Care for Faculty in Challenging Times: Considerations for Exploring Hope and Healing

Band-aid covering heart

As higher education professionals, we are still struggling to process the convergence of crises, fear, and violence we have witnessed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe many faculty have not had the time, space, or support to process feelings of grief and loss. Universities are increasingly concerned about student success during this era of the Great Disengagement, and faculty success (more specifically, providing care to faculty so they can succeed and in turn support the needs of students) should be an equal priority. For faculty developers and faculty seeking support, what does care look like during these desperate times? What concrete resources might help us process the changing landscape of higher education in the wake of the pandemic, even as mass shootings, police brutality, war, economic strife, and social-political unrest continue to impact our personal and professional lives?

After two years of researching resiliency expectations in higher education, we are calling on members of the academic community to prioritize processing our grief, while we reflect on and draw strength from our own “pandemic narratives” with an ethic of care in mind. Drawing on our experiences as faculty developers, faculty coaches, and faculty members, we recognize an ongoing need to examine the ways we are still grappling with the impact of the myriad of events that continue to impact our campus communities. We offer this piece as a starting point for identifying ways we can use to intentionally move forward. Drawing on key insights from our recent study, our work explores how concepts like “resilience” impact our experience. By resilience, we are referring to adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. As much as resilience involves ‘bouncing back’ from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth (American Psychological Association, 2021). However, “resiliency expectations” are different from resilience itself and bear greater scrutiny as we work to re-imagine our professional lives in the context of the past three years.

Resilience and pandemic dirty words

Before moving to strategies for faculty, we want to unpack resilience and the power of its multiple meanings in the context of higher education. At the start of the pandemic, we noticed the term “resilience” being mobilized as a call to action to faculty and staff to move amid uncertainty even as they were being directly impacted by an onslaught of traumatic events. Considering our study of faculty developers’ reflections on their pandemic experiences, we suggest that “resilience” exists as both an internal and external construct and that this difference is important. As individuals, when we claim resilience as part of our own narrative to describe pressing on in times of uncertainty or great difficulty, we may feel empowered, even as we may be still grieving various events that have unfolded in our lives. However, when we are “interpellated” (Althusser, 1970) as resilient by forces that have an interest in our becoming resilient subjects without intention or reflection on our part, we begin to lose power over our own experience. This loss of power over our own narrative can hamper our grief process, especially the stage of grief Kessler refers to as “making meaning” (2019).

Early in our research, our notion of “resiliency expectations” opened a category of “pandemic dirty words”—constant refrains that became hollow or inauthentic—as we navigated changing contexts during the pandemic. To help faculty developers and faculty reframe their experience and own their narratives, we asked them to pinpoint language that felt inauthentic or otherwise contradicted their experiences. Participants identified terms like “resilience,” “unprecedented times,” “pivot,” “new normal,” “post-pandemic,” “flexibility,” and “hy-flex,” for example, which they noted became hollow from overuse and a lack of meaningful action and care towards their needs (Elue, Howard, & Jordan, 2021). We recognize the need to respond to the intersectional experiences of faculty and faculty developers over the past few years based on the dimensions and intersections of their identity and their own lived experiences. Without the opportunity to process our experiences and our grief, we will not be able to re-imagine more sustainable models of working in higher education that better serve our students, colleagues, institutions, and selves. If we have learned anything from the Great Resignation in higher education, it is that burnout is real, and care is necessary for the future of our profession. Our goal is to reveal future directions for “supporting supporters” as we work toward a more equitable, sustainable future in higher education.

Strategies for faculty

As we conclude, we would like to offer the following strategies that may be helpful to faculty and faculty developers to consider as they are reflecting on the best ways to build support in their daily roles. We offer these strategies as an entry point to beginning a much-needed conversation on the integration of wellness and well-being practices into higher education.

  1. Naming our experiences. As much as we are being pushed to move at breakneck speed to embrace a “new normal,” we must acknowledge that our lives will never be normal again. We have seen too much transpire over time, and we need the space and time to share as we choose how we are processing the myriad of events that have unfolded. We are not the same people we were three years ago, and we deserve the right to name what we are feeling and how we need support today. There must be intentionality in naming our experiences and owning our narratives (additional resources can be found in our workbook from our 2021 POD presentation).
  2.  Embedding trauma-informed practices in our day-to-day operations. Let’s face an important fact: we have all been impacted by some form of trauma and grief these past few years, and depending on the dimensions of our identity, our lived experiences in navigating daily trauma may span many, many years. We must begin to think about how to build trauma-informed practices into our programming, our meetings norms and practices, and how we can intentionally care for each other when we are in duress. What warrants mentioning here is that for some, the office may not feel like a safe space where one can intentionally receive the types of support they need, but we must try. Historically underrepresented colleagues for example, may have been met with a toxic or chilly climate, and previous microaggressions may make it more challenging to truly lean in towards this shift. In this light, there is a room for us to examine the current culture in our units and ask ourselves: How might we build safe spaces where all people feel comfortable and included? What old practices and policies do we need to revisit that are causing harm as we navigate the unexpected? How do we center the needs and wellbeing of our faculty and faculty developers that empower them as we all move towards collective healing? We need critical opportunities to reflect on how we can increase the ways we approach trauma-informed practices and care in higher education.
  3. As we continue to heed calls to prioritize student success initiatives, we must remember that faculty success also impacts student success. Wellness initiatives and programming need to incorporate faculty voices and the authentic needs of faculty members. By critically reflecting and creating opportunities to support faculty as we move forward, we are focusing on how we can better care for each other as we continue to navigate these challenging times.

Dr. Laura Howard is a senior lecturer in English at Kennesaw State University, where she also coordinates the graduate teaching assistant program and supports faculty by offering coaching and online teaching support. Her scholarly interests include the educational development, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), and writing studies.

Dr. Chinasa Elue is an associate professor of educational leadership and higher education at Kennesaw State University. Her research focuses on grief leadership, trauma-informed practices in organizational settings, and support for the health and wellbeing of historically marginalized and underrepresented faculty, staff, and students across the P-20 continuum. Dr. Elue also serves as a faculty fellow for Success and Faculty Success Coach for the KSU Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

References

Althusser, Louis. 1971. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” In Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays, 121-176. Translated from the French by Ben Brewster.

American Psychological Association. 2023. “Resilience.” In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Accessed March 6, 2023. https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience

Elue, Chinasa, Howard, Laura, and Jordan, Esther. 2021. “Showing up when we’re not really there: Rethinking resilience expectations.” Workshop presented at the Annual Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network Conference, November 9, 2021. Virtual.

Kessler, David. 2019. Making meaning: The sixth stage of grief. Scribner.