Trauma Informed Pedagogy and Whiteness in the Classroom

Over the past few years, but particularly near the 2020 US Presidential election, I have gotten subtle, and not-so-subtle messages that being too political can be dangerous as a professor. Particularly because I am not protected by tenure, student feedback that labels me as biased can harm my job security.

This isn’t easy to navigate at the best of times. I teach ethics, leadership, developmental psychology, and sociology of the family. I can’t ignore the developmental harm caused by separating children from parents. To do so would be unethical. I can’t ignore the trauma and harm my students, and their families experience at the hands of ICE, racists, homophobes, Islamophobes, police violence, and a harmful justice system. Again, to do so would be unethical. The issues that have become front-page news directly affect many of my students. They tell me about them. I have heard many first person accounts of traumas that I will likely never face. While I have experienced this era’s stress, it hasn’t really affected me directly, mainly because of my whiteness. I did not earn whiteness, yet I get all the unearned privilege that comes with it. Most of my students do not and face dangers I cannot imagine.

I integrate current event discussions into all my classes because I believe it is irresponsible not to. In the process, I learn about the worlds in which my students live, about how campus policies and local politics and national policies affect them, about what they care about, what makes them happy, and what keeps them up at night.

I don’t consider a discussion of current events to be more political than any other aspect of public life. It’s just that, as has been said by women wiser than me, the personal is political. My students’ lives are deeply affected by the community, university, and country’s cultural and political climate. To ignore this fact erases them, causing further harm. It also disengages them from the learning process.

When the Black Lives Matter protests happened this summer, my institution listened to students and faculty and did some promising introspection. I hoped that this constant, low-level pressure would lessen. However, we were instructed to be as apolitical as possible in the wake of the presidential election.

This made me deeply uncomfortable, as I have witnessed the direct harm the current political and social climate has caused to my most vulnerable students.

Almost 95% of my students are women, and about 60% of them are non-white. They are the ones who have been most endangered by the policies and climate of the last four years (and the last 400).

Many of my students are or have been in crisis this year. I try to create a space in my classroom where they can relax a little. Where they can talk about their lived experiences if they want to. And where we all listen, and laugh a little, and think about the world from each other’s perspectives. Most are juniors and seniors worried about the future, worried about choosing a different path than their parents envisioned for them, and right now, worried about social violence and COVID. That is a lot to carry.

Yes, my few conservative white students are probably feeling pretty freaked out right now, much as I was four years ago. But I was never going to be the victim of increased social tolerance for white supremacy (because I’m white), Islamophobia (because I’m white), and the demonization of brown-skinned immigrants (because I’m white).

Part of engaging in Trauma-Informed Pedagogy entails knowing your own issues and dealing with them appropriately. The rules of processing trauma dictate that we take our trauma to someone who is 1) emotionally available, 2) has consented to hold our feelings with us (like a therapist or close friend), and 3) is not experiencing worse trauma than we are. Cognitive dissonance, like I experienced in 2016, and my conservative white students may be experiencing now, is very uncomfortable. It is not, however, life-threatening. I try to listen deeply to my students when they talk about trauma and not impose my own schemas on theirs in an attempt to relate.

I am not a therapist. But I am older, more financially and emotionally stable, and more experienced than my students, so I consent to hold space for them within the classroom boundaries and the teacher-student relationship while referring them to more qualified resources as needed. This is Trauma-Informed Pedagogy.

The mythology of false equivalency created over the last few years and further reinforced by social and mainstream media shows up like this:

Worrying about your Black child being killed by the police during protests is proportionate to feeling angry that a Black man was president.

Avoiding taking your kids to the doctor because ICE has been raiding your neighborhood and has put your uncle in detention is proportionate to being upset that gay people can get married.

Being verbally or physically attacked because you wear the hijab is proportionate to being upset that you are required to wear a face mask.

Physical danger and emotional discomfort are not proportionate.

False equivalency seems to be a pervasive byproduct of an era with continually mainstreamed racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, ableism, and misogyny. Feeling uncomfortable is not the same thing as being in physical danger. Moreover, being in constant danger due to increased tolerance for hate crimes and discrimination has far-reaching negative effects on mental and physical health.

Cognitive dissonance is the feeling that the world is not as it should be. We may experience it when someone says something in public we believe is false — when someone describes reality in a way we don’t experience. We feel it as tension in our bodies and perhaps as a flood of thoughts trying to defend or justify our position. It doesn’t indicate the rightness or wrongness of our position; it just is. We may also experience it as a symptom of intellectual and psychological growth. In Transformative Learning, a theory that underlies my pedagogy it is referred to as the disorienting dilemma. This happens when a learner is confronted with a viewpoint of the world, or perhaps themselves, which is new and uncomfortable. They must grapple with this discomfort as they test and then integrate the new knowledge into their world and self-view.

I experience cognitive dissonance when a Black activist criticizes white liberals on an issue I haven’t confronted yet. Over time, I have learned to lean into this discomfort, wait for it to pass, and then look at the issue without the need to rationalize my feelings immediately. Often, this causes me to grow just a little bit and to integrate some new knowledge into my world view. When I learned to do this, I stopped being as defensive when my demographic, white women, was criticized and learned to listen more deeply. This makes me a better person, a better ally, and a better citizen. Not perfect — not even close — but a little bit better.

I try to model this in the classroom by remaining receptive to criticism of what material I cover and how I teach it. If a student expresses concern that I am marginalizing a group or leaving out an important perspective, I will discuss it with the class, apologize if necessary, and adjust my approach. It’s not the responsibility of my students to fix my issues — I continue to engage in learning about systemic inequality and improving my practice — but when it happens, it allows me to model humility and flexibility to other privileged people and show that you can screw up and make amends and you will be okay. I try to show privileged students that discomfort is okay; marginalization is not.

