Academic home work: Of Zoom and coronavirus

Law and Psychology Lab at Suffolk Law goes online

Well folks, my work as a law professor these days often boils down to one word: Zoom.

If you’re aware of what’s going on at colleges and universities around the world during the coronavirus crisis, then you’ve likely heard of a videoconferencing platform called Zoom. Zoom is a fairly easy-to-use system that allows us to hold classes, meetings, and seminars in real time. In order to safeguard public health, we’re experiencing a sudden, massive migration of instruction to online formats, and Zoom has been the most popular platform for delivering courses. Suffolk University here in Boston is no exception.

Yesterday I taught two classes, Employment Law and Law and Psychology Lab, on Zoom. I’ve included above the “class picture” I took of our Law and Psychology Lab session last evening — with the students’ kind permission, of course!

How does this compare with face-to-face teaching? Let me start by saying that I appreciate having a serviceable online platform that allows us to create a decent semblance of an in-person class session. Without Zoom and similar services, our only other option would be to record and post lectures. While some professors are doing this, I’m attempting, to the degree possible, to maintain a regular class schedule with live sessions.

Furthermore, I’m proud that our students are doing their best to navigate these very difficult and uncertain circumstances. Not only has the mode of instruction changed dramatically, but also important matters such jobs and summer internships, scheduling of bar examinations, and the like remain unsettled. A lot of plans have been thrown into disarray. I have long said that the classic Suffolk Law student is smart, hardworking, and not entitled. Those characteristics are being put to the test right now.

Of course, I’m grateful that I can work and receive a paycheck at a time when unemployment rates are soaring to stunning levels and businesses are taking a beating. While I am confident that we’ll see effective treatments and vaccines for this virus, until they arrive on the scene, our economy will be in upheaval. The process of re-opening our economic lives (not to mention our social and civic lives) will take time as well.

Indeed, I look forward to the day when we can return to our physical classrooms. I think a lot of our students feel the same way. I’m hearing that the experience of attending classes via video conferencing is proving to be tiring. Some of us are reporting headaches from so much time spent in front of computer screens. I think I will need to engage in healthier social distancing from my laptop during the upcoming weeks and months.

In any event, mine are but small adjustments compared to the challenges facing health care providers and other essential workers who are putting themselves on the line for us every day, as well as the millions who are scrambling to pay rent and basic living expenses. For those of us able to work from home, our jobs — our responsibilities, I’d say — include making the best of this situation, being generous when it comes to supporting others, and practicing safe health habits for the benefit of all.

We bailed out Wall Street during the Great Recession, so let’s bail out Main Street and everyday people during the coronavirus crisis

(image courtesy Clipart Panda)

When the stock market crashed in 2008 and the world of high finance took a tremendous hit, the U.S. federal government came along and gave huge bailouts to Wall Street and its siblings. Most experts agrees that these dramatic moves were necessary in order to save the nation’s financial infrastructure.

Today, small businesses, non-profits, and individual employees are among those taking the hardest hit, as the economy essentially goes into quarantine due to the coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis. A lot of folks are understandably fearful about what their companies, organizations, and personal finances will look like during the weeks and months to come.

I’m not a public health expert, but drawing upon the mountain of information and commentary available, it appears that we’re at least a year away from widespread availability of a vaccine. In the meantime, a lot of very smart people are trying out different treatment approaches, but there’s no magic bullet for now. As I see it, this uncertainty is very likely to continue into next year.

All of which suggests that our elected and appointed officials, and other leaders in the business and non-profit sectors, must lead with a commitment to create a stronger social safety net and support for rebuilding businesses and organizations — while our medical and scientific communities work on treatments and vaccines that I’m confident we’ll eventually have to blunt this virus. It would help a lot if those promises — however unsupported by details at this moment — were made now, in order to soothe some of the anxiety and sadness that we’re already seeing.

Life and work during coronavirus: We need large supplies of kindness

(image courtesy of cliparting.com)

Dear Readers, for the past few days I’ve been mulling over what to write about the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation and its relation to the everyday experience of work.

But as I took sparsely populated Boston subway trains to and from my university office today, I realized that all I wanted to say is that we need to be kind to each other during this challenging and scary time.

