A letter to my students- COVID doesn’t define your degree

I’ve been teaching for about five years. It was a large reason why I decided to pursue a PhD, I adore teaching, it makes me excited each and every day I get to have the privilege to do this work. It’s not that it’s an easy job, each class is widely different, different subjects, different schools (the life of an adjunct), different people all create variables. Some of these remain stable from semester to semester, some, are variables we can’t account for.

In these five years I’ve had classes that have gone through rough times. Whether it was how they were treated in the past by teachers, or emergencies and personal developments which have hampered their ability to succeed to their fullest ability. Most of the time that’s alright, a “B” won’t hurt anyone, despite what many students think. They can still gain something from the class. Some have needed to take a step back, take an Incomplete or withdraw for personal reasons but it’s not because they couldn’t it was just because they couldn’t’ then.

I’ve also had my share of struggles in classes. Students who feel they don’t have anything to learn and just want a degree, students who don’t mesh with my teaching styles, those who never wanted to take my class. That’s okay too. It’s rarer, and most of the time we can come to some sort of accord for them to move forward in a positive way, there are exceptions, but very few. And despite all of that, nothing has dampened my desire to teach, to see sparks of interest develop, see passions explored through writings and presentations. There’s nothing like leaving a good class. It’s a high, it’s energizing, and it’s a special bond between a student and instructor that I cherish.

COVID has changed all of that for them. I’m still here, but I’m strained, so I up my game so they don’t need to be when they’re with me. But it’s written all over their faces. I usually teach both online and in-person, now fully online and for some students that’s not what they signed up for. Even if it is what they signed up for, they didn’t sign up to take on classes in the midst of a global pandemic, they likes of which only a handful have ever seen before. And I want to tell all the students out there, it’s okay that you’re not okay. It’s okay if your classes aren’t okay. It’s okay if your work is not great or you face rejection. We all are. This situation isn’t okay.

You will not be defined by a less than stellar performance during a time when no one knows if we’ll come through this in one piece. You’re grieving even if no one you know has died. And you might be grieving even deeper if you have lost a loved one, or if you do. I remember getting a bit agitated when this all started. A colleague commented that “well we’ve taught through disasters before- the students did fine.” This isn’t like before, and I say that as a born and raised New Yorker. This isn’t 9/11, or a Hurricane, or a distant war. This isn’t an event, it’s a time. This hits every home, this is unknown, and no amount of “creating a sense of normalcy” will make this feel normal.

Social workers are amazing people. They’re versatile, resilient, adaptable, and patent. Social work students often has the same traits or are building them. But we’re in new territory and it’s exhausting, and terrifying. Whatever you’re feeling is okay because no one can tell you what’s normal- nothing’s normal. When you graduate, and you will graduate because this does not define you, you will be better social worker because regardless of your history, you have shared experiences with every single person you will now meet. You will have overcome our gravest test, and you will be ready to do the work. You’ll learn that there are groups that will support you, and groups that will try to pin you against each other for someone else’s sake. Choose support.

So, my job changed this semester from teaching you the material, to teaching you to stay grounded, to take in what you can and to realize that it’s okay if not everything got through. You’ll have time to revisit that in the future. You’ll have time to brush up on policy work, or that treatment modality. You’ll have time to process, to emerge, and to re-engage with who you are, because my job is to make sure you’re ready for that. Be kind to yourself and what you can and can’t do right now. I’m not going anywhere, so when you want to revisit that, I’ll be here to answer.

I’ll end this the same way I end all my classes. If you remember nothing from my class but this I’ll consider it a success.

Go out and do good.

Emotional Evolution in Expressing Ourselves

Can we create new emotions? No, but we can become better at identifying them with the help of a design student who has created a map of complex and emotional states. Combining words and expressions from other countries, Pei-Ying Lin’s project Unspeakableness puts a visual on what we usually only talk about. Most of us are well versed with; happy, sad, angry, depressed, excited ,and a small number of others. Maybe on a good day we can recall; melancholic, morose, indignant or content, but it is a small spectrum that we usually draw from. Most of the time I can’t identity my feelings, they don’t fall into one blanket statement of “today I am happy” which switches after a stressful day to “now I am not sad.”

Feelings and emotions are too muddled for that. And our language doesn’t always reflect the complexity. Take “Gezelligheid,” a Dutch word on the map that identifies the “comfort and coziness of being at home, with friends, with loved ones, or general togetherness.” Then there is “Saudade” the “somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. Longing for something that might never return. Yearning.” It is why our evolution must not forget to include the evolution of our language. This does not include a debasement of language, such as allowing lol, omg and other text/internet language to develop into acceptable formality, but the evolution that there are some things we try to say that are difficult to express in the words we are given.

A person who comes into our office, complaining that they’re not happy, might not be depressed, in the general sense, but feeling “Tocka.” A Russian belief of spiritual anguish, often without any cause. Ache of soul, a longing with nothing to long for.” Or the Japanese equivalent of “missing something. The sense of longing, being nostalgic for something, someone, or somewhere.” People don’t fit into boxes, and neither do emotions. How often must we describe our mood as “just off” because happy, sad, or the norm just won’t cut it?

