Self-Care, or Rethinking Presence

I let my daughter stay home from school yesterday. We had a doctor’s appointment in the morning, and I wasn’t going to be able to pick her up from school, and we had had a swim meet over the weekend, so I was fine with just letting her stay home and recover. On the way home, my son’s school called and told me to come and pick him up, that he had a bad headache. I gladly did, and while I worked downstairs, the kids napped and chilled out, recovering from the weekend.

I felt guilty for a moment, like I was coddling my kids instead of pushing them and reminding them of the importance of school and attendance and toughing things out. But my daughter had worked so hard at the meet, helping me manage the 10 and unders, dealing with incompetent officials and rude parents who were breaking the rules by even being there since USA Swimming rules have clearly stated NO SPECTATORS. And my son was both exhausted from the meet, but also nervous about a big math test coming up this week. And, what kind of parent would I be if I was always telling the kids to listen to their bodies, to then turn around and say, actually, I don’t believe you when you say your body has had enough?

I’m currently breaking anyone’s brain that I can find trying to make visible a problem we’ve ignored for too long: our education system is built on the ableist notion that (close to) 100% of our students will attend (close to) 100% of our classes. I’ve tweeted about it. Which lead to doing a podcast about it. It’ll be an article in Women in Higher Education (forthcoming). I’ll talk about it in December during a Future Trends Forum. But what it comes down to is that students are not coming to class sick. The pandemic has made us all prioritize our health, and the collective health of our community over any longstanding social norm and expectation that dictates that unless we’re on our death bed, we’d better be in class.

And not just our students. We’re just as guilty of it as faculty, showing up to teach our classes when we probably shouldn’t. Part of it is a system that doesn’t support and even actively discourages canceling class (on some campuses, faculty don’t even get “sick” days), part of it is our own internalization of this expectation. Part of it is the neoliberal university and if we get sick and cancel class (or move it online or asynchronous work), the students aren’t “getting what they paid for” and thus we need to be held accountable. Or former bad actors have spoiled it for the rest of us, and we can’t be trusted to teach our classes.

But the truth is, we’ve designed with “presence” being the most important element in our course design. Maybe it’s a holdover from Medieval universities or even Socrates where you “had to be there” in order to learn. And, look, I don’t want to even engage in the old arguments about “if you have a library card/internet connection, then you can learn anything everywhere on your own” roaming autodidact bullshit. BUT, we need to rethink the all-or-nothing approach to presence/attendance in course design, and we need a new language to a certain extent to be able to engage productively in these discussions without it devolving into “you just want everything to be online learning.”

But we also need to acknowledge and accept that this kind of change means that students will choose self-care, their health and well-being, over learning on some days. And that that’s a good thing.

I will admit to having told students in the past – at the end of my capacity to help them with extended deadlines, consultations, and alternative assignments – that their situation was so overwhelming that they should apply for a compassionate “W”. I have taught too many students to count that (given our current paradigm) probably shouldn’t have been enrolled in university during that semester because their lives outside of school were so chaotic. But they needed the student loans and wanted to make a better life for themselves and their family through education and internalized the myth that overcoming adversity through super-human will and moral fortitude was the greatest good of all. How many of these students may have persisted and graduated had we designed a system that doesn’t simply require, then reward, their mere presence in a classroom for three hours a week?

My kids, despite my coddling them by letting them stay home from school yesterday, will be fine. They are well-resourced and armed with the knowledge that they have the support (financial and moral) of their parents. But, I also want to teach them that suffering does not automatically make something good or even superior. That they shouldn’t wait until they break down before asking for help, even just in the form of permission to rest. The systems in place, however, are there to contradict me, loudly and directly. GO TO SCHOOL. PUSH THOUGH AN INJURY. NO PAIN NO GAIN. EVERYONE MUST SUFFER. There is no differentiation between things that are challenging and things being difficult just to test a person’s moral or physical fortitude.

And my kids capacity to practice self-care and self-advocacy doesn’t solve the larger, systemic issues that allows for some to have access to the resources and support for self-care, health and wellness, while others will suffer for the sake of suffering through systemic inequality. That’s why I keep asking anyone who will listen, we can’t afford to keep designing our courses, our education system, based on ableist notions of physical presence (virtual or in-person) and attendance, so how do we design it instead? What system do we create that isn’t premised on everyone being a roaming autodidact with a library card and internet access?

The more I think about it, the more I talk about it, the more I write about it, the more it breaks my brain. I haven’t figured out how to even start thinking about solving it, except to keep writing about it, keep talking about it with other people so that maybe we can figure it out together.

Ultimately, isn’t that what education is about?

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