Curriculum design for well-being

It’s late November, and final papers are coming due in graduate and undergraduate classes. Advanced doctoral and masters students are confronting the natural deadline of another term’s end–and the reminders and obligations to pay fees again. This time of year brings self-reflection, self-recrimination, stress, and, often, panic. Many are full of anticipatory regrets, some are in full avoidance mode, others are just trying to work harder and harder to meet impossible standards. Many become dramatically unwell from chronic or new mental illnesses: insomnia, anxiety, depression, and psychosis.

There’s been a lot of attention paid recently to the dire mental health issues facing students generally, and graduate students particularly. Here, have a look:

The Other Mental Health Crisis
Graduate School and Mental Illness: Is there a link?
The Mental Health Care Crisis on Campus
There’s an Awful Cost to Getting a PhD That No One Talks About

The most recent Berkeley study outlines 10 factors contributing to (or declining from) graduate students’ sense of well-being and mental health:

  1. career prospects
  2. overall health
  3. living conditions
  4. academic engagement
  5. social support
  6. financial confidence
  7. academic progress and preparation
  8. sleep
  9. feeling valued and included
  10. adviser relationship

This is a lot. Many of these factors, I would like to point out, affect everyone‘s mental health, no matter their career, not just that of students–but that many factors are artificially and/or structurally more awful for students, as a group: grad school is framed as career suicide, stipends are generally terrible, there is no possibility of security for the duration of training, and poor wages often lead to limited choice in living arrangements. We can and we should think more systematically about how grad school seems to be set up from the get-go to minimize students’ chances of maintaining well-being, and even to trigger mental illness.

I can’t fix that today, or by myself. However, as an adviser and instructor of graduate students, there are things I can do today, right now, by myself to address some of the issues, the ones I’ve highlighted above: academic engagement, social support, academic progress and preparation, and sleep.

I can do this through my syllabus design. And so can you. Let’s think about how. I think grad courses in general, at least in my discipline (English), tend to assign more reading than one human can do, set ambiguous or paradoxial expectations about what the course requirements actual are, clump the preponderance of course weight on an overly large capstone project or paper, and fail to give meaningful feedback when it is need (much earlier in the term, and more frequently). Oh, and when we design syllabi with reading lists still very heavily skewed to Dead White Guys, we are surely sending a message to students about whose voices matter and who is a proper academic subject.

A modest proposal, then, for discussion:

1. Be realistic about how much people can actually read. Here, students work 10 hours a week at a TA-ship or independent teaching. They take two or three courses per term. If I assume a work week of 40 hours, after the TA work, that’s 30 hours left. That would be 10 hours each to devote to three classes, and since three of those hours are the seminar itself, that leaves seven hours for work outside the class. That time will be for any reading, library and online research, writing, and office visits. If I use a course reading workload calculator, I can easily see that assigning a book of theory, even a slim one, and asking for a 2 page report, is going to take waaaaaaaaayyyy longer than 7 hours. This can address the question of academic preparation, in that students assigned a manageable workload can actually feel like they’re learning, and not like they’re drowning. And it can address sleep.

2. Short assignments, early and often, with meaningful and timely feedback. We grade students. They want to know what we want. We want them to develop as writers and thinkers and we need to know their strengths and weaknesses to help with that. Tell me again how having a 30 page final paper worth 60% of the grade is good pedagogy? If students only have a participation grade and maybe an oral presentation grade heading into it? In my classes, I assign response papers of 400 words in the first couple of weeks. I grade it and return it within a week–students get meaningful feedback on writing and argumentation and comprehension. Then they do two more, and they tend to get both better and more confident. And the final paper is broken into stages, with feedback and a grade on each. Heading into the end of term, the paper is already half written, and is probably not going to be worth more than 25% of the grade, because of the shorter assignments, and the proposal / bibliography / workshop stages. This fosters engagement (we are all writing and reading each other from the very beginning of term), preparation (students get explicit guidance and help throughout paper writing), and sleep (no last minute binge writing), and social support (these types of assignments draw a LOT of office visits, and we build relationships of trust that way.)

3. #inclusivesyllabus. Did you know that this year’s grad cohort in my program is 16 women and 2 men? And that we still run courses with 16 things written by men and 2 by women? Ask yourself what message that sends. Never mind the internationalization, queering, and un-whitenening of our students: this is not reflected in our syllabi either, often. I ask you please to consider what gates you are keeping, what exclusions you are (unwittingly) recreating when your reading lists are whiter, straighter, and duder than that world you live in, or the classrooms you teach in. Yeah, I know, the canon. But we are lifelong learners. Reach. I’ll be honest, it’s not easy for me to find new things to assign to read always. But it’s important that I try. This helps with social support, with engagement, and my own capacity to sleep at night.

Grad students are suffering, they really are. There are easy things we can do to help make this better, that in no way reduce the intellectual rigor of our programs, but might stop people from becoming ill, dropping out, suffering through it. Add your thoughts below, and please share: let’s work together.

One thought on “Curriculum design for well-being

  1. It's been an uphill struggle in medicine to try to get hospitals to stop with the 36 shifts for interns because, heck, *we* had to suffer through it. At least medical doctors are looking at an assured lifetime of high income and status in return for surviving the trial by fire. Perhaps academics can be more easily weaned from the idea that being properly miserable is an essential part of a good education, since the tangible rewards are less obvious.


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