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Compassion and the anti-academic press

Topics/tags: Academia, rants, postscript-laden

A few days ago, I saw that my amazing colleague, Dean Bakopoulus [1,2], had posted a note to Twitter that he was now including a crying clause on his syllabus. Dean teaches a variety of courses related to creative writing, so it’s not surprising that the work students read and write might inspire strong emotions [4]. Dean included a sensible statement,

In this class, crying is like coughing or blowing your nose. Sometimes it must be done and it will not be remarked upon or laughed at.

Like many recent articles about syllabus construction, his post got me thinking about whether I should include a similar statement on my syllabi. I’ve done so after seeing suggestions for including a basic needs statement. Do I need something similar to Dean? I don’t tend to teach material that is as emotionally charged as that which Dean teaches [6], so I’m not sure that such a statement is necessary. On the other hand, I do keep tissues in my office because I find that students do cry when talking to me. I’ll keep it in my jar of things to think about.

Today, I learned that Campus Reform, which appears to be a self-appointed conservative watchdog for activities at colleges and universities, had picked up on Dean’s Tweet. The article seems like fairly straightforward reporting; there are no significant criticisms. I could even see a few changes to the article, such as positive quotes from authorities, making it something that praises his work. But I assume the readers of this publication can tell that this is yet another example of those wacky liberal academics.

There’s a link from the article about Dean to nine wacky ways colleges help students de-stress. I was expecting to see practices like, Faculty and Staff march through campus, banging pans and shouting You can do it! [7] or "Student groups serve pancakes at 3 a.m. [8]. But no, the article refers to such absurd practices as yoga, hot tea, and massages [9].

And that got me wondering: Would these critics of academia, and perhaps other folks on the right, be less angry at the world and at the antics of others, if they did yoga, got regular massages, and took advantage of a cuppa each day? And just imagine what could happen if they’d allow themselves to cry!

Postscript: I see another valuable piece of text on Dean’s syllabus that I should probably steal.

I will probably make several major mistakes during the course of the semester. I might even believe myself to be correct when I am not. I expect you may do the same. This underscores the binding contract in this community: we do not expect perfection.

We do expect enthusiasm, dedication, a delicate blend of humility and swagger, and a willingness to take risks. We strive not to offend one another, but in the event that happens, a sincere and swift apology will go a long way.

Postscript: Some other readers of the page reported seeing a sidebar (in the article on Dean’s crying statement) that included the text The radical left will stop at nothing to intimidate conservative students on college campuses. You can help expose them. I don’t see that, but perhaps it’s because I use an ad blocker.

Postscript: I hope that Dean doesn’t mind that I’m stealing a bit of his thunder. But I’m confident that he has more than enough thunder to go around. I’d also be likely to write something similar if I’d read about a similar situation involving a faculty member at another

Postscript: The main opposition I intend in this piece is between those who strive to accept the feelings and actions of others and those who criticize such feelings, tending to label those who feel as snowflakes. I’ve used the right as a shorthand for the latter group because, in my experience, political conservatism correlates with that perspective. I acknowledge that the divide is not quite that stark.

Postscript: Watch Sam head down the rabbit hole. The Campus Reform article on therapy llamas refers to an article in the Daily Californian, and notes,

The article contends that animal de-stress events like hugging therapy dogs and petting llamas may not actually reduce stress, citing Yale doctoral candidate Molly Crossman’s 2015 article, Effects of Interactions With Animals On Human Psychological Distress, which found varying effects of stress reduction from human-animal interaction.

As you might expect, I went to find the original article. Here’s one important comment from the article,

Some well-designed studies have shown that HAI [human-animal interaction] conveys benefits for children undergoing medical procedures, undergraduate and professional students at universities, adults with psychiatric diagnoses, and companion animal owners from the community (e.g., Aydin et al., 2012; Beetz et al., 2011; Vagnoli et al., 2015). [11,12]

Hmm … well-designed studies that target the particular audience we’re considering. I’m not sure that one should use Crossman’s article to dispute the value of therapy animals. For the sake of accuracy, I should acknowledge that Crossman does go on to say that

[T]he majority of these studies have focused on short-term state changes in distress, without evaluating whether those benefits are sustained in the long term.

The goal of therapy animals at exam-time is a short-term state change, so I don’t consider that a relevant criticism.

Postscript: Sam continues down the rabbit hole. The Crossman article appeared in 2017. The Daily Californian gives the date as November 2016. Campus Reform gives the date as 2015. Why? I assume that The Daily Californian is referring to the preprint, which, as far as I can tell appeared in November 2016. I consider the 2017 date more appropriate. We have style guides to address such ambiguity. What does APA say? I see from a ’blog post that

As your article is heading toward submission and publication, keep following up on your references that are moving through their own publication processes, and update them as you are able. If possible, refer to the final versions of your sources.

The 2017 date is definitely more appropriate.

What about Campus Reform’s 2015? I assume that it’s attributable to journalistic carelessness [14].

[1] I hope I spelled that right. I understand that Bakoponutts is also an acceptable spelling.

[2] Why is Dean amazing? There are more reasons than I can hope to list. He’s a great author. He’s now producer of an upcoming show based on the work of Alissa Nutting. He’s an inspiring teacher who helps students discover new ways to express themselves in writing [3]. He’s the current coordinator of Writers@Grinnell, which is an amazing series. He’s introduced a variety of new classes at Grinnell, including one on screenwriting. There are certainly more reasons, but I will leave those for a future musing.

[3] And, I assume, other ways.

[4] There’s a rumour going around that,

[Members of the class] cried each week because [they] wrote stories of how much [they] loved Donald Trump and his heroic deeds and his juicy booty, and it was emotional stuff [5].

[5] Bakopoulos, Dean. 2019-09-06. Facebook post.

[6] I suppose one might be tempted to cry tears of joy at the essential beauty of some higher-order constructs.

[7] We miss you, Doug!

[8] I’ve critiqued these before. Serving pancakes at 3 a.m. encourages students to stay up late and normalize the behavior of staying up late. I realize that students appreciate food at that hour and I’ve heard pushback that we’re just acknowledging reality. Nonetheless, I consider it inappropriate to normalize the lack of sleep.

[9] Just in case it’s not clear, all of these strike me as perfectly sensible ways to work on stress. In fact, almost all of the practices strike me as perfectly normal [10].

[10] Admittedly, therapy llamas seem less useful than therapy dogs because llamas are large and spit.

[11] Crossman, Molly K. (2017). Effects of Interactions with Animals on Human Psychological Distress. J. Clin. Psychol. 73:761–784, 2017.

[12] Emphasis mine.

[14] I realize that the assumption reveals my own biases.

Version 1.0 of 2019-09-06.