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Dr. Jenny Davidson, PhD

Professor of English and Comparative Literature

Dr. Jenny Davidson teaches seminar courses for both graduate and undergraduate students in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. While previously taught as fully in-person courses, the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020 required Dr. Davidson to rethink engagement and connection in courses intentionally designed for a mix of graduate and upper-level undergraduate students. Dr. Davidson met the moment by adopting a pedagogy of care to provide multiple ways of engagement, establishing trust and rapport with students, and being sensitive about and open with mental health and wellness. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Davidson did in her course, what lessons and experiences she’s carrying forward, and the advice she has for other instructors at Columbia. To hear more about Dr. Davidson’s innovations, listen to her interviews on the Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning podcast.

Adopt a Pedagogy of Care to Provide Multiple Ways of Engagement 

In my courses, I focus on quality rather than quantity in terms of work. In March 2020 when we switched online, I looked at the two syllabi that I was teaching for two classes, which were demanding upper-level seminars for both graduate and undergraduate students. One of the changes that I made was to review each week’s reading and produce a multi-tiered set of engagement options. 

One option was simply showing up and not having done any of the readings. I believe a good teacher in a literature seminar discussion can always use parts of the class for everyone to focus together on reading out loud a passage and reading it closely together. This can serve as a stand-in for some of the broader discussion that students would be having if they had all prepared it in advance of class. I assumed no preparation and allowed students to just come to class, and I focused on making accessible and bringing alive small well-chosen chunks of the reading material in class.

The second engagement option offered working with the down-and-dirty essentials. My own deep teacherly knowledge of the 150-200 pages of fairly challenging eighteenth-century prose I am likely to assign for each seminar meeting means that I know that out of that mass of reading, there’s probably a total of five or ten pages that contain the essentials: passages that are key to the reading as a whole and that will reward the students’ attention in a context where they had finite resources in terms of what I like call wherewithal. The term wherewithal means that we don’t have to go into specifics about a time crunch or a workload crunch or anything so concrete. It lets us think, as teachers and students, in terms of all of the life stressors a student might be grappling with in any given week in April 2020 so that they could make a reasonable choice about what they could devote to class preparation.

I strongly feel that the pandemic times showed us how much we need to move towards a pedagogy of care rather than a pedagogy of competition. I strive for excellence, and I believe my students do, too, but it is a misunderstanding of excellence to take it as the central value of teaching and learning. With all the circumstances that students and some of our colleagues face in crisis times–financial stressors, health and family concerns, housing uncertainties–how much can students retain and really understand? What is the core work that they can do to take away the essentials from the readings? It is critical to think about total stressors and consider giving students a range of options to engage in class, so that every student will have something that is right for them. 

Establish Trust and Rapport with Students 

During the pandemic, I became hyper aware of the fact that when teaching on Zoom, I needed to establish trust with my students that I would not waste their time. The cost of wasting time online meant that I would lose students much more easily and that they would get detached. I have been very lucky teaching at Columbia during the period where pandemic conditions restricted us to virtual learning to witness how many students were willing, even in a lecture, to keep their cameras on and be fully engaged in class.

I have always been willing to make myself vulnerable in the classroom and be transparent about my values, because it is incredibly important in building trust with my students. For instance, ever since I started teaching, when I have a student whose attendance has fallen off or who is having a difficult time submitting any written work, I have always said something like the following: “This does not affect my opinion of you. It does not affect my sense of you as an interesting, dedicated, ambitious, hardworking person. The letter grade on your transcript is not my judgment about you as an intellectual person, nor is it a judgment about you as a person more generally.” If it’s a student who I was able to get to know, in the event of applying for graduate school or jobs, I often offered to write the student a letter that would accompany their transcript that would contextualize by filling in what was actually happening during the semester when the student received a low grade. 

So in the first few class meetings of the semester, in a lecture especially, I make sure that students understand my attitude towards grades. I use the concept of finite wherewithal. I explain that if they have a parent who is very ill, if they are having a significant mental health crisis where they are constantly thinking about self-harm, or if they can barely show up for class, the work for class may legitimately not be a priority. I have always known that there are times when other things rightly should be a priority over one’s academic work.  

