By: Morgan L. Studer & Mary F. Price
As Mary and I worked on this post, we were reminded that we have just passed the one-year anniversary of when the COVID Pandemic altered our personal, professional and civic lives. While these impacts have not impacted us equally, or necessarily in the same ways, in one way or another, we have all been affected: adjusting to remote work, enduring economic hardship, juggling caretaker roles with elders and children, grappling with the isolation of being a single person household, battling Zoom fatigue and, of course, coming to grips with the loss of life and debilitating consequences of the virus itself. Burnout, fear, depression, anger, anxiety have captured our collective consciousness and have been further fueled by the interruptions of social bonds and simple lack of proximity to people and to places of belonging.
Even as these effects are felt so deeply, this blog isn’t dedicated simply to exploring burnout; rather, we wanted to start with a different prospect, that the work of community engagement has much to teach all of us about claiming agency, working towards resiliency and feeling connected, even in times like now. We take seriously the idea that the work of human resiliency, empowerment, and transformation lies in “soul work” (cf. Dirkx, 1997); that we can use self and collective critical reflection directed toward our whole selves, not just our heads, to surface lessons tapped from the well of practical wisdom. These lessons are ones that can help us individually and collectively to withstand the onslaught of isolation, fear, and the unease and uncertainty that has accompanied not feeling in control of what happens in our courses, programs, scholarship, or in our work lives generally. Losing a sense that one can exercise agency or can influence one’s circumstances is a key contributing factor to burnout.
In February of this year, a group of engaged faculty and staff gathered as part of a “coffee chat” to talk about our experiences and what we have been learning about ourselves and from our community-academic partnerships and partners in light of the pandemic. Specifically, we talked about the coping strategies that we are finding to respond, not just react, to the rupture of traditional community experiences. This post taps into the practical wisdom that emerged from voices in the room that day–practical wisdom as community-engaged practitioner-scholars. The responses that emerged very much resonated with us and we see opportunities to apply them in our own practice; perhaps you might as well.
What we offer below are the thoughts and ideas that were shared during our time together. This was a time to name both areas of difficulty and grief while also claiming hope and naming practices for moving forward as educators and human beings. We came to some of these practices more quickly and more naturally than others. For some of us, it has taken nearly 12 months to find what works best. For others, what worked during the first month of the pandemic needed to be revisited and adjusted over time. The statements below are paraphrased from our conversation.
As you read through the ideas that emerged from our collective conversation, we’d love to also hear from you. Please use the comments section to add your own thoughts and ideas or tell us what specifically resonates with you these days.
What have we learned about decompression and rest?
- Allow space and grace: It is important to allow yourself space (and grace) to step back from everything…and to be ok with it
- Prioritize ways to decompress: Find times to decompress in ways that allow your brain to shut down and not constantly be in overdrive
- Adapt your decompression strategies: Recognize that some of the things that helped you decompress pre-pandemic are not the same types of things anymore OR as the pandemic has worn on, decompression looks different; you may have to figure out and adapt new strategies for achieving this
- Prioritize rest: Name and honor rest as an important part of self-care
- Separate work from home and home life: Create a physical barrier between your work from home space and your living space at home; seeing the workspace all the time does not allow for decompression
What have we learned about using technology to build capacity for engagement?
- Geography is less a barrier to participation: Zoom and virtual meetings allow us to meet from whatever space is most accessible to us; we no longer have the barrier of travel
- Online scheduling made easier: Calendly is a helpful digital tool for scheduling meetings—allowing us to reduce one level of meeting scheduling fatigue
- One helpful aspect is that Calendly allows you to set parameters so that there are meeting buffers in place and the number of meetings you can schedule in a day
- Democratized participation: Zoom chat enables more participation as there are multiple ways to be vocal
- Sustainability benefit: Virtually meeting allows us to share electronic materials vs. paper (many times we might come to meetings with paper agendas in hand in case someone wasn’t able to print)–now we can all view these documents on our computers for our Zoom meetings
- Meeting with multiple stakeholders: Zoom has allowed for meeting with multiple community partners at once, dropping barriers like travel and parking on campus
- Voice to text memos: Use voice to text memos after meetings to help you remember meeting outcomes or what you need to do, especially when there might only be a 10 minute buffer between meetings or you’re attending multiple meetings a day
What have we learned to help us navigate the perils of digital distraction and the digital divide?
- Digital distraction: Zoom as a medium allows for people to be distracted—it’s easy for people to be in Zoom meetings but also multi-task at the same time; recognizing this as a downside to Zoom allows us to think creatively about how to reduce the distraction.
