Read an interview with Sarah Rose Cavanagh, keynote speaker at the 2024 Teaching and Technology Summit.

Researcher and author Sarah Rose Cavanagh opened the Ball State March 21-22 Teaching and Technology Summit with “Hope in a Time of Monsters: Supporting Student and Faculty Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge.” In the following post, Cheri Madewell, director of instructional consultation, interviews Dr. Cavanagh about points from her book, Mind Over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge.

In your book Mind Over Monsters, you identify how teachers can support students with compassionate challenge. How might we lay the foundation for compassionate challenge through course design?

Let’s start with compassion, because compassion needs to come first. I think that a pedagogy of care is rooted in establishing a welcoming class environment with attention to inclusivity. We need to think strategically about how we are going to be sure that all of our students feel seen, feel invited to the conversation, and feel like they’re contributing to the journey of the class. Next I think it looks like what a lot of folks are calling “flexibility with guardrails.”

Draconian policies disadvantage many students, but principal among them first generation students, students struggling with mental health, and students with disabilities. On the challenge side of the equation, we do need those guardrails – most students succeed with some structure, transparency, and scaffolding. So instead of no deadlines, perhaps there are a limited number of tokens for missed assignments. Instead of no exams, we drop the lowest exam or have “two-stage” exams where students complete the exam once in a more traditional setting and then have the opportunity to make up some points they missed with an open-book or group setting follow-up. Finally, I think challenge also means having really high expectations for the intellectual contributions and the degree of learning your students can and will achieve.

How can we encourage our students to embrace the idea of “play” in our courses?

I love play! Play gets a bad rap in higher ed I think because it seems frivolous. But play is built into our very biology – lots of other animals play too – and it is all about learning, and about problem-solving, and about dealing with the unexpected. It also has great power to defuse stress and anxiety, because one has to feel a certain degree of safety to engage in play. I think instructors can play in the classroom by lowering stakes (to introduce that sense of a safe setting to take risks), building community and discussions with fun variety like gentle ice breakers and discussions grounded in movement), and infusing course material with some of the latest developments in your field.

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Can you share why it’s important that we should communicate to our students that they are “strong, that they are resilient, that they have autonomy over their lives, that they are competent, that they belong, and that they can choose a life on purpose?”

I spent the early part of my career studying how the appraisals we make – the interpretations, the stories, the explanations – can profoundly shape our emotions and our motivations. Human beings are ultrasocial, and especially in a highly structured social setting like a college class, the appraisals we make about our students’ abilities and potential are similarly going to have a profound effect. I don’t think a lot of instructors think pessimistically or cynically about the abilities or potential of their students – or at least, I would hope not – but I do think we can unintentionally convey that we don’t think our students are resilient, resourceful, and capable of great things when we veer too closely to what educator Zaretta Hammond calls “passive leniency.” If we believe our students are remarkable, they can begin to believe it too.

A common theme in your book is an emphasis on avoidance. Avoidance of our fears can lead to dread. You note that our course policies allow for or encourage avoidance. Can you expound on this?

Both emotion and motivation can be dialed down to our tendencies to either approach or avoid. Positive emotions and intrinsic motivation both induce approach, interest, learning. We approach reward and avoid threat. The problem is, very often we learn and grow when we approach things we’re uncertain about, even trepidatious about, and we find, if not actual reward in the experience, then at least a lack of harm. As facilitators of student learning and growth, I think we should encourage our students to approach what they’re nervous about – in technically safe settings where they feel they belong. I think about the classroom as a sandbox or playground of sorts – we do exhilarating, experimental things, but there are low stakes and we’re all technically safe.

  • Sarah Rose Cavanagh

    Sarah Rose Cavanagh is the Senior Associate Director for Teaching and Learning in the Center for Faculty Excellence at Simmons University, where she also teaches in the Psychology Department as an Associate Professor of Practice. She is the author of four books, including Mind Over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge (2023) and The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion (2016).

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  • Cheri Madewell

    Cheri is the director of instructional consultation on the Teaching Innovation Team. Prior to joining the Division of Online and Strategic Learning, she was a faculty member for the Ball State Women’s and Gender Studies Program. Cheri’s background is in instructional design and technologies and leading international gender and LGBTQ grant projects.

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