To offer a few examples: If folks are starting to work from home, please make an extra effort to express appreciation to those who must show up to work because they have no other choice. If you do patronize a business where workers rely on tip income, be generous if you can afford it, because it’s likely that they’re hurting. And by all means, please don’t hoard supplies of paper goods, food, hand sanitizer, and whatever. 

Life can be hard enough without a pandemic hanging over our heads. Hopefully we can minimize the impact of this virus while holding on to our best selves.

On living an “undivided life”

Parker J. Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life may have been published originally back in 2004, but it seems to have a special significance for today’s world.

Palmer suggests that many folks are living a “divided life” that can manifest in several ways:

  • “We refuse to invest ourselves in our work, diminishing its quality and distancing ourselves from those it is meant to serve”;
  • “We make our living at jobs that violate our basic values, even when survival does not absolutely demand it”;
  • “We remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirits”;
  • “We harbor secrets to achieve personal gain at the expense of other people”;
  • “We hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us to avoid conflict, challenge, and change”; and,
  • “We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked”

Palmer says that we’re living in a “wounded world,” and it sure feels that way at times. (U.S. readers who wake up each morning to news of the latest mass shootings may specially agree.) Much of his book examines how to do inner work in response to these outer realities.

If this sounds interesting to you, then I recommend the paperback edition that includes a very detailed reader’s guide and a DVD with interviews of Palmer.

Authenticity

The themes contained in A Hidden Wholeness also resonate with the notion of personal authenticity, which I have commented on in previous entries. The professions, especially, can foster an emphasis on posturing as opposed to authenticity. As I wrote back in 2014:

What do I mean by posturing? In the context of meetings and conferences, posturing is the practice of saying “learned” things or raising “clever” questions primarily to make an impression, rather than to enrich a discussion. The two fields I am most familiar with, academe and law, are positively rife with posturing.

I’ve also suggested that inauthenticity at work can plant the seeds for an early midlife crisis. From 2013:

As a law student, lawyer, and law professor, I’ve spent a lot of time around people whose career ambitions are largely defined by others. To some extent, I have internalized some of those messages myself.

But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to pick and choose wisely among these markers of achievement. If you fail to do so, you may find yourself living an inauthentic life (at least the part spent at work), and your psyche may struggle with the grudging realization that you’re pursuing someone else’s definition of success. It’s an easy recipe for a midlife crisis.

In sum, it’s hard to be true to one’s self by living an inauthentic and divided life. Here’s to more wholeness for all of us.

Johann Hari on the causes of, and healing responses to, depression

Depression is one of our most significant public health challenges. And as too many readers of this blog know from first-hand experience, depression is a common result of severe bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work. Fortunately, we are gaining a stronger understanding of depression and how to treat it. Contributing to a thoughtful and provocative discussion on this important topic is Johann Hari’s Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions (2018).

Hari is an investigative journalist who has lived with depression since childhood. His own experiences caused him to dig deep into understanding depression and anxiety and how we might respond to it. In essence, he includes, but goes beyond, potential organic causes of depression and looks for possible roots in our broader society. Consequently he is helping to prompt a more expansive exploration of depression and potential healing and treatment approaches.

I’m going to borrow from the book’s table of contents to outline his proposed causes and responses to depression:

Causes of Depression and Anxiety

  • “Disconnection from Meaningful Work”
  • “Disconnection from Other People”
  • “Disconnection from Meaningful Values”
  • “Disconnection from Childhood Trauma”
  • “Disconnection from Status and Respect”
  • “Disconnection from the Natural World”
  • “Disconnection from a Hopeful or Secure Future”
  • “The Real Roles of Genes and Brain Changes”

Reconnection as a “Different Kind of Antidepressant”

  • “To Other People”
  • “Social Prescribing”
  • “To Meaningful Work”
  • “To Meaningful Values”
  • “Sympathetic Joy, and Overcoming Addiction to the Self”
  • “Acknowledging and Overcoming Childhood Trauma”
  • “Restoring the Future”

Although I’m not a clinical psychologist, I’m confident in saying that Hari is onto something here with his research, analyses, and insights. Many of the chapter headings speak directly to the impacts of work abuse. I know that I’ll be spending more time with this book in order to build my understanding of depression and how we can respond to it.

Are we preaching wellness to wave off a closer look at core societal problems?