I used to joke that sound effects were the better communicating factor of what emotion you are feeling than any word could. You hear a sigh of disappointment and not only can you recognize the emotion, but you empathize it more than hearing them say “I am disappointed.” A sharp intake of breath, or it’s hissing release through teeth all accompany a different complex emotional reaction to something, even without the word to speak it. Describing the effects of feelings can sometimes give a better idea. Ask someone what they are feeling and you might get one of the accepted words off the list or an non-descript version of “not so good.” Ask a person to describe a feeling, and suddenly imagery does the rest. “Why I feel as though an elephant is sitting on my chest, while my small gnomes play the drums on my heart and I can’t even grip my phone because I’m sweating so much.” Ah…so much clearer, you might be extremely anxious, or the Chinese word for “A mixture of uneasiness and worry, as if you can feel your own heart beat.”

And to close, quoting The Dead Poet’s Society- N.H. Kleinbaum
“Avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys- to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do.”

Robo-Therapists- Are the rest of us out of work?

Social work and mental health professionals have always relied on the fact that we need humans for our human interaction as a measure of job security. After all, how can technology be expected to know when to react or provide appropriate support? Well by a “well timed uh-huh” apparently. As a part of the USC’s Institute for Creative technology, psychologist and computer scientists are teaming up to provide your very own Tech therapist. A Robot Raconteur if you would. This bot, can measure responses and appropriately react to any given situation that the client puts out, even silence. The analysis is done with multiple measurements:

“A video camera tracks facial expressions of the person sitting opposite. A movement sensor – Microsoft Kinect- tracks the person’s gestures, fidgeting and other movements. A microphone records every inflection and tone in his or her voice… to read their body language.”

Originally this idea began at the Department Of Defense as a way to help flag service members for suicidal risks; a epidemic occurring with little relief. The belief is that the minute difference that can be picked up might be missed even by the most seasoned clinicians. It is attempting to analyze the hidden messages that occur in every interaction and compare it to large databases of research on issues. So if the robot is screening for depression, it can have a record of every movement, smile, and fidget that the client had and can respond appropriately. This simulation can take the data that is collected and compare it to averages of people with depression and flag potential risks.

Flag, not diagnose. The bot has great potential to help screen, but just as there are gray areas to every diagnosis or risk factor, so there will be here. The robot would be able to compile large amounts of data and formulate potential risks associated based on that data, but it will not be as simple as positive and negative diagnosis, regardless of what it is screening. Even within this boundary, there can be a large margin for difference as each person expresses emotions in slightly different ways. There will certainly be trends, and subtle, intrinsic signs that most of us are unable to read, but each one is not a guarantee.

To my fellow mental health professionals; don’t give your couches up just yet, there might be need of us yet. So… how does that make you feel?

To see a demonstration, check out NPR’s full story.

Swipe Culture- How Tinder uses our thought process

“Swipe left” has become synonymous with a distasteful or disliked person or experience. The new catch phrase is more than a remnant from the dating app Tinder, as it’s become symbolic of how we view experiences. Tinder, a dating app based solely on pictures and a 140 character bio is known to be more of a hook up facilitator than a fully-fledged dating app. It’s basis is simple, swipe right for someone you like and be connected with them if they liked you too, swipe left for the ones you don’t.

Swipe left is taking a hard pass on something from a quick glimpse. Most of it is shooting from the hip; you glance and decide using Systems 1, or our quick thinking brain. There’s no algorithm for match percentage, no need to fill out a questionnaire or worry about what your screen-name says about you. Apparently the new app does let you list some interests and show mutual connections via Facebook, but for the most part, it’s that look across a bar and form a judgment based on appearances. The best part? You never have to ignore a request or message because once you swipe left they’re gone, disappeared into oblivion before it even gets that far. Who needs social graces or appropriate ways of dealing with rejection and rejecting when you can just click no and become a ghost?

We teach our kids to “not judge a book by its cover” but failed to mention that that goes out the window when you grow up. In fact, we rely heavily on our brain’s ability to make snap judgments without a second thought(pun intended) in our everyday life and work. The sadly brilliant part about Tinder is that it makes the most of this ability by saying “no, don’t worry about their personality, or forming a connection, go for what’s really important” which is looks of course.

No before you go swiping left to this statement because your friend’s friend met her boyfriend on Tinder, just consider how intolerant we are for lengthy processes. It’s not that people are making bad decisions it’s that we’ll forget how to actually deal with things we don’t like or want in real life. How you let someone down or deliver unwanted news is a fundamental part of a civilized society, dating or otherwise. Delivering bad news is a skill one has to develop with the careful balance of truth and tact. Too much of one, and meanings and intent suffer.

Don’t go blaming another thing on these gosh-darned kids with their mobile technology, because sometimes, snap judgments are more reliable. You can find goodness in anyone if you try hard enough, and the world would in fact be a better place if we didn’t judge someone based on looks. But step by step rational thinking doesn’t always get us to a different or better place. For any of us who is partly consumed by the introspective process, this is a terrifying belief, but we really need to trust our own mind more than we do. That being said, next time you have a task that you don’t want to complete, you can’t just yell “LEFT SWIPE” and hope it disappears like that guy with a neckbeard.