Thriving Faculty is a regular column highlighting individual or collective UBC Faculty who exemplify integration of health and wellbeing into their classrooms, research, departments and/or communities. Thriving Faculty support others’ health and wellbeing in addition to making a commitment to their own self-care. This column highlights personal and professional stories of Thriving Faculty.
Read an interview with Carla Nappi
1. What are central challenges you face in your role as Faculty?
The central challenges I face as a faculty member are largely issues of balance. Balancing my responsibilities to myself with my responsibilities to the various communities I’m part of. Reconciling my duties as a member of an institution to my duties to the individuals within that institution, especially when those duties are in direct conflict. Getting enough sleep. Remembering to step away from the unending cycle of judging-and-being-judged so that I’m not constantly measuring myself in someone else’s terms. Getting enough sleep. Especially during the early years before tenure, remembering to step back and laugh at myself every once in a while, and reminding myself not to turn into a horrible stinking tenure-track go-go-golem molded out of power bars, coffee grinds, and the shredded bits of old CVs and job applications. Learning how to navigate my perceived service obligations to the university in order to distinguish those battles worth fighting from those that aren’t. Also, have I mentioned the importance and challenge of getting enough sleep?
2. Based on your experiences, please describe the relationship between student mental health & wellbeing and learning.
I teach courses on the history of medicine and health, and an important part of what I try to convey to students is that those notions that we take for granted as measures of our emotional wellbeing (“mental health,” “balance,” etc.) are rooted in very specific historical, social, and political contexts. We need not accept them unthinkingly as necessary and determined concepts with which to describe and measure ourselves. What that does is to open up a huge range of possibilities for taking agency in understanding and shepherding one’s own mental and emotional wellbeing. How we visualize our selves, minds, bodies – the metaphors we use to describe ourselves – determines how we live. Those metaphors are often plucked from our cultural and media landscapes without our being aware of it. Do you understand your body and mind as a kind of ecosystem? Then most likely you’ll strive for balance as a way to live optimally. Do you think of your self in terms of a machine? Then you will tend to try to optimize productivity in the choices you make for how to live. Are you a river or a pond? Then you might strive to achieve a kind of calm, stillness, or quiet. It can be transformative to realize that whatever model you have come to use to understand your body and mind is not a given – it is only one possibility that emerges from a particular social/cultural/political context – and thus there are options. Once you realize that, you realize that a crucial part of the learning you’re doing at the university level has to involve learning about yourself – what are your goals, here at UBC? What does fulfillment look like for you and what do you need to do for yourself in order to help you figure that out? How do you understand your body and mind, and (whatever the answer is) what do you need to do to help yourself be the best version of that you can be, whatever “best” means in that context?
For me, living in a way that helps each of us be our best selves is a matter of self-acceptance: understanding what your tendencies are, working with the grain and knots of that wood rather than against them, and rolling with the difficulties as well as the pleasant bits. Learning how to roll is a process that can take a lifetime. This is true of all of us who make up the university community: students, faculty, and staff. We’re all engaged in learning on some level, whether it’s in the classroom or behind a desk or walking or driving across the university grounds. For students in particular, the experience of what’s happening in the classroom or in the context of course-related work is deeply entangled with the broader processes of Figuring Yourself Out that are happening at the same time. A student’s performance in coursework tends to be related to where that student is within that larger context. So the question becomes, how do we take that into account when designing the semester-long classroom encounter? I don’t have the answer. I’m still trying to figure that out. But at the very least, I try to be thoughtful about this issue in my role as a teacher.
3. What strategies do you use in your own life, that help you thrive as Faculty?
Honestly, I don’t always feel that I am thriving. One of the strategies I use to keep myself (relatively) sane is to remind myself that it’s okay when that’s the case. It’s important to be kind to ourselves – to embrace our idiosyncrasies, to understand that we all have difficult times, and to try not to be too hard on ourselves when we’re not as efficient, stable, happy, companionable, productive, pleasant-smelling, etc. as we’d like to be. So, I try to remember that.
I try to keep a sense of humor about things. Also really important for me is music. Playing with music in all forms. I play the banjo very, very badly. I can make sounds with a Theremin. And the times when I feel my best are the times when I am regularly playing or listening to something. During particularly bad workweeks I’ll come into work early, put my iPod on REALLY loudly and dance around my office for a half hour or so. (I have very understanding office-neighbors in Buchanan Tower.)
Invariably, I’ll forget all of these things and by the end of a semester (or sometimes well before) I’ll find myself completely burnt out. I’m talking about ‘Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200’ burnt out. When that happens, Productive Carla shuts off and Recovery Mode Carla takes over. This usually involves binge-watching TV (I am not above downloading past seasons of Survivor that I’ve already watched and blowing two days on a Jeff-Probst-and-take-out-sushi marathon), taking a lot of LUSH-bath-bomb-filled baths, reading lots of vampire- or gunslinger-filled fiction, and trying to get back some of the control over household life (laundry, groceries, etc.) that I will undoubtedly have lost at that point. It helps that I have a very understanding partner who recognizes Recovery Mode Carla and makes room for her in our household when necessary.
4. Are there any resources on campus that you have found to be helpful for promoting wellbeing for either yourself or your students?
I have a new coffeemaker in my office. And I just ordered an inflatable camping sleep-pad and camping pillow so that when I take naps in my office during particularly sleep-light weeks I don’t wake up with the imprint of my sleeve on the side of my face. When taken together, these tools promote both my wellbeing and (by association) that of my students.
Carla Nappi is Associate Professor of History and Canada Research Chair in Early Modern Studies at UBC. She works on the history of medicine, science, and translation in early modern China, and is the podcast host of New Books in East Asian Studies and New Books in Science, Technology, and Society. For more about her (including gratuitous photos of her unusually attractive cat posing with books), visit www.carlanappi.com.