Be Sensitive About and Open with Mental Health and Wellness 

I have always had mental health struggles, and that personal history means that I’m highly attuned to the ways that mental health stresses can affect a student’s ability to show up, organize their study time or meet assignment deadlines.

During the pandemic, I feel that I did some of the best teaching of my life. I developed two entirely new courses. One involved revising my lecture introduction to the English major to make it much more diverse and inclusive. I also pioneered a new course for graduate students that’s about career pathways. Too many of the conversations faculty have with graduate students about their development and flourishing concentrate narrowly on academics.  I want to open up the space for conversations about the whole self. I talk to students, asking them what kind of lives they envision for themselves and what kind of work would be both fulfilling and offer sufficient compensation and acceptable working conditions. Both of these classes were very meaningful to me to teach, and I hope meaningful for the students.

But teaching like this burns you out like nothing else. It is very difficult to maintain boundaries when you are being so real and serious about what are truly matters of life and death. I always feel, in the humanities classroom, that we are this close at any given moment to going in deep on the real stakes that everybody is facing day to day. This is one reason I think that reading literature well is important. It’s not so much that it develops your empathy. It’s more that if you’re reading a poem, play, or novel, it’s never more than a slight stretch to go straight to the deepest questions about why and how we live.

It matters enormously to me to be able to be a generous teacher and mentor to the students who need it. But sometimes the need can feel bottomless. I feel very fortunate that I now have a year of research leave that’s going to let me return to a more normal equilibrium. I am ready to lose that sense of every day as an emergency, a matter of life or death. I would like to see everyone in the Columbia community talking more about mental health and wellness for faculty and staff as well as for students. I have the luxury of being a full professor and a leader (a very reluctant leader!) in the community. It is not very risky for me to make myself vulnerable by being open about my own experience with depression and anxiety. But for untenured tenure track professors, lecturers, graduate student instructors, and staff, there are higher barriers to bringing this kind of experience to the conversation. For two years now faculty and staff have put aside our own needs, trauma, and anxiety in order to tend to students’ wellness. That has certainly been very important and meaningful work, but when I look around, I see many of my most generous colleagues deep into burnout territory. So I would like all of us to start discussing our own mental health and wellness more openly and seriously.

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Give yourself permission to be unproductive. 

Give yourself the permission to be unproductive. I love writing and all I wanted in Spring 2020 was to get myself recovered enough after the semester so that I could sit down and write every day. But I did not do an ounce of my writing in Summer 2020. I just could not concentrate. I could hardly even concentrate to read a novel. The only thing I could really do was try and make it from one day to the next.

With this culture of productivity around tenure, writing and research, and so forth, I think it is very important for colleagues to hear from people like me, who are effectively gatekeepers as well as mentors, that the cost of ignoring your own mind and body’s messages that you’ve gone too far is much too high. There are plenty of times when it’s right to use some effort to make yourself sit down and work every day. But there are also times when it’s taking everything you’ve got just to get through each day without meltdown. There is no professional goal that is worth the kind of damage to yourself that results from pushing too hard when you’ve got nothing left. 

I support openness about mental health and wellness, the importance of boundaries, as well as a regular reminder that it is not, as they say, a level playing field for everyone. For example, most female faculty and faculty members of color will have disproportionate draws on their resources in terms of student needs. So these kinds of unequal workload, plus the different sorts of financial pressures and care responsibilities that different people face, tended to really snowball under pandemic conditions. I hope we as a community can continue to address these issues as the sense of emergency fades somewhat. It is key to supporting each other and further advancing the culture of teaching and learning at Columbia.

Recognize the value of being together in community. 

When we were back in person last year, I was very glad that I could avail myself as an instructor of the exception from the masking rule.  An instructor who could remain six feet away from students was allowed to teach unmasked even during the period of the universal indoor mask mandate.  Students having to wear masks for safety reasons did pose some challenges. It was more difficult for them to interact with each other, especially if there were students joining remotely. So I remember the palpable relief we had on the day that we could all come into the classroom without masks. I came to recognize the value of being together in community and freely communicating with each other with emotional richness, fully expressing ourselves with our faces, gestures, voices, words, and other multimodal ways. I can build community virtually as well, I can teach well enough virtually, but for me it’s not an adequate substitute for face-to-face learning.