Here is an example. I was teaching a class on families’ socioeconomics, and we were discussing current events, which included a wave of performative white supremacy online. A Black woman mentioned that some white people were posting videos of themselves drinking gallons of milk because they claimed that the ability to process lactose as an adult is a sign of racial superiority (rather than a random mutation). I laughed it off as too absurd to be real. Then I googled it when I got home. Yup. It was totally real. So in the next class, I publicly apologized for disbelieving my student and promised to do better. I ate some crow because 1) I totally deserved it, 2) I owed her an apology, and 3) other people need to know that admitting you are wrong won’t actually kill you.

The point of this story is not that I am a super woke white lady. Obviously, I’m not. It’s that I believe that teachers must model ethical, mature behavior, which includes owning our mistakes. (Note: ethics are messy) My Black and Brown students should not have such low expectations of white teachers that I am the best they can hope for. My conservative students should not be so brittle that they can’t handle some alternate perspectives. If I keep trying to be better, then maybe my minority students will expect more from me and my white students will expect more from themselves.

Cognitive dissonance is not life-threatening.

Racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and ableism threaten students’ health and projected lifespan. They affect my students’ likelihood of experiencing violence, the quality of medical care they receive, their job and financial stability, and their access to housing, all during a pandemic that endangers our species. So I cannot in good faith pretend that white students’ discomfort is equivalent to marginalized students’ lack of safety. They are not. I try to center the experiences, critiques, and stories of my non-white students because I believe it is unethical not to. Marginalizing at-risk students isn’t just unethical; it’s dangerous.

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy is not trauma-informed if we do not consider the ways that our social, financial, and political system does disproportionate harm to non-white people. In the aftermath of a contentious election and in the middle of a global pandemic, I cannot ignore this fact at the expense of my ethics, teaching, and, most importantly, my students.

It’s not developmental delay, it’s trauma

There has been a disturbing trend at my kid’s mostly amazing middle school. One teacher started telling my kid’s class (they are in the 6th grade and in person for the first time since spring of 4th grade) that they were underdeveloped and behaving like 4th graders. She told them she had discussed this with other teachers who agreed.

This is problematic, to say the least. Stigmatizing and shaming a group of kids is just stupid, stupid pedagogy. Shame and fear shut down the higher functions of the brain. Learning becomes close to impossible. It certainly does nothing to endear these students to this teacher or create a safe container for learning.

Later that week the teacher stressed my kid out and they started crying. The teacher took them into the hallway and tried to force them to calm down, while my kid begged for a little time by themselves to self-soothe. The teacher ended up sending my kid to the counselor’s office, who called me while I was teaching a class. This shitshow was entirely avoidable.

Some of the reasons my kid is struggling in this class, much more than their other classes, are they are dyslexic and the philosophy of this teacher seems to be “more is better” and “peer pressure makes better performance.” None of this tracks with kids with neurodiversity, so I do not know what her deal is. We’ve asked to have my kid transferred to another teacher’s class for this subject.

I talked to the counselor about my concerns and contacted my kid’s 504 coordinator. My kid has had very few issues with their other teachers and is doing pretty well for a dyslexic kid newly in middle school. Imagine my surprise when the principal sent out his weekly newsletter, usually a mildly interesting mix of updates and recommendations, and instead echoed what my kid’s less-than-stellar teacher had been saying. They are having discipline issues and it’s because kids are emotionally delayed due to quarantine.

I have been beating the drum of Trauma-Informed Pedagogy for a while now, but this was special. How the fuck do we get from almost two years of uncontrolled sickness, death, and job loss to “emotionally underdeveloped” and just whiz past trauma? More than 50% of the school population in Austin is Hispanic. The Hispanic community has been hammered by COVID. My college students of color are much, much more deeply impacted by the pandemic than my white students, me, and my contemporaries.

At the beginning of the last school year, I published a screed about forcing elementary school kids to be on camera all day for zoom school, because you don’t know what kind of shit they are dealing with. The same applies here. How many relatives have they lost? Have their parents lost jobs? Are they homeless? Are family members experiencing mental health or addiction issues? Have they been deprived of social interaction beyond computer screens because their parents have to work and don’t have time to provide them with stimulation? Can they even access the internet for what little social interaction is available? HAVE YOU ASKED YOURSELF ANY OF THESE QUESTIONS WHITE PRINCIPAL DUDE? Our kids still can’t get vaccinated, are trying to acclimate to an unrecognizable world where a deadly virus is still killing hundreds of people a day in our state, and you are acting like our kids took a fucking vacation for a year.

White Principal Dude, you have trauma. My kid’s abusive teacher has trauma. I have trauma, and so does my kid. We are all just trying to roll with the continuing punches and function as best we can.

Trauma-Informed Pegagogy means we take stock of and honor all trauma, including our own. And as trauma-informed teachers, leaders, counselors, and parents, we do our absolute best to not make our trauma the problem of people with less power than us. EVER. If you are assuming that everyone has a problem but you, you need to take several seats.

My kid got COVID from their school last week and my husband and I have breakthrough cases. As older, higher risk-people, this has not been a cakewalk. but our main fear has been for our kid, who is unvaccinated. Our kid is struggling with guilt for making us sick, despite our assurances that it is not their fault. We are angry at the school for crappy contact tracing. THIS IS ALL TRAUMA. It does not disappear because we don’t want to deal with it. Our tendency to blame, mine included, is a way to avoid the helplessness we feel in the face of this invisible, deadly virus.

