SIP 14.8 Are Faculty Members and Students Languishing?

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Student studying near stack of books and looking stressed.

Are either of these scenarios familiar?

1) Your students seem engaged in class and ask good questions, but when the first assignment is due, more of them than usual don’t submit any work.

2) You are preparing to teach a class on a subject you usually feel energized by, but this time feels different. You find yourself struggling to even concentrate on the subject; your mind is drifting to mundane household tasks. Where’s your usual spark?

Are you and your students possibly languishing? People who are languishing feel like everything is on hold, and they have no sense of that immobility ever expiring. It is a feeling of stagnation and emptiness.

Take a SIP of this: Are faculty members and students languishing?

In April, a New York Times column by Adam Grant gave many of us a name for that “joyless and aimless” feeling we had been having: languishing. Languishing is distinguished from burnout in that the languishing person has energy, but it just seems like too much effort to apply it. It is the middle ground between depression and flourishing, characterized by “a lack of well-being.” The theory Grant presented is that the long period of uncertainty, fear and grief brought on by the pandemic has plunged many of us into languishing.

Grant describes several things that languishing people can do to move toward flourishing, including noticing progress and making time less fragmented. Here are some suggestions to help faculty members and students overcome languishing.

  1. Give yourself and your students opportunities to see progress being made. In the classroom, this may mean having students write for five minutes about something they didn’t understand or couldn’t do at the beginning of the semester but can now. For faculty members, it could be keeping a list of ongoing projects and checking in with each one every couple of weeks to note the progress made. For students and faculty members, five minutes of class time devoted to writing on the board a list of wins from the past few weeks could be helpful.
  2. Break large projects and assignments into small steps or goals so you and your students can get a sense of accomplishment by crossing items off a list. Faculty members could reframe “write an article” as “read the 10 most cited sources on the topic, outline the article, integrate source material, integrate original research,” etc. A large assignment for students, such as “write a research paper” could be broken down similarly, with milestone dates given for each step and five minutes of classroom time given regularly for students to check in about milestones met. In math or engineering classes, problems can be broken down into small steps to make them more manageable.
  3. You’ve heard it before, and it’s true: Constantly interrupting what you’re doing to check your phone is bad for you (and your students). Consider leaving your phone in another room when you start working on class prep or a presentation. Turn off the alerts on your phone and email. Also, ask your students to put their phones away at the beginning of class (but be sensitive that some students may need their phones for legitimate purposes during class, such as calling up online readings, using accessibility features, etc., so don’t make it a hard-and-fast rule).
  4. Create and look for opportunities for connection. Give students a chance to learn about one another in meaningful ways, even if it’s not explicitly related to the course you teach. Perhaps give them a few minutes at the end of a class to talk about their favorite downtime activities, reminding them that having hobbies is connected to well-being. Make time yourself to grab a cup of coffee with a colleague. Remind your students and yourself that many people are struggling with the emotional fallout of the pandemic.
  5. Find new challenges to engage with. This can be an avenue into that amazingly productive state known as “flow.” When you are immersed in an activity, you are experiencing flow. You can build flow into your classes by using field trips, lab experiences and other types of work that are kinesthetic and participatory. If your classes or Covid restrictions preclude these types of activities, consider giving a brief lecture on flow theory (or just show this video and then giving students a few minutes to brainstorm non-class-related activities they can engage in to get that flow feeling back.
  6. Remind yourself and your students of how you learn best. The past year, with its unprecedented challenges to usual classroom practices, may have caused us to forget what we used to know about how we learn best. It might be helpful for all of us to engage in some metacognitive reflection to jog our memories about how we used to learn. For more on this, check out SIP 4.12: developing learner self-awareness.

It can also be helpful to talk to colleagues and students about languishing. Simply having a name for the blah feeling makes it easier to talk about, acknowledge it and, if necessary, seek out help.

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