Reflection on Student Productivity and Angst

the zoom notebooks




David MalonePurpose, meaning, hope, productivity, happiness, success, stillness, present moment, future, ethical, inequitable, authenticity, ambition, hope, individual, communal– I have heard these words spoken by my students more often in the last few weeks than ever before as a college professor. Words perhaps now being used as a result of being thrust into a way of living that most of us are unaccustomed to — sitting still with ourselves.

More time and place for simply “being” – now that there is less opportunity for “doing.” And just “being” – as it turns out – can be a little scary and unsettling.

Particularly for young people whose entire lives up to this point may have been ones of “doing.”

A colleague emails me “In conversations I’ve had, students have talked about still using their planners to block out what they will do and accomplish even when it’s things like “take a walk,” “learn to knit,” or “read.” Makes me realize just how much this is a generation of kids scheduled since birth with play dates, sports, Gymboree, or whatever. Without the artificial organization of such things, it doesn’t feel quite right to them. Now they’re missing a sense of purpose in the absence of ticking off what they are supposed to do.” Clinging to certain notions of productivity and perpetual doing.

My students almost invariably frame these words as binaries – two competing ways of being in relational juxtaposition. Success versus happiness. Authenticity versus ambition. Individual achievement versus responsibilities to the communal collective. Driven versus laid back. Being fully present in the moment versus living in a strategically planned future. Even over Zoom I can see their minds processing binaries – I can feel their uncertainty and angst.

One student writes privately in the Zoom Chat: “What I’m struggling with most now is determining what values are most important to me: success or relationships. Which version of me will become happier and self-fulfilled? The authentic person with a soft heart, or the callous successful ambitious robot? Can a person have both?”

From my own Zoom square I try to tell my students that the present moment can be much more than the space between what was and what will be. I quote Abraham Maslow, “the ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.” They aren’t so sure. This is lost, wasted, unproductive time they say.

Over Zoom, we collectively grapple – attempting to make space for the wonderful possibilities that may exist between, outside, and otherwise. This exercise provokes uncertainty and anxiety amongst us all – yet we feel a certain hope and joy as we share feelings and thoughts – and sit together in stillness. Learning as Audre Lorde wrote – ways of “being” more fully in our “doing.”

David Malone, Ph.D., is a Professor of the Practice of Education and teaches for Kenan’s What Now? Network. His research and teaching interests are in educational psychology, school psychology, student-centered approaches to teaching and learning, experiential and service-learning, innovative educational approaches in higher education.

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