Schools, teachers, and administration need to stop putting all the responsibility and blame for COVID onto those with the least power and start dealing with everyone’s actual trauma. Blame is avoidance, which only gets you so far. Our kids need boundaries, yes, but they also need compassionate, healthy teachers, who in turn need emotional, psychological, and financial support to weather this continuing shitstorm. We must do better.

A Tale of Two Governors

Texas and Florida are the epicenters of the Delta strain Covid outbreak right now. Both governors have outlawed mask and vaccine requirements for publically funded institutions, which includes K-12 schools and public universities. I teach at one such institution.

My university does important research on Covid, yet the leadership refuses to protect students, employees, and staff from possible infection, disability, and death. We have been told that we must return to campus and teach in crowded classrooms, even if we live with unvaccinated children or immunocompromised family members. Students want online classes. Teachers want online classes. Staff wants flexible work arrangements for safety. No one cares. The university has not polled or requested any information from any of the affected stakeholders, and the president, most recently known for keeping a sports song that originated in minstrel shows and booting band members who don’t want to play it (against the recommendation of pretty much everyone) has decided that our fates are unimportant in the greater scheme of things. The greater scheme of things is, apparently, not pissing off our genocidal governor and making more money off the backs of students and underpaid workers, regardless of risk.

One of my students committed suicide last semester. While the university doesn’t publically share the number of suicides, I know anecdotally that many more students took their own lives. Many students lost family and friends to Covid, experienced deep personal trauma, and had severe mental health crises. Mental health resources in Austin have been maxed out for over a year. I spent a lot of time last year compiling mental health resources for students and sharing them widely, for what little good it did. Through all of this instructors and TAs also experienced trauma and loss while trying to adapt to student needs and university demands.

The current situation is untenable and deeply unethical. I know we are not the only university experiencing this; many of my colleagues around the country have been talking about similar situations with their work. So just for the record:

Our lives are not expendable. Our work is not expendable. Our students’ lives are not expendable. Grow a backbone and follow the science you make so much goddamn money off of and protect us from unethical laws instead of pretending that the inevitable illness, disability, and death is acceptable. It is not.

Why we teach.

My teaching philosophy boils down to this: Don’t be an asshole. Give your students the benefit of the doubt.

College students are young adults or old adolescents, depending on who you ask. They go through a lot of brain and personality development during the four-ish years they spend in college. A few of them are entitled, or sociopathic, or just jerks who make your life harder. The vast majority are not. They are just young people who are trying to figure their shit out and get a degree.

When I talk to professors about the stuff I’m passionate about (Trauma Informed Pedagogy, Intersectionality, Critical Pedagogy) they are usually interested. But when I talk about my policies, or how I deal with students who are experiencing trauma, some get uncomfortable. “I don’t want students to come talk to me about their lives.” “What if they are taking advantage of you?” Some are openly adversarial and hostile towards students, though I don’t hang out with them much. Shocker.

If you want to see yourself as a nice person or a good teacher, ask yourself this:

  • What do you have to lose by giving students the benefit of the doubt?
  • What do you lose by being friendly and approachable?
  • And more importantly, what do you gain by being suspicious and judgemental?
  • Who are you helping?
  • Is your work more fulfilling when students are afraid of you?
  • Is it healthy or realistic to assume students are lying or manipulating you?

I’ve had some shitty teachers because I’ve had a whole lot of school. One yelled at the class and told us our ideas were “pablum” because we didn’t mimic his conclusions. He was special. One, a terrible writer, tried to convince me that accessible writing was bad writing. My sixth grade teacher hated smart kids and bullied and intimidated them in front of the class. They were all either adversarial towards students or easily threatened. They lacked ego strength. They were bullies who got off on the power distance between themselves and their students.

The thing that ties together the best of my teachers and professors is this: Grace. Assuming the best, but being able to critique in a concise but kind way. Having clear boundaries but being willing to hear critical feedback. Having compassion for students and genuinely liking or loving teaching. Having ego strength and being willing to deal with setbacks and failure as steps on the path towards being better rather than blaming students. They had humility and compassion mixed with a goodly amount of confidence in their own abilities and a willingness to learn and improve.

The last year, and particularly the last semester, has just absolutely sucked for students. It’s sucked for teachers too, but it’s REALLY sucked for college students. My students have had issues with housing, anxiety, depression, relapse, and the suicides of their classmates. Lots got COVID because they live together and they can’t control the practices of their roommates. Many are working full time to lessen financial strain on families hurt by the pandemic and our inability to provide anything like a social safety net for our population. They’ve lost friends and relatives to COVID, mental health issues, and other stuff worsened by the social upheaval and ongoing racism in our society. They are tired, stressed, and some are past their limits.

My university is usually pretty hands off when it comes to how we run our classrooms as long as we are in compliance with the law, and those of use who have been sounding the alarm on student mental health are often ignored. But this semester the shit really hit the fan in the form of Snowvid – the mass power, gas, and water outages in Texas due to a snowstorm and prolonged freeze. We were all affected, me included. It sucked. The university urged us to give students extra grace: time on assignments, absences, etc. Most of us did. Some didn’t. Too many of my students told me about teachers holding Zoom classes on days the university was closed due to the freeze (after explicitly telling faculty not to hold classes or give tests).

