Creating a Kinder Campus During COVID-19

Kindness will be a game changer as health, productivity and collegiality hang in the balance on campuses this fall, writes Maria Shine Stewart, who offers suggestions for how to cultivate it.

September 3, 2020

As we shuffled supplies and laptops preparing to leave class that Tuesday in March 2020, a composition student said to me, “Ms. Stewart, campus is closing.”

I paused. I had not heard or read the news myself.

She firmly held up her phone, picture side facing me, and waved it a little. “No, really, if you don’t believe me, look here.”

I had no reason to disbelieve this highly motivated student; I was just impressed that students so often access the word on the street first. And I was struggling to take in what was, to use an overused word of this past spring, an unprecedented event.

I had a diagnostic surgery planned for later that week, to bump up against spring break for recuperative time.

I felt for the freshmen who did not want to leave the classroom that day, but I was also weary from anemia. And the academic year began with the death of my cousin, so close to me, as I started a doctoral program. In my experience, personal illness sometimes accompanies bereavement.

But teaching has been a balm for my healing more than once -- when I gave birth to a premature child, when I was badly hurt in an accident. Now, teaching was to migrate to cyberspace where I -- and much of the world -- wondered if our health would hold.

Coincidentally, our final on-ground lesson involved website analysis and student peer review of emerging papers. As news of our campus closing was about to hit, we had just looked at a number of campus and other websites with a discerning eye for design and text. It was hard to miss where the COVID-19 warning was placed on sites of museums, libraries, entertainment venues, colleges and more.


Kinder Eyes

Eyes are very important to me as a teacher, whether meeting face-to-face or connecting online. Those eyes are so busy from peer review and probing websites and taking in life; I do not mean to sound sentimental, but I am.

I love to teach writing for two reasons. The first is, not to sound like a voyeur, that I like to watch people write. The second is that I love the light in eyes when people get it. If you teach or supervise or have been a parent or guardian, you know that light. When I had my second surgery recently, I had to rely on the eyes of the surgeon, whom I had never met without a mask. Eyes are really important these days.

I knew I’d never forget that moment of flickering doubt in my students’ eyes as we were about to disperse -- and their worries. We had forged a community in our 2:15 to 3:45 Tuesday/Thursday class. We were about to migrate online. I tried to reassure the group: “You’ll remember this moment,” I said. “And we’ll stay in touch.”

Kinder Process

In the ensuing weeks, students and I helped one another through the shift to online learning, which, after all, is first and foremost learning. I knew how to visualize the class in my head, even if I didn’t always push the right button fast enough. Teaching online is a process that is hard to describe, but it’s not entirely unlike writing a column in cyberspace. I know readers are out there, both remote and intimate, supportive and fierce. Just as my dog’s eyes are infinitely wild, revealing her wolf heritage, as well as tender and empathetic, the power of eyes converges in their dramatic range as well as their ability to take in light.

Kinder Assessment

As a graduate student late in life and facing a diagnosis and a pandemic, my journey was eased by having a pass-fail option. Waves of intermittent worry made me wonder if my thinking was at its peak -- or sometimes if I could think analytically at all.

Which administrator around the country, like the alert, sweet first bird of dawn, had the idea of extending pass-fail, I do not know. I am grateful and still worked with effort on my graduate courses, but by necessity set aside perfectionism. No one can really ace a pandemic.

As my first surgical date approached, I wondered if I should put the surgery off, if the risk of COVID-19 exposure in the hospital was worth it despite the need for that biopsy. My state made that choice for me-- eliminating elective, including in some cases, diagnostic, surgeries -- so I had to wait and wait some more. And then the ban was lifted, and two surgeries soon followed, with some of the kindest, most capable teams I could have asked for.

My imagination, as a humanities-steeped person who also has a counseling degree, bubbled forth. What if everyone could get an immune-boosting cocktail? What if we could send in relief staff early in the epidemic conditions before health professionals risk burnout? Can a codicil be put on a living will, for those of us wary of intubation or weeks on a ventilator?

As for the epidemic’s financial consequences: Who would have, could have, predicted what we are facing now? Kindness remains a commodity very precious with so much unknown.

Over the past 40 years, whether I’ve been in a student, faculty or administrative role, it’s always been clear to me: where kindness has bloomed, the workplace has felt healthier. Where it’s been hard to find, academe has felt barely tolerable.

Why wouldn’t commuters rush home, faculty members skip office hours and administrators rule from an icy distance if the world they inhabited was unwelcoming? Why wouldn’t health claims skyrocket if people felt overworked and undervalued? Kindness is not a panacea, but if it’s part of a campus panorama, and that place is a better place.

Now as campuses begin the fall semester, we wonder how life, illness, productivity, health and collegiality will hang in the balance. I have no prediction, other than kindness -- felt or delivered -- will be a game changer, as usual. And there is one “i” in kindness, and we need to save some for ourselves.

I recommend you consider the following during the coming months:

  • Set reasonable goals, or even put some on the back burner for the sake of ultimately being more flexible. Someone will get sick, and it might not be with COVID-19; that person may not be you, but you might need to get involved.
  • Strive to recharge before you have to -- breathe, find an unwind tool, have a go-to piece of music.
  • Watch your tone when writing and speaking. Angry? Flat? There is a fine line between stuffing one's emotions and dumping them overboard. A pause before you say it or write it can ultimately save time and demand less backtracking.
  • Practice the grace of striving to understand instead of accusing others -- or yourself -- if a deadline is missed or an error pops up. The choice of animal to emulate is not limited to dragon or gentle lamb.
  • Don't miss or misjudge what's behind the mask. When in doubt, ask.
  • Better days will approach. And setbacks. A big-picture perspective needs to make room for both.
  • Don't be afraid to lean. Find the person or practice that allows for this. Don't let the protocol of distancing lead you to shut off your need for human connection.

The word “send” is in kindness, too, if you’re willing to be playful and read backward. “Kindness returns in kind,” said Glen Campbell in introducing his “Try a Little Kindness,” a well-sung song with a spirit-lifting guitar solo.

Despite our worries, we’ll have good surprises, too, such as the community college student who read “The Raven” to my other dear class the last day online, with her golden cockatiel perched on her left shoulder. This miraculous image of bird on bird is one I won’t forget. Could it be “The Cockatiel of Kindness”? If you’re groaning, that is OK.

If kindness is perceived as sappy or so permeable it barely functions as one-ply in academe, I doubt this column can make much difference. Yet if kindness and collegiality are palpable moving forward, I dare to predict we’ll see renewed vigor on our campuses beyond COVID-19.


Maria Shine Stewart is a licensed professional counselor and adjunct lecturer in writing.


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