Centering care in higher education

This year, FI fellows have decided to reflect on care. After a long and difficult year and a half, when physical and mental illness have disrupted all our practices and routines, it seems like an excellent opportunity to avoid returning back to ‘normal’ – when higher education and well-being (and more broadly work and well-being) were too-rarely considered linked concepts.

Why is this important? Increasingly, both as students and higher education workers, we receive and relay injunctions to remind ourselves to implement strategies of self-care. Self-care, however, seems like a narrow understanding of care. Though it is fundamental, it is only a small part of what is necessary to create a healthy and caring environment in higher education institutions. What would it look like then to center higher education around care? To illustrate this post, I chose an illustration of the milpa, the portion of land used to cultivate maiz (corn) in Mexico. In this mesoamerican agroecosystem, the maiz grows along frijoles, calabaza (beans and pumpkin) and chile , all native plants.Together, the four plants protect each other from natural diseases and insects. The milpa system is considered to be an alternative option to intensive industrial agriculture since it does not rely on chemical inputs and respects native ecosystems while ensuring yields. I think it is a good example of how to envision systems of collective care.

Let’s think about self-care and the contradictions we face when trying to take care of ourselves. I am writing this post on a sunny Sunday morning, because I couldn’t find time to write it during my week of work. Last week, I wrote an abstract on Saturday afternoon. While I generally enjoy writing from home, with a coffee, I must recognize that I also really need to be outside walking in the sun. It is likely that I need to find better strategies in order to achieve the work-life balance everyone speaks about (and so few seem to get). But it is also important to recognize that the pace of higher-education is not designed to encourage work-life balance, self-care or even well-being in general. It is on each one of us -individually- to find solutions. But what if we created collective instances to slow the pace? What if we took time to recognize the work we and our peers do, and slow it down a little bit so everyone can take a breath and actually get time and space to be well?

Let’s also think about the spaces of care. What if instead of centering self-care – limited to the private spaces of our lives, we actually created collective spaces of care?  Many of us do. I think this is one of the most important values of our work at FI. I have listened to fellows explaining how they start their classes as adjunct asking the students to express their feelings in different ways. For instance, I heard my colleague Kashema Hutchinson, co-director of the Pear Leaders Program,  asking ‘share how you feel with a number from one to ten, ten being ‘I feel amazing’ and reiterating the question at the end of the class to evaluate how the students feelings had changed. Another example: each week, one of the fellows has to facilitate a Future’s Initiative team meeting. The icebreaker frequently relates to sharing a positive experience or preference (another colleague, Sujung Kim -Senior Research Fellow with the Humanities Alliance, asked us to share our favorite tree a few weeks ago).

The central moment of our meeting is the collaborative agenda, where every person present at the meeting submits the topic(s) they need support with; where everyone gets to listen to other fellow’s work and suggest ideas. This is a very important mechanism of teamwork but also of care: we create a space where we can actually share our challenges and receive active support to face them. Several fellows have chosen to end the meeting with activities around care and well-being. In that sense, FI is a powerful space to share and implement strategies of care oriented towards others: students and peers. Through programs such as the Peer-Leaders (working with undergrad students of the CUNY Community) or the Humanities Alliance (working with administrators and grad-students teaching at Community Colleges), FI engages with the implementation of alternative strategies to promote care within the community.

A university centered around care needs to overcome the temptation to rely merely on individual self-care. Centering care, hence well-being, is making sure its community finds time and space to create mechanisms of support, and engages with the pressing issues students and workers face (material conditions for studying and working being central in this process). For me, it is also an institution that engages with the well-being of its wider community, recognizing the issues faced by those who cannot attend but share a place with the institution: the neighboring communities. By actively taking part to solve the social and environmental challenges through participative research projects and community science, the University can be a powerful agent of well-being. Like in the milpa system, everyone is necessary to the collective well-being.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309