I got the highest student feedback scores ever this semester, and they are always pretty high. Here’s why: I didn’t assume students were trying to take advantage of me, BECAUSE I DON’T CARE. I am worried about students dying, not whether or not I’m a sucker. If I catch a student blatantly lying or cheating I will take action because it’s irresponsible to let them think it’s okay, and they may do much worse harm in the future if someone doesn’t hold them responsible. But beyond that I do not fucking care if a student asks for an extension for a hangover or a hospitalization. I really don’t. I still failed students this semester, despite a super lenient policy about late work and willingness to be flexible on attendance. If you don’t do the work, you don’t pass. That’s part of my job. But I do not regret helping the students who were able to pull their shit together at the last minute pass my classes. I don’t regret making accommodations for students who were having issues with depression but hadn’t gotten a letter from the disability office yet. I don’t regret letting students who were doing full time child care for bereaved relatives have a pass on Zoom.

If your main joy in teaching is really schadenfreude and you relish the power you have to make your students lives suck, please find another profession. If you are more concerned about being hoodwinked than you are about your students learning, why are you teaching? It can’t be the money.

Stressed out students don’t learn well. (Stressed out teachers have issues too – believe me. My memory this year has been shit.) Further stressing them out unnecessarily when you could extend them some grace is just sadistic bullshit. I am so tired of hearing about “weed-out” classes that result in students dropping out of school. The students who really don’t want to be there will leave, believe me. You should not have a free pass to be an asshole because you teach a difficult course.

If the culture of your department or school is adversarial towards students, say something. Do something. You CAN influence culture change over time. Showing students that they can expect compassion and humanity from teachers empowers them to make change. Giving students a place where they can be authentic has the advantage of making me a better teacher. When students trust me enough to tell me I fucked something up, I can fix it (or myself). You can effectively wield authority while still being a decent human being who treats students like decent human beings. I promise. I could post a ton of research from different fields on the minutiae of why trauma informed, growth mindset, inclusive, experiential, reflective teaching is better teaching, but it really boils down to this. Don’t be an asshole to your students.

Teachers are not collateral damage.

I’ve read and listened to some utterly infuriating commentary this week from reputable media on sending kids back to physical classrooms. Here are some of the reasons:

  1. Kids are unlikely to get seriously ill.
  2. Rates of infection are not currently higher in school populations than the population at large.
  3. Screens are ruining their brains.
  4. Remote learning is imperfect.
  5. Kids are getting behind in their education.
  6. Kids need normalcy.

I will now call bullshit on these points.

  1. Yes, kids are less likely to get seriously ill with COVID but there are several things missing from this picture. Their teachers can get it and die or be permanently disabled. Several children have died. We don’t know how long (if at all) people are immune after recovery or what the long term effects are, including on kids. School staff can be in high risk categories and will be put at unacceptable risk. Kids can be silent spreaders. They can bring it home to you, and you can spread it to others before you become symptomatic. Dead or hospitalized parents are more traumatic that Zoom. Accidentally killing your grandparents–also more traumatic than Zoom school. Permanently destroying the health of their teachers and other school staff – No. Just no. They signed up to educate you kids, not die for your denial soaked facsimile of normalcy.
  2. When you talk about rates of infection you are essentially talking about acceptable losses. We do not have acceptable losses in the US. We have unacceptable, preventable losses. We have no plan, no tracking, no tracing. Very little testing for screening. What is an acceptable loss? A parent? A kindergarten teacher? A janitor? The principal? 4% of janitors? 20% of teachers? This is not a fucking land war. It’s a fast-spreading, unpredictable, and sometimes fatal or disabling disease that nobody should have to expose themselves to so we can all fake that everything is fine.
  3. Screens are not ruining kids brains. They never have. Kids are creative and social, and the internet provides myriad was for your kids to be creative and social that is developmentally appropriate for their age. Is it better than playing with kids outside? That’s an apples and oranges question. Would I love for my daughter to have a sleepover with her best friends who she hasn’t seen in more than half a year? Hell, yes. But not at the expense of lives of permanent lung or heart damage. Seriously. Get over the screen thing and educate yourself about age-appropriate games, education, and social media. Oh, and there is no diagnosis for game or screen addiction in non-adults. It’s a myth. Make some clear rules and stick to them. Don’t hobble what entertainment and social contact your kid has because you read the internet was going to rot their brains. It’s not. There are tons of websites for evaluating games and platforms for kids.
  4. Yes. Yes it is. Online learning has been a hot fucking mess for my daughter. It is not perfect. It is not normal. You know what else isn’t normal? A GLOBAL FUCKING PANDEMIC. Get the fuck over it. Zoom may not be your or your kid’s favorite thing but neither is killing Grandma. Just get the fuck over yourselves.
  5. Kids have amazing neuroplasticity. And you know what they can learn about right now, even if they are behind in useless standardized testing? The world around them. Social justice. The environment. Cooking. Art. Music. Programming. They will continue to grow and develop and learn when you stop freaking out about whether or not they will get into Harvard and just let them be kids.
  6. Kids need honesty way more than they need normalcy. They soak up stress and sense lies. There is no normalcy available to provide them with. They know stuff is weird and stressful and they pick up WAY MORE than you think they do. Talk to them about why everything is weird in a developmentally appropriate way. You can shelter them from the worst of the trash fire that is our country right now, but you can’t hide it. Be a grownup and figure out what you kids need to feel empowered and knowledgeable. They will surprise you.

Thus ends my current rage list. In summary STOP PRETENDING LIKE EVERYTHING IS FINE. EVERYTHING IS NOT FINE. Deal with reality as it is, not how you would like it to be, and show your kids the respect of valuing their lives and the lives of their teachers over your need to convince yourself that normal is just around the corner. It’s not.

