This academic term, my students seem more exhausted than ever (Faculty are tired too. But perhaps that’s a post for another day). My informal assessment “tool” at the beginning of each class— “Hold up fingers to indicate your level of energy today” —has yielded unusually many 1s and 2s, and this is consistent with the empirical finding that the COVID-19 pandemic has deleteriously impacted the mental health of college students.1
Of course, student weariness is not new. Undergraduate years can be challenging, even sans the burden of a global pandemic. But this pandemic and its lasting implications across virtually all domains of life, including the constant pivot between remote and in-person learning (or sometimes, as is the case at my institution currently, instructors juggling both to accommodate quarantining students), has made this particular period in the lives of my students that much more trying.
As faculty, I am keenly aware of the critical role that I have in supporting students during this time. During the four hours a week that I interact with them, how can I be attentive to the struggles that they are experiencing and demonstrate Christ-like grace and love to them? This is a persistent question and prayer in my mind during this season of my faculty life.
I have found it helpful to draw from my Korean cultural roots to keep in mind the concept of nunchi (눈치), which offers some practical guidelines and reminders in supporting my students during this global pandemic. I wanted to share about this notion in hopes that fellow faculty members might find some connecting points.
But first, what is nunchi2? Although it is a complex idea that does not have an exact counterpart to the English language, it can be approximately described as the ability or posture to (a) accurately read nonverbals, (b) quickly understand group dynamics, (c) focus on background information even with the distraction of the foreground objects, or (d) promptly grasp the true meaning behind a verbal statement. In fact, the term nunchican be literally translated as the ability to “measure with one’s eyes.”3 It is an essential skill that one can get scolded for not demonstrating. For instance, when growing up, my parents sometimes said to me, “You have no nunchi.” Conversely, praise might be heaped upon someone for having “fast nunchi.”
If one were to rely on nunchi in the Western setting, it might be described as a countercultural act or posture, given that our societal tendency is to value low-context communication (“Say what you mean, and mean what you say”). I find myself elevating low-context communication with students more often than not, including when offering my assistance or support; I tell them, “If you are going through something difficult, it is important that you communicate with me clearly and promptly so that I can help you.” I would dare say that this type of faculty messaging is something that we in Christian higher education are socialized to deliver to students. In doing so, we convey the message that this Christian learning community deeply cares about students, but that students must to do their part in getting the help.
So, back to how the idea of nunchi has informed my teaching and mentoring of students during this time. As someone who teaches from a generally low-context perspective, these days I regularly find myself praying that I would be more countercultural and rely on more nunchi in the classroom than I normally would. This is true for everything from philosophical aspects (e.g., need for more contextualization of course materials) to practical things (e.g., how I navigate technology). Here are some examples of how nunchi might guide and reshape my practices in the classroom, especially in relating to and supporting students. Again, these are a mix of small and big things.
I am praying for more nunchi to…
- Recognize when my students need more intentional follow up from me despite, their verbal communication of, “I am doing fine.” That I will be able to see beyond the direct communication of spoken words to gather the high-context clues concerning how they might be truly doing, and act as needed to provide emotional support, connect them to resources, and so on.
- Help me manage my Zoom sessions better. Specifically, that I will not be so sucked into what is right in front of me—those black boxes on screen, or my PowerPoint slide—that I unintentionally keep students in the Zoom waiting room for the entire class or miss a comment or question in the chatbox (I have made these mistakes too many times). Speaking of Zoom…
- Extend grace to students (and monitor my own internal judgment) when most of them have their videos off during a Zoom session, instead of responding with my natural inclination to ask students to turn on their videos to make it easier for my teaching. I pray for increased empathy to see beyond their turned off screens to the possible reasons for having their video off, and for me to be okay with sometimes having to talk to a bunch of names against black backgrounds on my screen. Oh, but I must admit, this one is especially difficult for me.
- Read the nonverbals, even when over Zoom—or perhaps especially over Zoom—because that setting affords me a rare opportunity to see the full faces of my students, instead of the masked ones I see most days in the physical classroom. And speaking of masks…
- Intentionally read the eyes (and accompanying gestures) when masks are on during in-person interactions, especially when the well-fitting masks muffle the words coming out of a student’s mouth, particularly when I have already asked the student to repeat what they said. I pray that some form of effective communication can still take place, and that my nunchi will be enough to grasp a sufficient amount of what has been conveyed.
- See beyond the visible difficulties of my students and keep in mind the contextual or background information underlying their struggles, remembering that some of my students have not been in a regular college classroom for 2+ years, even if they are enrolled in an upper-level course of the major. Therefore, I pray for awareness of what students are experiencing outside of the classroom that, frankly, might make my course a lower priority to a student.
- Choose grace and flexibility over rigor when I sense that my students would benefit from such an approach and be decisive in making changes along the way in the academic term—to have “fast nunchi” when being responsive to student needs.
I share this list as prayers because all of these are things that, in some sense, I genuinely struggle to do. Consistent nunchi requires an intentional and intense focus on others—in this case, my students – that might require significant sacrifice on the part of the teacher. To that point, maybe another way to capture the cultural construct of nunchi is to frame it as a radical orientation toward others, one that calls us to think of others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4). Compassion and flexibility are other descriptors that also come to mind.
For those of you who are navigating the immense challenge of teaching and supporting college students during this time, I hope that this blog piece speaks to you in some way and encourages you to persevere in your good work.
- Changwon Son, Sudeep Hegde, Alec Smith, Xiaomei Wang, and Farzan Sasangohar. “Effects of COVID-19 on college students’ mental health in the United States: Interview survey study.” Journal of medical internet research22, no. 9 (2020): e21279.
- For an engaging read on nunchi, see Euny Hong, The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success (New York:Penguin Books, 2019).
- Choong Y. Lee, “Korean culture and its influence on business practice in South Korea.” The Journal of International Management Studies7, no. 2 (2012): 184-191.