Campus & Community

Senior Associate Director for Teaching and Learning tackles Monsters

Sarah Cavanagh is the Senior Associate Director for Teaching and Learning at Simmons University's Center for Faculty Excellence. She is also the author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion and Hivemind: Thinking Alike in a Divided World. She shared details about her next book, Mind over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge, scheduled for release in spring of 2023.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was drawn into this topic for a few different reasons. First, I was watching the news and reading articles warning about a growing mental health crisis in our youth — and this was even before the beginning of the pandemic. As a college educator who studies psychology, and as the parent of a teenager, this news was of high concern to me, both personally and professionally. Second, I was observing these fights taking place in higher education, where one side argues that youth need more compassion, care, and flexibility, and the other side says that we've already given too much, and that young people need more challenge and exposure therapy. I think if you actually put these people in a room together most of them would find they were saying the same thing, which is that we need both compassion and challenge — but just each group prioritizes things differently. I want to open a conversation about the intersection of compassion and challenge.

What is Compassionate Challenge?

It means that we need to be challenged outside of our comfort zone and to take risks in order to grow and learn, but this can only happen well in settings characterized by safety, belongingness, and care. Anxiety and motivation use the same sorts of physiological systems to mobilize the body for action. Changing the appraisal and interpretation of the tasks before us can spin us either toward motivation or anxiety. The book is also in part a memoir of my lifelong struggle with panic disorder. Compassionate challenge set me on a road to better mental health by pushing me out of my comfort zone.

If students feel safe, have a sense of autonomy, and a sense of freedom in the classroom, this will help them feel capable, confident, and have a sense of purpose and vocation. These sorts of appraisals and settings can lead us on a path to motivation instead of anxiety. My first book focused on the emotions required in learning. You have to get worked up a little bit to change how you see the world. Avoiding what you fear just reinforces that fear and can spiral into avoiding settings that are less and less challenging, narrowing the scope of your experience. Learning, after all, requires a certain amount of emotion and a certain amount of arousal.

How do you implement "compassion and challenge" into your classroom?

You have to do the compassion piece first. Ideally the stage for compassion is set in the first few weeks of the semester. Compassion can be embedded into the atmosphere, the setting, and the syllabus. This can be as simple as using "warm" and inclusive language versus "chilly" language: "we will" instead of "I'm going to have you do." This language is important in the syllabus, and how to speak to your students.

Establish the classroom as a space for co-creating, discussion, and prioritize the building of relationships between students. Everyone hates ice breakers, but carefully used and well selected ice breakers can be great. They help to establish that we are a group of people working together in order to achieve a goal.

The challenge piece prioritizes student engagement, evokes their passion and curiosity, and motivates them to take risks. It also has a lot to do with a sense of play, in techniques that I call improvisational learning. We can take a lot of lessons from performing arts: the students and instructors work together as an ensemble, encouraging each other. When you can infuse the class with that sense of lightheartedness, intellectual play, and the sense that learning is fun, you can cultivate engagement and challenge your students to greater heights of learning.

Could you share one takeaway from the book?

The take home message of compassionate challenge is that we need to face the things that scare us. Life is terrifying and monsters are real — the world is a dangerous place. We can't stop being scared, but the best way to face those monsters is together, through the development of safety and belongingness and community. We have to do things we don't enjoy to fix the problems in the world. Only by engaging with those problems can we solve them.

The monsters referred to in the book are both internal and external. I often view my own panic as a sort of monster that afflicts me sometimes. Of course, external monsters also exist. For instance,racism, poverty, and climate change are quite real threats in the world. Internal threats often require more of a taming, involving approach and even befriending. External threats often require collective action, rooting out their sources and finding new solutions. In both cases, facing these monsters head on rather than hoping they'll disappear on their own is the most productive approach.

What brought you to teach at Simmons? What is unique about Simmons and students?

I visited Simmons as my last in-person workshop before the pandemic pivoted all teaching and speaking online. I met with faculty and staff and even a few students, and it was such a warm community. When I saw that Simmons was hiring, I thought it was a place where I could be happy. I have gotten to know some students through small feedback groups in the Center for Faculty Excellence, and they are so engaged and energetic and involved in their own education. At other campuses where I've taught the students were wonderful but a little more reserved — Simmons students are so involved!

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