Trauma Informed Pedagogy in K-12 during a Pandemic: Some thoughts

I have been learning about and teaching through the lens of Trauma Informed Pedagogy (TIP) for a couple years at the college level. Here are some of my basic assumptions and practices:

  1. I don’t know peoples’ stories.
  2. Many people have experienced trauma and I cannot predict or judge how my curriculum may affect them.
  3. I recognize that discrimination-based trauma is ubiquitous and I do my best to acknowledge harm and make amends when I cause, misunderstand, or overlook it.
  4. I try to center marginalized voices in my classroom.
  5. I acknowledge the influence of colonialism and patriarchy on the formation of philosophy and science and try to provide access to research by non-white voices.
  6. I provide trigger-warnings and alternate assignments for topics such as hate crime, police violence against people of color, domestic abuse, child abuse, and sexual abuse.
  7. I allow students to actively use self-care, including leaving the classroom or engaging in non-distracting breaks (drawing or looking at phones) if they are feeling triggered.
  8. I discuss and provide resources for counseling, mindfulness, and self-care on and off campus.

This is just a starter list – I expand it as I go and learn new things. In the Zoom school world, there has been conversation about video and how to manage TIP while teaching online. As a professor, it really helps when I can see my students’ video feeds. Screaming into the void is hard and exhausting. However, I don’t mandate video use because, again, I don’t know people’s stories. They might be homeless. They might be sick. They might be having a bad hair day. I’m not God, and I don’t get to choose for people how shitty they are feeling and which reasons are valid.

My daughter started the 5th grade this week and it’s mostly on Zoom. She did Camp Half Blood this summer for 4 weeks, all online, and it was EPIC. Like so good. So she’s fairly comfortable with the technology and how it works. But it’s very different to be in a Zoom classroom with stressed out teachers and stressed out kids with stressed out parents, trying to have a “normal” school day. I feel for the teachers. It is a whole damn thing to try and make this work with 10 year olds–can you imagine what it is like for first graders? I can’t even.

But here’s the thing. Some topics, like in my classes, are intellectual and easily discussed without getting overly emotional. Some are not. My kid spends most of her day with her two main teachers, and a few short sessions a day with the PE, Art, Music, Chinese, Library and Social Emotional Learning teachers. These topics are not all the same. How kids react to them is not going to be the same for a variety of reasons.

I want to see TIP practiced in elementary schools. If you are talking to kids about feelings and stress, they may get stressed out. They may have had relatives die in the last few months. Their parents may be out of work. They might be food insecure. Don’t force them on camera. Don’t make them parrot words back at you. Don’t threaten to call their parents in front of other kids.

Like just don’t.

Need to call on kids in math class? Probably fine. But remember, you don’t know their life. You don’t know if one of their parents is drunk and abusive and at home. You don’t know if they are worried about not having new clothes and looking bad to other kids. You don’t know if they have shitty bandwidth.

You. Don’t. Know.

I need elementary school teachers and counselors and administrators to recognize this nothing is normal right now. Pantomiming normal is not helpful for kids, it’s confusing. Compassion is helpful. Grace is helpful. Many teachers know this and do endless amounts of emotional labor to help kids feel safe. But please remember that kids do not have the same capacity for denial as adults. They can’t filter, and they can’t choose what makes them feel scared.

Whether you teach grad students or kindergarteners, please remember that you do not know what they have seen or experienced in the past few months. It is not your place to judge. We have to do our best to provide education under the weirdest of circumstances, and if we want our students to give us a break when we screw up, we need to afford them the same respect, no matter their age.

Historical Antecedents of the Quaranteam

My family (my husband, daughter, and I) recently decided to invite another family to be part of our quarantine bubble, or Quaranteam. Texas is sucking mightily at flattening the curve (All Hail the Ravening EconoBeast), and most of us have pulled our kids out of the summer camps that remain, expecting to have a long, hot, boring, socially distant summer. The family we teamed up with is compatible in lots of ways: two kids that my kid went to preschool with, the older of whom is close in age, working from home/staying home parents, and a commitment to minimal exposure to COVID-19 through quarantine, the use of masks, grocery delivery, etc. We’ve hung out a lot over the last few years because it helped wear out our kids and gave us other interesting grownups to talk to and they are fantastic humans. We are politically compatible and share interests in nerd things. I’ve also hung out with both partners individually doing stuff like lunch or gaming. We all get along pretty well. It’s no small feat to find a group of seven humans who can stand each other most of the time. Sometimes our kids get into it, as kids do, but it works pretty well.

It was a huge relief to be near other people when we finally took the plunge. Whatever mental or physical deficiency (probably both) comes from not being able to be with your people was mightily assuaged just by an afternoon of hanging out and letting our kids play. We fist bumped. The kids hugged. Seeing my only child get her first hugs from other kids in forever weeks made me a little verklempt.

So I was explaining it to my therapist, and I kept coming up with this seemingly weird parallel. When I was 17, I moved to San Francisco to go to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I got two degrees and worked while flying around for auditions, so I was there for about seven years in all. I lived there from 1989-1996, during the worst of the AIDS crisis. Nobody close to me died, but people very close to people close to me did. A lot. Sex was dangerous. San Francisco is also a famously sex-positive, kink-friendly city that was an LGBTQ haven in a still homophobic country.

