Hashtag, I matter here – the subtitle of our institutional lives. But, increasingly, I have begun to question who the “I” is in this hashtag. Because I’m not sure it’s me. Or her (it’s definitely not her). Or him. I think it might be that guy, over there. He definitely matters.
Every time this hashtag pops up on my Twitter feed, I wonder about students and colleagues who might not feel that they do in fact matter here. Students who are struggling in significant ways, gasping for breath under the desperate pressures of school, life, family. Colleagues on mental-health leaves, forgotten and unpaid, crawling their way back to the very place that sent them into the darkness. Does this hashtag make a difference to them? I would hope so, and perhaps there is good intention behind it. Nonetheless, I find myself troubled at times observing a disconnect between what is being communicated about our institutions and what is actually happening in our ivory towers.
I work in a teaching and learning centre. And most of the time I love it. I spend my time with teachers and learners, pouring over curriculum and talking about what I love: teaching and learning. So many instructors, so many courses, so many permutations. It’s endlessly challenging, in a good way. Until it’s not. Until our conversations shift away from learning outcomes and engaging teaching strategies and we slide into whispers about workload issues, politics, bullying and survival.
Teaching and learning centres must feel like a safe space for faculty who are struggling, beaten down, isolated. I’ve come to learn this, and I keep my Kleenex box primed and my heart open. But, more often than I care to admit, I’ve had to give advice to keep instructors safe and sane, advice that goes against my better instincts about good pedagogy, advice that I have no choice but to give. What does it mean when we have to make questionable teaching and learning decisions in order to stroke the ego and ambition of others? Who matters in this scenario?
There is a mental-health crisis in the ivory towers of our nation, for our students and our faculty. And although authors like Moira Farr write about the many ways that faculty can support students in addressing mental health issues, we must also ask how we can support faculty in managing their mental-health burdens. Eve Seguin’s article on academic mobbing and its lengthy comments section reminds us of the damage that is being done within our institutions to the very people we are expecting to teach our students. Social media can mask much of this damage by adeptly communicating our best angles, dressing us up in light and shadows that make us look 30 lbs. lighter and 10 years younger. What if our hashtags encouraged us to make others feel like they matter here, rather than just telling the world that they do?
What if we really started to problematize the 80-hour work week, incomprehensible workloads and lack of support for new (and seasoned) faculty. We need to stop celebrating unachievable academic benchmarks, and achievements that make us look good to outsiders but with complete disregard to the straight-up sanity of those on the inside – our faculty, our leaders, our students. We have to start being more intentional and transparent in our hiring, promoting and celebrating empathy, inclusivity, compassion and kindness. I have never sat on a hiring committee where they’ve asked to see these qualities. “Can you tell us about a time when you demonstrated empathy to a student? A colleague?” The very traits we scream at the world with our punchy HR pamphlets and ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
More importantly, we have to be more intentional about teaching empathy, inclusivity, compassion and kindness – to everyone, in all of our programs – an elusive goal when many of us are too busy trying not to get mobbed. We need to care as much as we can, and not about ourselves and our ambition, but about our students and our colleagues, even our leaders, and even when they let us down. I know it sounds kindergarten basic, and I wish I could articulate it in as powerful a way as an ironic hashtag that reaches through the computer and grabs you by the collar. But I’m running out of Kleenex, and maybe a little bit of patience. Hashtag, we can do better.
Kathleen Bortolin is a curriculum, teaching and learning specialist in the Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Learning at Vancouver Island University.