The COVID years have been tough ones for educators. I am in my thirty-second year as an English professor at Houston Baptist University (HBU), and, though I have weathered many economic, political, and pedagogical storms, I can’t remember having lived through such an intense and extended period of anxiety and uncertainty.
In addition to the ubiquitous fear that we or our loved ones might contract the virus and the loneliness and isolation brought on by the lockdowns, educators had to struggle daily to adapt to a cornucopia of new remote technologies, to connect on a personal level with masked students while wearing masks themselves, and to convey a coherent body of knowledge and skills in an erratic, unstable environment to distracted, ill-equipped students. When you add to that two years of severe political and cultural polarization, runaway inflation, and periodic breakdowns of law and order, you get a climate that has left educators physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted.
Thankfully for those of us who teach at HBU, a generous family who values the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of professors in these difficult and confusing times has donated funds to allow each faculty-member a one-course release to participate, once over the next several years, in a faculty-led cohort. The cohort I was chosen to be a member of meets this Fall with the theme of “hope” and the aim “to see a deliberate exploring of the life of formation enrich and inspire our teaching and learning.”
Over the next sixteen weeks, we will study the scriptures together, challenge each other to lead “a deliberate life of Christian discipline and formation,” and encourage one another to foster mentor/mentee relationships and to integrate our faith and work in a healthy and theologically rich way. To guide us in our discipline and formation we will be reading and studying Justin Whitmel Earley’s The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction (IVP, 2019). Although that study will be conducted over a period of two months, I, being an eager English professor, could not help but read the whole book before our first meeting!
Earley’s book was published a year before the start of COVID, and yet, remarkably, it offers prophetic counsel for those trying to return to healthy and productive rhythms of work, prayer, and fellowship after the pandemic. In what follows, I will offer three suggestions to my fellow beleaguered professors based partly on Earley’s Common Rule, partly on my own personal struggles to return to (and transcend) normalcy, and partly on my expectations for the Fall cohort.
Cultivate Friendships with Fellow Faculty
Professors are, on the whole, loners. We spend much of our time grading papers in quiet rooms, or hunched over laptops writing essays, or combing the library for books and articles. Though not necessarily anti-social, we do like our privacy, with many of us preferring, to quote that consummate professor-bachelor Henry Higgins, “an atmosphere as restful as an undiscovered tomb.”
Earley, who encourages his readers to adopt daily and weekly habits that will better allow them to love God and their neighbor, puts a high premium on shared meals and face-to-face conversations. We were made in the image of a triune God, after all, and it is not good for us to be alone (see Genesis 2:18). We need companionship in all areas of our life, and if we forsake it for too long, we will gradually come to lose a firm sense of our identity and our calling. We are naturally social creatures, taking our cues from others and needing both their approval and their constructive criticism.
Most para-church groups, from InterVarsity to Cru to Navigators, encourage members to have an accountability partner. Though Christian professors rarely use that term, we are strongest when we play the dual role of mentor to younger faculty who can benefit from our experience and mentee to older faculty who can guide us further along the path we are already on. Ideally, we can be mentor and mentee to the same faculty member as we share with each other our successes and failures, victories and stumbles.
Earley shares some moving stories of how friends of his who were heading down a dead-end road were able to make a decisive turn back on to the narrow path after confiding in him their dark secrets. Earley includes himself among that number, having reached out himself to friends and family members who helped draw him back into the light.
We may not have dark secrets to share with our faculty friends, but we can, and must if we are to survive and thrive, share with them our sense of despair and powerlessness. All of us in the profession have experienced at some point a lesser, but no less confidence-shaking, sense of “impostor syndrome,” the fear that we lack the skills that everyone, including ourselves, thinks we have. Two years of COVID has particularly weakened our faith in the ability of our students to learn and our own ability to teach.
Rather than try to conceal our doubts and anxieties and go it alone, we can find relief, hope, and clarity by confiding in another faculty member who shares our passionate commitment to teaching and our bewilderment at the ever-increasing factors that seem hell-bent on preventing us from accomplishing our pedagogical goals.
Limit Digital Distractions
Let me say this as clearly as I can. None of us, myself included, is as adept as we think we are at filtering out the social media content with which we are daily deluged. As is now well known, Facebook and other sites use algorithms that determine what side of a political or social issue we favor and then carefully feed us extreme versions of that side.1 The effect of this constant stream of insular, often inflammatory information is to hold us in a state of constant tension, making us feel angry and powerless at the same time.