The upside of this is that sex was practiced frequently, enthusiastically, creatively, and very carefully negotiated in advance to ensure minimal risk. Everyone knew someone with HIV. Didn’t matter if you were gay or straight, in a city where those lines were super blurry to begin with, it was common courtesy to 1) disclose your sexual activities with prospective new partners, 2) discuss types of protection (and/or contraception if pregnancy was a possibility), and 3) disclose the last time you were tested or get tested before engaging with a new partner, even a casual one. There was a hotline you could call for free to find out the latest information on transmission and prevention. There was (is) a fantastic store for books, toys, videos, cheap high quality condoms and other protectives that was laid out like a clean well lit book store and not a creepy sex shop. Absent was the furtive, guilty, ignorant behavior often associated with sex, and sadly, still very much present in states where sex-ed is banned or limited to abstinence “education.” Yes those are snarky quotes.

So anyway, here are the weird parallels. We are trying to protect ourselves and our loved ones from a debilitating and potentially fatal disease. This is drastically changing our behavior patterns. When we didn’t understand how HIV was spread (and not spread) abstinence was the only safe option. Just as quarantine is the only safe option when we can no longer control the spread of COVID-19. We still have human needs for connection and proximity, which come into conflict with our desire to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Hence, we deliberately, carefully, negotiate terms of engagement in a way that will hopefully carry minimum risk and maximum gratification. Same/Same. Ish.

The other parallels are much darker. Spread of HIV among heterosexual populations where discussing sex and prevention is taboo is still a problem, especially in places where effective treatment is too expensive or unavailable. Such is the case with COVID-19. But instead of people half way across the world being in danger, it’s us. Our government has utterly failed at controlling the spread of COVID-19, and the ignorance of much of our population, combined with structural inequality that puts low wage workers at much higher risk with little power to control their levels of exposure. Others refuse to believe that a virus is more powerful than they and act as if there is no danger. All of these issues exponentially increase the likelihood of infection for everyone else. In the 90s, if nothing else, we could stop having sex. But we can’t stop breathing, or eating, or working, and those activities or the activities that enable them put us and our loved ones at risk.

So I am happy to have some more people to hang out with and practice safe quarantining (as safe as we can be with an airborne pathogen), but I continue to be concerned about the misinformation and blatant idiocy that is keeping this disease active and dangerous. We are so lucky to have compatible friends and jobs where we can quarantine easily. We are also the recipients of tremendous unearned privilege. As my mental health improves, I wonder how I can compensate for this in some way. For those of you similarly safe – respect safe distance from others. Tip the crap out of delivery people. Speak loudly (and financially) in support of higher wages and safe working conditions for the people keeping our children fed. Don’t forget that the ability to quarantine safely is anything but universal. And just as the AIDS crisis of the 1990s was not the fault of the victims, but of a negligent government, your ability to avoid infection now doesn’t mean that you have done anything special to deserve it.

Cyberpsychology in the Time of Pandemic

Yes, that is a cheap headline. Sue me.

As a cyberpsychology researcher and generally internet thinky-person, I spend a lot of time defending electronic forms of communication and community from the “get off my lawn” crowd who tend to view it as an abomination, or hotbed for addiction, or being solely comprised of the worst that it embodies. However, research (including mine) has shown, the internet is just us. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, wise, and ignorant. Like any creation of humanity, it’s just us.

Similarly, coming from a very Dawkins-esk background, I heard a lot of “religion makes people stupid” and “religion is irrational” growing up. Nope. Religion is people. It is the best and worst of us and everything in between. Dogmatic beliefs are in no way relegated to just believers. Whether or not you experience the divine, the range of human experience can’t be bracketed out of the institutions we create. Religion doesn’t make people stupid. People make people stupid. The internet does not make people cruel. People make people cruel.

Does this mean that the internet is the same as non-digital socialization? Nope. So while the whole internet addiction mishigas has taken a backseat in a world where the internet is the only thing that connects us to people outside our homes, the news, medical information, and myriad other things, I’m now taking a hard look at what digital communication leaves out.

I’ve always believed that digital communication enhances human connection and that people are way too quick to judge the quality of digital communication. Sometimes they don’t even realize it’s taking place. A student told me about a time she and her shy, adolescent cousin were texting each other in the same room. Her mom chewed them out for being antisocial when it was actually one of the best conversations they’d had. A friend spotted me and my husband looking at our phones instead of each other in a restaurant. She gave us a hard time for not “connecting.” One of our favorite things to do is read quietly together, and we hadn’t been able to do it in months because we had a young child. So date night was when we would read together, at dinner, on our phones. These instances of misinterpretation are minor but telling about the value people place on digital activity. For people who are homebound due to illness or disability, digital connection may be the primary form of human connection they have.

In the time of Covid-19, those of us who have access to the internet are relying on our computers and phones to connect with friends and family with whom we can’t meet in person. I often find myself feeling unsettled or sad after Zoom sessions with friends, and drained after Zoom classes and student meetings. It’s funny because one of my main struggles during the not end-times is with social anxiety and hypervigilance. I tend to worry after being social if I have done something insensitive or humiliating or exposing. I’ve worked pretty successfully on methods to diffuse this anxiety, especially since my job entails potentially making an ass of myself about 9 times a week in front of an audience and I don’t have time to freak out about it. Social anxiety can be released as it is just unsettled energy in my body. Stop ruminating and relax the body and presto. Okay, it took a lot of therapy and practice, but still, presto. I can let that shit go most of the time.

But now I face a whole new set of struggles, and this time it’s not particular to my psyche. I still have some social anxiety from online interaction, but less than in FTF interaction. What I have more of is this sense of being drained of energy and feeling emotionally unfulfilled. The more intimate the relationships, the more intense the feelings. I talked to a friend who is a therapist and she posited that our brains are in search mode for the other social cues we get during face to face interaction. This is similar to an article I read on the exhaustion many of us feel around quarantine. In both situations it’s like that spinning search thing on your computer – it’s like a background process that’s always going and not finding what it needs but is draining computational power. In the case of connection, it’s our psyche’s need for physical proximity and the information that we don’t get online. Sympathetic nervous systems stuff, the full range of visual information, movement, microexpressions, pheromones, smell, and touch if the relationship involves that.