- Connect creatively: When friends are socially Zoomed out, choose to send each other short texts as a good way to stay in touch but get away from Zoom fatigue
- Consider the potential for a digital divide: Worries about the digital divide leads to the question: “am I overburdening someone?” [There is a constant tension between the positive environmental impact vs. who has access to good technology. Being sure to ask about technological capacity of partners is a good way to ensure that you are using the best mechanisms for connecting]
- Pick up the phone!: Working with elders in the community who do not have access to technology or computers has led one colleague to go “old school” and talk on the phone
- “Old school” phone conversations have brought joy to many of us! In response to Zoom burnout, we may be turning to our phones more, and those conversations feel different and offer a bright spot during this time
- From a colleague: “My dissertation advisor gives me a quick call about every other week just to check in”–at first it sparked curiosity–”why is she calling me?”–”but it has been really nice.”
- Schedule short breaks between meetings: It is easy to schedule meetings with no buffer when you don’t have to travel to and from. That can just add to the fatigue. While we may not all have the same level of control over our time, where possible, give yourself permission to schedule rest/time between Zoom meetings to avoid this. Even 15 minutes can make a big difference.
What personal and self-care practices keep us going?
Practical wisdom, also called phronesis, is critical to individual well-being and to the work of community-engaged professionals (Keith, 2016). Self-care is part of readying ourselves for the ongoing work of reflective practice in which we tend to ourselves-in context, make sense of experience in dialogue with ourselves and others, (re)imagine what’s possible and hold space to identify and take actions that align with our values. It’s important to make time to recognize the signs of fatigue and burnout and take preventive steps. Here are some of the ideas that came our of our group discussion:
- Watching guilty-pleasure TV shows (allows us to “unplug” and decompress)
- Getting outside
- Reading for fun
- Yoga with Adriane (on YouTube)
- Relaxation music to help with concentration and focus
- Sticking to routines and what is still stable in life to navigate uncertain times /routines as ways to ground us
- Scheduling 20 minute calls with friends I would normally see a few times a year at conferences or on joint vacations that aren’t really possible right now
- Reading big long books that make up a big long series so that the relationship with the characters becomes part of my world
- Playing with my dogs
- Connecting with my customers at work
COVID has really tested the possibility of taking preventive steps but as our fellow engagement professionals made visible, flowers can still bloom in deserts, and so too can we find ways to cope. This wisdom is a reminder that taking care of ourselves helps us to better be in partnership with one another. As community-engaged practitioner-scholars, we enter and engage with a variety of places and spaces. As we come into these spaces it is very important that we are caring for ourselves in a way that allows us to be fully present and able to bring our whole selves to the table.
To this end, we offer a few resources to use to nurture you and that you can apply to your community-engaged educational practice in these challenging times.
- An Adventure in Learning about Communication in Partnerships –Rebecca J. Dumlao
- 3 Lessons of revolutionary love in a time of rage – Ted Talk with Valerie Kaur
- Covid 19 – Local/Global Learning and Civic Resources – Campus Compact
- CSL Covid 19 Resources for Faculty, Staff, Students and Partners
- Equitable Collaboration Framework
Morgan L. Studer is the Director of Faculty and Community Resources in the Center for Service and Learning. Morgan feels like her professional role gives her the opportunity to watch the imagination of campus and community come alive in the unique and varied ways that students, faculty, staff, and community partners work together to enact the values of democratic engagement. It was her own undergraduate alma mater’s focus on finding your vocation that led her to explore the field of higher education and civic engagement after obtaining her graduate degree.
Her current responsibilities include overseeing the Community Engagement Associates program, one-on-one and group consultations focused on community engaged learning course design, community engaged learning resource development, connecting community partners to curricular and co-curricular resources at IUPUI, and overseeing the planning of the annual Bringle and Hatcher Civic Engagement Poster Showcase, a part of the Institute for Engaged Learning’s Engaged Learning Showcase.
Morgan holds a Master of Arts in Philanthropic Studies and has served as adjunct faculty for the undergraduate Philanthropic Studies program in the Lilly School of Philanthropy. Other professional committees include PRAC and the Division of Undergraduate Education Steering Committee.
Mary F. Price is an anthropologist and Director of Faculty Development at the IUPUI Center for Service and Learning. In current role, Mary works with scholar-practitioners and learners as a thought partner and critical friend working to strengthen democratic practice, deepen learning and co-create of knowledge with communities that improves our shared futures.
Mary continues to work as active practitioner-scholar in her role at CSL. Her current research and scholarship emphasize the influence of community-academic partnership relationships on student learning and community outcomes, building evaluation capacity for democratic community engagement; socialization and coaching of community-engaged faculty as part of campus equity, student success and civic agendas, and improving institutional climates for ethical and equitable community engagement locally and globally.
She has over 20 years’ experience working in the design of high impact educational practices including: service-learning, study abroad, learning communities and faculty-mentored undergraduate research. Her interest in learner-centered and collaborative teaching practices extends to the use of community-engaged teaching methods in graduate and professional curricula. She holds a masters in Latin American Studies from the University of Florida, Gainesville and a doctorate in anthropology from Binghamton University, SUNY.