Although the algorithms are generally driven by a consumerist agenda that privileges advertising over politics, one of the effects they have on educators is to skew our view of the students in our classrooms. Rather than see each of them as a unique individual made in the image of God and in possession of inherent value and worth, our over-exposure to social media causes us, often unconsciously, to place them in various groups. It often causes us to do the same with our colleagues.
The incessant, grating state of low-level anxiety produced in us by social media erects invisible but tangible walls between professors and students and between colleagues on the same faculty. It also tends to foster a sense of despair and futility over the future of education in America. We may complain that students have less skills than they once had, or that they are distracted or lazy or entitled, but what we really mean is that we have lost hope. Not “how can I teach them?” but “what’s the point?” is the existential question that social media has taught us to ask.
Earley does well to call on his readers to limit their consumption of social media, and then carefully curate what they watch. He argues that turning control of our hearts over to consumer-driven algorithms cuts us off from a biblical understanding of beauty and justice and traps us in a narrow tribalism that prevents us from truly loving our neighbors.
I agree with Earley, but I would add that when the neighbors in question are our students, the tribal mindset inculcated by social media disrupts the transmission of goodness, truth, and beauty from one generation to the next. When the first concern that pops into our mind as we survey a new class of students is “what do they think about critical race theory or LGBTQ or immigration or environmentalism or mandatory masking” rather than “how can I best teach them to seek after that which is good, true, and beautiful,” we can be assured that the time has come to stop scrolling and shut off our phones.
Earley encourages regular fasting from food, but I think modern educators would do best to fast from social media—at least until their heads have cleared, and they can see their students as individual human beings eager to wrestle with ideas that will give their lives purpose, meaning, and direction, rather than as counters in a culture war that has even managed to politicize health and hospitals, viruses and vaccines.
Fasting from social media does not, of course, mean that we need to cease watching carefully curated films and television series. There is plenty of worthwhile content on streaming services that can challenge and deepen our thoughts on God, man, and the universe, or at least entertain us in a non-partisan way. Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Disney Plus all offer generous selections of older classics. Best of all, HBO MAX includes an entire hub devoted to Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which, in addition to the best movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, includes, under the “international” heading, dozens and dozens of the finest foreign films.
Balance Work, Leisure, and Prayer
In a perfect world, the COVID lockdowns would have afforded us an ideal opportunity to adopt a healthy, balanced regimen of work, leisure, and prayer. Sadly, for most of us, that did not happen. Isolation that might have flowered into meditative thought and centered prayer more often than not led to feelings of frustration, an inability to concentrate, and an atmosphere of brooding resentment. In such a mood, prayer becomes a burden, leisure is reduced to inanition, and work loses its joy.
We desperately need to rediscover the natural and biblical rhythms that ebb and flow through the haunting and ever timely “there is a season” passage in Ecclesiastes (3:1-8). There is a proper time for everything under the sun, and when we are out of alignment with God’s times and seasons, we lose our ability to work efficiently, rest profitably, and pray effectively.
In chapter 3 of Leisure, the Basis of Culture, German Catholic theologian Josef Pieper reminds his readers that the deadly sin of sloth (acedia or idleness) is not the same thing as laziness. In the High Middle Ages, it was believed that sloth “was precisely lack of leisure, an inability to be at leisure, that went together with idleness; that the restlessness of work-for-work’s-sake arose from nothing other than idleness.”2
Two years of COVID, when taken together with mounting political polarization and fears for our economic well-being and physical safety, have catapulted many of us into a kind of slothful funk where periods of spiritless, brain-fogged exhaustion alternate with bouts of frenzied work that is more hectic than hopeful.
Although Earley does not reference Pieper, and though his book predates the lockdowns, three of the spiritual disciplines he recommends have the potential to draw us out of our COVID-induced sloth and reinvigorate our work and our leisure: practice kneeling prayer three times a day; read scripture before turning on the phone; keep the sabbath. Though these disciplines may seem disconnected from our teaching, they help foster a steadiness of mind and spirit necessary for critical thinking and creative contemplation and sustain a mood that enables professors to move out of themselves toward their students.
COVID may have robbed us of our freedom of movement and our accustomed methods of teaching, but we need not let it steal away our hope, our sense of calling, and our desire to lead students into the light of truth. The best thing we can do for our students is to become whole people again, balanced in our minds, hearts, souls, and wills. Only then can we pass on with confidence and joy the tradition that has been passed down to us.