The passing of a family member and brief hospital admission marked my first two months at McGill. (Please keep reading, I promise I won’t regale you with a tale of woe here.) Thanks to an advisor at the Office of Advising and Student Information Services (OASIS), I was able to withdraw from courses or defer exams, finishing my first year largely academically unscathed. My situation was not unique – almost all of my peers have experienced some difficulty that was detrimental to their wellness. After speaking with more students, I realized that I was incredibly fortunate to have accessed and been supported by resources at McGill (OASIS, McGill Counselling, McGill Students’ Nightline). While a variety of on-campus services for student support exist, many students are either unaware of or are unable to access them for a variety of reasons. As a result, some students do not receive support from McGill and the challenges they face significantly hinder their ability to learn. (Read student testimonials here, here and here.)
After my first year, I began volunteering with peer support organizations and psycho-education groups, and I felt incredibly grateful to be a member of supportive, empathetic communities. But, I was still wondering about larger, structural issues at hand. I started thinking about how we could reduce the barriers that student experience when seeking support. Needless to say, this is an overwhelming task! What seemed easier to me (retrospectively, it was more difficult than I anticipated) was to look at how students could be supported where they already are. So, I started thinking about how students could be supported in the classroom, the one place all students go, and how they might experience the care of supportive communities there.
One might argue that cultures and goals of classrooms and mental health support organizations are vastly different. Classrooms are fundamentally concerned with education and the advancement of learning. On the other hand, mental health support organizations are by nature dedicated to providing support. Despite this obvious divergence, I think it’s necessary to question why academic environments must be so distinct from “supportive communities”. When the challenges student face outside of the classroom may inhibit their ability to learn in the classroom, this natural connection between pedagogy and support becomes more apparent.
The intersection between pedagogy and support isn’t novel, but it’s often overlooked as an integral part of many post-secondary institutions’ strategies for mental health and wellness. With one third of the student population experiencing mental health concerns, it’s clear that McGillians are in need of holistic, multi-faceted support. Why then is our university, an institution dedicated to the academic flourishing of young people, not using its primary locus of interaction with all students (i.e. the classroom) to provide support? Pedagogy rooted in support for students student can foster belongingness and community, and is a fundamental component of an institution that promotes the wellbeing of its students.
So, what might a “pedagogy rooted in support for students” look like? It is not asking instructors to assume the role of psychiatrists. Recognizing boundaries and limits is best for instructors and students alike. It also does not look like sacrificing academic rigour. Instead, it might look like basic training in active listening and developing a knowledge of resources available to students. Or, it might look like purposefully selecting pedagogical strategies that foster student-student and student-instructor connections. It might look like purposefully building community in the classroom.
Two years ago, Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) and the Faculty of Arts embarked upon a project to provide instructors with a comprehensive resource to build community in the classroom. This serendipitous collaboration arose from discussions about student support at the Faculty of Arts Committee on Student Affairs and a desire for collaboration between TLS and the Faculty of Arts. The “Faculty of Arts Toolkit for Building Community in the Classroom” was developed for instructors throughout the spring and summer of 2017, and piloted with eight instructors in the Faculty of Arts during the 2017 fall semester. It includes concrete tools for course design (pedagogical strategies), supporting students in difficulty, getting feedback from students on community in the classroom and self-care for instructors. The toolkit is a work in progress and we are beginning to develop a second version using feedback from the pilot and community consultations. We are currently gathering examples and testimonials, so please do let us know if you have experienced community in a McGill classroom, or if you know or are an instructor who is actively working towards this goal!