I miss proximity. I miss it a lot.

In many of my classes, I emphasize research that has shown that strong social connections and close relationships are significant predictors for longevity. They are much more highly correlated with longevity than diet or exercise (just a lot harder to commoditize). These connections are also interdependent – a thing US culture has a really fucking hard time with, as evidenced by our inability to recognize that our individual and collective survival during this pandemic are inexorably linked. So when I talk to my students about it, I urge them to remember to prioritize social connection as they move into a period of their lives that can be very isolating. Whether it’s graduate school or their first job-job, social connection is no longer built into the environment and is, in fact, fraught in ways that it is not during their undergraduate years. Friendships at work are tricky and need to form over time. Dating at work is risky at best. Graduate school is notoriously isolating and graduate students tend to have very poor mental health. I try to teach them that we have to really push against our perfectionistic,  bootstrappy, individualistic culture because it can be quite literally bad for our health.

Which leaves us where, exactly, right now? I really feel the loss of connection day-to-day. Seeing my students and talking to them after class while we walk to our next stops. Lunches with friends. Hanging out with other parents on the weekends and letting our kids play while we chat. Chatting with servers, and checkers, and other random people in my usually friendly city. Just sharing eye contact and a smile. I’m learning how to read smiles through masks, but I’m not out often enough for it to feed that part of me that is just starving right now.

I’m glad Zoom is a thing. I’m lucky to have internet-linked devices and good wifi at home. I love all the different ways I can contact my people, and sharing memes and stupid videos and random thoughts or pictures of my kid being extra. But I still feel this tug in my heart. I want to be with my people. Just near them. I am maintaining the rules of social distancing because I understand how this virus works and I do not want to get sick with it or god forbid, give it to other people. So this isn’t complaining. I’m just reflecting on the realization that I am suffering from withdrawal from a drug that we all need. And that I will not take for granted again.

There will be lots of studies on this. Actually, there are a crapton of studies already starting. They will measure the effectiveness of coping, and mental health among different quarantined demographics, and the effects of socioeconomic status on mental health, and cortisol levels before and after a video chat with a friend, and lots more necessary stuff. But I hope that we also, as researchers, really dig into the emotional and physical phenomena that we and others are experiencing during this time due to separation. What is happening to our bodies when it feels like our hearts are shriveling up? What does loneliness taste like during this weird-ass time? How do we and others describe it? What will we experience when we come out of our caves again? Will it look like PTSD or will it be something new?

Who will we be, and who will we be to each other, once this is over?

Everything is surreal. More systems theory. And some psych.

Oh, the naive me of like two weeks ago. Okay, not really. But trauma fatigue is a thing, and we are all dealing with it to varying degrees based on 1) our circumstances and 2) our ability to deal with ambiguity and stress. I’m not going to self-own by trying to do neuropsychology, but basically, our brains spend a lot of time trying to deal with the ambiguity and stress, which has a lot of physical and psychological effects. Brain fog. Exhaustion. Insomnia. Weird-ass dreams. Aches and pains.

I’ve posited privately that those of us cursed with an overactive imagination and a tendency towards anxiety are uniquely prepared to deal with, as it turns out, a pandemic. I’ve seen this reflected back in some of the articles and posts of fellow worriers. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It went and dropped. Now I just have to wait it out and not spend a lot of time and energy freaking out about what I can’t control. Which is totally weird, since I often freak out about what I can’t control. But I know it’s not just me. I am not wasting my energy trying to deny the science or convince myself that nothing is really wrong. I guess worrying about existential realities all the time makes it easier to deal with existential realities? It’s not that I’m unbothered — I’m super bothered. This all sucks. I just don’t see the need to retreat into projection or denial to cope. Imma listen to the epidemiologists because they know how disease works and do my best to keep myself and my family as safe as we can.

My neighborhood had a sign up at the mailbox last week. It suggested having dinner on your front lawn and talking to your neighbors. We didn’t, because mosquitos, but my kid and I took a walk in the early evening. Clusters of people were hanging out in yards, clearly several households, no masks, much closer than 6 feet from one another. One of my neighbors hailed us and invited us to join them. We did not.

Why does my 10 year old understand this shit better than my educated upper-middle-class neighbors? How can anyone avoid the fact that this disease is airborne? I’m probably not the most responsible of the people I know. I still visit the grocery store occasionally and I don’t wipe down groceries and deliveries. I wash my hands for 20 seconds after any contact with the outside world and hope for the best. I wear a mask if I’m going to be shopping or picking anything up. Mostly we stay inside and when we take walks we keep our distance from others.

This does not infringe upon my liberty because it’s a safety issue. Others have said this better than me so I won’t harp. But seriously. Seriously. Working together to prevent community spread and keep our infection rate and death toll low is, to me, just a basic human society thing to do. Don’t dump your garbage in the street. Don’t pour motor oil down the sewer. DON’T ACTIVELY PARTICIPATE IN INCREASING THE DEATH TOLL IN YOUR CITY.

Every day our mayor holds an update. He talks about infection rates, deaths, and recoveries. The numbers are going up. Not creeping up–going up. Meanwhile, our governor and other public servants are forcibly opening up businesses with the threat of withholding unemployment and other benefits. As far as I’m concerned, this is state-mandated genocide. And yet people in my community are trolling the comments, claiming that the death toll is inflated (it’s not) and the mayor overreacted (he didn’t). I find this so frustrating.

