Finding My Way through the Turbulence of Educational Culture
On the first day of the semester I come across one of my students huddled in her car, shivering, crippled by panic. Later that morning, another student begins to cry as I walk with her toward the bookstore. She is overwhelmed, distraught about her inability to cope, and feels herself sliding into a familiar spiral of despair. In the early evening, as I pass through the university grounds on my way home, a third student approaches. He tells me of his depression, of his addiction to video games, and of his struggles with identity and direction. I listen, as I have done with the others. I offer help in small ways that I hope might be useful. And I recognize that I will participate in many more of these conversations in the coming months. They are a routine part of the work that I do with university students.
When I first came to teach Creative Writing at the university, after many years of therapeutic practice in the expressive arts, I did not expect to discover this avalanche of distress. I thought that the quiet campus with its verdant grounds and eager students would be a healthier, more stable environment than the contexts of trauma, addictions, and homelessness in which I had previously worked. I believed that the combination of youth, ambition, and education would yield a more resilient population. I was somewhat worried that I might miss the turbulence of my therapeutic work, with its moments of great urgency and intensity. I wondered if the university might be a staid place where my counseling skills would have no place. I was wrong.
I began to be drawn into therapeutic conversations as soon as I arrived. Personal distress and upheaval were — and still are — everywhere in the university system. I encountered students with debilitating anxiety and depression in every class. Students approached me to discuss domestic violence and abuse, challenges with addictions and purposelessness, thoughts of suicide. Grief, isolation, terror, rage, numbness, cutting, healing: it was all there, and right on the surface, in plain view of anyone with a shred of empathy. But it was hidden, too, by an academic culture unprepared and ill-suited to grappling with the landscape of the inner life. I was continually reminded of the similarity between academia and a family home with an alcoholic parent: great and endless distress, hidden by silence, crumbling yet defiant, proud of a burnished past, drowning in the present.
I thought about what I could do. I wondered about the creative practices I had used elsewhere, and ancient ways of knowing, and the power of arts, and of nature, and of storytelling. I chose one of those threads — simple creative play — and I started. But, in actuality, creative play is not simple: it provokes, nudges, calls, yearns, demands. Creativity is an exemplary teacher of all things useful to learn. It is the source of all of our human tricks, the root of every advancement, innovation, and folly. All of humanity is the result of the creative urge at play in the world. And so I found myself, over the course of months and then years, trying to help students snatch a thread of that great, interlocking knot of human creative inquiry. I constructed learning environments to help them find their own symbols, associations, meanings, ideas, dreams. I encouraged them to pull on the deep threads of their own lives and to grapple with their cargo of mysteries. It was not difficult to do. They were ready, perhaps even hungry, for such experiences. And besides, the thread is always there, and so too the deep, and the urge to pull. Sometimes the weight of that cargo pulls us overboard, and down into the deep, where we flail and cry out and try to find our way. It’s dark down there. It helps to have a lantern.
I designed six, elective, for-credit, expressive arts courses focused on the complexities and challenges of personal development. I facilitated non-credit evening sessions for students to construct spiraling labyrinths together, to walk through the structures in the dark, and to carry paper lanterns festooned with personal symbols and meanings. I brought drums and rhythm instruments to these sessions and to the classrooms. I encouraged students to paint, to draw, to move, and to craft metaphoric objects of all kinds. I stopped calling them students and began to refer to them as learners. Increasingly I found myself getting out of the way, trying not to be the expert, moving aside for authentic learning – the kind that teaches us why we are in the world. Facilitating openness and personal discovery, encouraging it, waiting for it: I came to see these as my core tasks and mentorship as my fundamental role.
Learners filled the courses and sessions beyond capacity every semester, and they began to speak of the usefulness of their experiences. They spoke of greater clarity, direction, and hope. Conversely the university community looked upon my initiatives first with discomfort, then with dismissiveness, and finally with disdain. I recognized that I was doing something radical without meaning to. But I was buoyed by the learners, who consistently spoke of their passage through personal darkness, carrying their fragile illumination, and of their discovery, clarity, and recognition of their own tasks of healing. I began to envision that our activities might become a formalized program, a spiraling path of personal development within academia and reaching back to ancient roots in art, ritual, and cultural wisdom.
We pressed on, crafting new courses and activities. In small and ever-evolving groups we explored nature, we traveled to the Amazon, and we constructed expressive arts installations throughout the campus. One of those installations was a tree of messages, with notes of encouragement and hopefulness for those who paused in passing. We learned that the rhythms of our drumming encouraged empathy and community. Our movements through our makeshift labyrinths encouraged self-awareness and insight. And our odysseys in nature helped learners to craft character and vision. We continued to build with whatever we could find, moving ever onward. At each session and in every class I saw laughing and genuine faces, and I was heartened. I began to wonder what would happen if therapeutic creative activities were more common in university. And I became aware of my own deep learning, my gratitude that in our world of fractured thrashing the impulse for illumination still thrives.
For a long time I ruminated about the culture of the university, and of the vast distance between a traditional classroom and our creative adventures. I marveled that outliers and wanderers were making a claim for a kind of learning that is old beyond reckoning. Such learning calls upon us to be adaptive, less hidebound, more in tune with our connections to ourselves, to one another, to the world. It felt good.
But it was not enough. Our community of anyone and everyone, our shared vision of a formalized, for-credit program of purposeful and personal discovery, our intent to craft and carry our own light through darkness and mystery: it lofted with a hopeful purpose and then fell, slowly, and is now gone. It was too much, finally, for a university culture with values aligned to outcomes and not process, knowledge and not wisdom. The university is not a therapeutic community. I knew this, and yet I persisted. I wanted to help learners heal and grow. Such a goal seemed sufficiently urgent to promote organizational change. But the tension between my aims and those of the university eventually led to an impasse that I could not bridge. Administrative roadblocks were constructed, seemingly small at first but eventually insurmountable. It became clear that there would be no formalized program, no therapeutic community, no endorsement from the university community. Eventually it became impossible for me to keep going. The university, perhaps inevitably, repudiated a vision that failed to meet its purpose and mandate.
For a time I became disheartened. I was drawn overboard, and down into the spiraling deep. But those learners had not lost their hard-won illumination, and they reached for me, with encouragement and hope that we might continue together. Without a program, without any definite way forward, they showed great courage and resilience. They kept going, with persistence and openness and defiance. They offered me, in kind, what I had tried to provide for them.
It has been a year since I abandoned my efforts to create an expressive arts program. I have returned to teaching Creative Writing. The emotional environment of the university has not changed. The semesters still begin the same way, with distress and overwhelm. And each semester continues to be freighted with the countless personal crises and challenges of learners. The framework I envisioned to help change this dynamic is gone. Yet I am still present, and I am finding new ways to be of service. Learners have come to me with ideas for therapeutic rock climbing, for new journeys in nature, for creative contributions within and beyond the classroom. I do not know how, or if, these initiatives will come to pass. But some of them surely will, and not because of my efforts alone. Rather, the alchemy of our nascent creative community has ignited a small lantern for each of us to carry. My own lantern flickers in the dark, growing stronger and more hopeful.