powerful extended definitions of resilience, innovation, and compassion. The essays we read and the TED talks we watched focused on these topics because, despite our differences in age and background, these concepts offered strands of hope. In the Basic Writing Practicum, the graduate students and I designed a pedagogy website, which includes assignments, activities, and annotated bibliographies. We launched the website last week under the title Eclectic Scriveners Writing Beyond Catastrophe.


With the website that evolved from BW Practicum, we focus on the necessity for all teachers to cultivate compassion for our students and also for ourselves: efficacy, creativity, challenge, and difference. On the homepage, we offer this description of our group’s name and of our pedagogical purpose:

Our eclectic group meets—and writes—with the daunting purpose of meeting head-on the crisis that surrounds basic writing, to show how basic writing may be used effectively in college settings, to show that for as many limits it implies and places for/on students, it offers just as many possibilities.”


To name the crisis allows us to honor the struggle. Depression is not a metaphor, and neither is Basic Writing.

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About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.