Here’s a funny thing about systems theories. They are widely adopted in business and economics. Economists understand the interconnected nature of cultural systems, psychological systems, ecological systems, and financial systems. And yet. This drive to free Americans from the tyranny of trying to save our own fucking lives is predicated on saving the mythical beast that is the economy. Milton Friedman, champion of unfettered, unregulated capitalism as Utopia famously wrote, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” Meaning that corporations bear no responsibility to the multiple ecosystems inside and outside their constructed boundaries, only that they must grow profits indefinitely for the benefits of shareholders. This ignores the more common folk wisdom of don’t shit where you eat. This Randian thinking has lead to the fiction of trickle-down economics and the eventual marriage of white supremacy and American exceptionalism to some particularly weird interpretations of Christianity (that seem to avoid the whole “being rich is bad” and “blessed are the meek” and “judge not” bits) with a dash of gun-nut culture, paranoia, and nourished on a steady diet of Fox News, Infowars, and OAN.

As I observed a couple weeks ago, for some people it seems to be easier to distort reality than to deal with it. When the sources of information with which you are surrounded (or surround yourself) feed you this steady diet of being the center of the known universe, I guess it’s pretty hard to pull back and take a look at the bigger picture, in which a microscopic organism is actually much, much bigger than you.

That doesn’t mean that I understand the people engaged by the latest round of enthusiastic astroturfing and hijacking of reality.  I mean, I kind of do? It took me a while to really grapple with bearing some of the collective responsibility for the harm done by white women and white feminists. I, too, was raised to think I was a good person, and as a good person, I couldn’t say or think racist things. I was super wrong, and I had to go through the phases of being defensive and dismissive, and then trying to prove to POC I was “woke” (God I’m so sorry for being insufferable), and then eventually learning to lean into my discomfort and responsibility and educate my own damn self. I’m sure I have many layers left to unpack. But it’s not like I haven’t fucked up and had to own up to harm before, so there’s that–I just had to do it on a more global scale. It hurt, but it was necessary. So I guess I transitioned from White Guilt to maybe white responsibility, or at least the beginnings of it. There is a term for this in Transformative Learning Theory. It’s called the “disorienting dilemma.” It means that when adults, though education, are forced to re-evaluate their fixed identities and behavior, it can be psychologically disturbing. If your pedagogy is informed by this theory, you have to scaffold the learning process to allow for the emotions that come up. I think of this in terms of a psychological container – a set of norms and rules in my classroom that allow for respectful expression of difficult emotions and reactions.

I also feel like, as fucked up as the Ph.D. process is in so many ways, it also kind of cracked my brain open and forced me to see into the innards of things. My brain developed some capacity it didn’t have before. I’m not smarter. I just went through this intense re-training of how I examine the world and myself and process information and that helped me do that zooming out thing, independent of how I’m feeling at any given moment. If I can do anything lasting for my students, it’s supporting their innate ability to see the bigger picture and helping them learn to communicate it.

A couple years ago I had a student ask me why anti-vaxxers were a thing. I’m getting very similar questions now, often with that comparison. My answer about the anti-vaxxers was this: Becoming a parent utterly terrifying because for the rest of your life the most terrifying thing you can imagine is losing your child. And there is no way you can completely guarantee that it won’t happen. You have to live with your inability to completely protect them for the rest of your life. It is AWFUL. As an anxiety-prone person I was uniquely NOT prepared for this. It knocked me on my ass for several years. Eventually, I grew the capacity to not fixate on that fear but to also not deny it. I suspect that anti-vaxxers find comfort in believing that they are helping their children survive more than the rest of us sheeple, thus temporarily relieving the crushing existential fear. Of course, this involves building and moving into a citadel of misinformation that actually puts their children (and vulnerable children) at considerably higher risk. But the projection acts as a crutch, and there is enough misinformation out there to live comfortably in that citadel as long as your kid doesn’t get measles or FUCKING POLIO.

So anyway. When my students are once again asking me why white ppl are ignoring basic science in favor of whatever the hell it is they think they are fighting for, this is the explanation I think about. It’s the closest I can get. I studied defense mechanisms via fatphobia on the internet for my dissertation, and there was a lot of, “well you’re going to die before me because diabetes and laziness” with the unspoken coda being “so I’m safe from worrying about an untimely death for a little while”.

The current madness, however, has taken shape and been propagated much, much faster than most of this stuff. The American psyche is already fertile ground for paranoia and projection, but I’m pretty sure some other actors have been surfing this wave, much as they did during the last Presidential election.

I guess I wanted to believe that we were better than this. I know sociologists and historians and cultural theorists and multi-disciplinary weirdos like me will look at how the world has coped with COVID-19 and try to figure out why South Korea and Germany and New Zealand managed to avoid a significant death toll while the US and the UK and Sweden shat the bed. I’m sure we will argue about it for decades. But I wonder if exceptionalism has something to do with it. I wonder if there are aspects of culture that prepare people to cope with our extremely limited control over our environment in a way that seemingly similar cultures do not. Or maybe we just had more and less competent leaders. That is certainly a thing.

Here’s my final point in this ramble. The economy is not really a thing. It’s people. The ruling class in America has been burning incense and making sacrifices a deified ideal that is really just this hollow, fake, golden calf that they believe exists as an independent entity to which we must sacrifice, in this case our elderly, poor, prison population, and interred immigrants. Just ask Dan Patrick. But it’s just people. Shareholders only really exist when we think of money as an entity. Take away that ideology, and it’s just people, making stuff, trading it, and living their lives. The sooner we can break free of this batshit crazy illusion, the better.