 

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Journalist Laurie Penny, in a terrific piece for the punchy journal The Baffler, takes aim at the messaging of self-care and wellness from Powers That Be that may obscure a closer look at deeper societal problems:

The slow collapse of the social contract is the backdrop for a modern mania for clean eating, healthy living, personal productivity, and “radical self-love”—the insistence that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we can achieve a meaningful existence by maintaining a positive outlook, following our bliss, and doing a few hamstring stretches as the planet burns.

She posits that this “wellbeing ideology is a symptom of a broader political disease,” one that renders us believing that we can improve our lives only on an individual level. Thus, we are conditioned to assume “that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted,” the problem is one not of our economic system, but rather of personal fault:

The lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are.

Such a belief system may foreclose us “from even considering a broader, more collective reaction to the crises of work, poverty, and injustice.”

Individual vs. social change

To her credit, Penny does not dismiss the benefits of self-care and healthy living choices, confessing “that I’ve been doing yoga for two years and it’s changed my life to an extent that I almost resent.” But, at the very least, she’s asserting that the pendulum has swung away too far from societal perspectives on, and collective solutions to, conditions that stoke suffering, injustice, and deprivation.

Bingo. Especially here in the States, the wellness stuff may be a softer, gentler version of old fashioned American rugged individualism, embracing the myth that you make it or miss it on your own. Don’t get me wrong, being accountable to ourselves is a good thing. But all the personal responsibility in the world doesn’t make up for a stacked deck and abuses of power.

If we want to make the world a better place, we have to work on ourselves and our institutions and our communities, yes?

Applied to the workplace

This imbalanced focus on the individual captures why I have a problem with many workplace wellness programs. Standing in isolation, wellness programs are fine things. However, it is wholly ironic that these programs can pop up in workplaces that unnecessarily generate the very stressors and unhealthy living habits these programs are designed to address. Treating workers with dignity — including (at the very least) a living wage, fair employment practices, and a decent work environment — is the best employer-sponsored wellness program of all!

Of course, the individual vs. social change dichotomy can manifest itself in more dire workplace situations as well. For example, too many complaints about workplace bullying are dismissed as personality conflicts, and all too often the target of the mistreatment is blamed for somehow not adequately managing the situation.

This dismissive attitude ignores that workplace bullying has strong individual, organizational, and societal components. Of course, on an individual level, it involves perpetrators and targets, and those interpersonal dynamics can be complex. That said, workplace bullying is much less likely to occur in the absence of an organizational culture that enables or even encourages it. On a broader societal level, abusive behaviors at work can be fueled by an absence of legal protections and the presence of a popular culture that accepts them as normal.

We need a reframe

So, folks, we need a reframe, one that looks at human problems at both the individual and societal levels, with responses and solutions shaped accordingly. Perhaps we’ll even reach the point where we see individual change vs. social change as a false dichotomy, replaced by an understanding that we need both in order to create better lives, workplaces, and communities.

Our New Dark Age of Rage

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When it comes to emotions driving so much of our public discourse and individual decision making these days, rage seems to be all the rage. Anger and vitriol expressed face-to-face and online are often overcoming calmer, kinder, more reasoned voices, sometimes with harsh and even tragic consequences.

Last month, security officers at the Cincinnati Zoo had to kill a beloved gorilla after a young boy had found his way into the animal’s living space. Angry public outcry emerged from certain circles, with some even claiming that the animal should’ve been spared at the expense of the boy.

On June 12, a man apparently fueled by both homophobia and ISIS-inspired rage killed 49 people and injured 53 others at an Orlando nightclub.

Last week, a slight majority of British voters, many of whom were stoked by angry resentment toward immigrants and outsiders, voted for their country to leave the European Union. Now that the predictable and unsettling tidal wave of consequences has been triggered, many of the “leave” voters are asking themselves, what did I do? 

And, of course, there are Donald Trump’s ongoing outbursts, which are calculated to whip up resentment and anger. They are the major reasons why this is the ugliest, most vulgar U.S. presidential campaign in memory.

Folks, it appears that the virulent anger we often see expressed in the comments sections of online news articles and commentary is now coming out from behind the keyboard and manifesting itself in very ugly ways.  How ironic that all of our whiz bang technology is helping to take us back into a New Dark Age of humanity. We can and must do better than this.

 

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