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Systemic Failure

June 23, 2021

To the UNC Board of Trustees,

I am writing in support of the statement released by the Carolina Black Caucus and an op-ed from UNC study body president, Lamar Richards and in opposition to the inaction of the UNC BOT to convey tenure to Ms. Hannah-Jones, the Knight Chair of Race of Investigative Reporting at UNC-CH.

I joined the UNC faculty in 1997 as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and have thus completed 23 years of service to the university. During this time, I have seen many changes come to the university, including scandals and challenges to the mission and integrity of the institution. However, the current actions of the BOT are perhaps one of the most egregious violations of the values that undergird UNC-CH that I have witnessed.

The protections of tenure create a place in democracy for the exchange of bold ideas, for the debate of opposing viewpoints, and for the creation of innovative solutions to deep societal challenges. The university, particularly in a divided society, is not the place for silencing voices. Recognition of the needed mix of viewpoints that create a thriving program and the leading voices through which knowledge and change will emerge, when needed, is field driven. For this reason, the decision by the BOT to ignore the favorable tenure vote by faculty in the School of Journalism and Dean King is deeply troubling.

Given the racial tensions that plague the campus, the BOT’s decision sends a clear message regarding the role of non-academic politics in university governance that interfere with an indefatigable commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion at Carolina. The implications for retaining faculty, including but not limited to faculty of color, on campus are already being realized and form a clear and present danger to the future of the institution. Rather than pride, many of our faculty, myself included, are ashamed of the actions of the institution we serve that may be seen as the passive promotion of an unfair and biased agenda. I strongly urge you to reconsider your decision, to support the faculty of the university, to protect the intellectual exchange of ideas in which education thrives, and to engender the acceptance of a diverse study and faculty body who will craft the future to come.

Sincerely,

A Class Act

This spring, I had the pleasure of teaching 62 UNC undergraduates in a course on adolescent development. Yes, we spent our time on zoom. Yes, there were pre-recorded lectures. Yes, there were dark screens and times when real life intruded on our enthusiasm for the topic. And, yes, this is a group of students that I will never forget. Not because of the challenges of this spring. But because of their triumphs.

To call them resilient is an understatement. They experienced family death, emergency surgeries, friends whose psychiatric crises ended in hospitalization and even suicide. They juggled jobs at risk to their own health and caring for young children in the face of spousal deployment. And they experienced the birth of a new child, the success of accceptance to graduate programs in their chosen fields and securing that first post-graduation job, and the rush of victory on the playing field.

Yet, in the midst of all this life, they accomplished something truly impressive within the virtual classroom. Connection. They offered themselves and their stories to connect the dots left blank between the research studies outlined in our textbook regarding their diversity journeys – in learning about and understanding their own and others race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. And they listened to the stories of youth making their own way through the pandemic.

In a semester-long project, these students conducted interviews with middle and high schoolers in schools in North Carolina and around the country to understand their take on life during COVID. Working together, our students applied lessons taken from the authentic voices of youth to identify and offer solutions for key challenges that schools are and will continue to face as youth return to the classroom.

What they heard were lessons from the headlines and quieter stories yet to be told. For example….

Although many youth are eager to return to school, some experience remote learning as a welcome break from the social and academic pressures of the traditional classroom.

By removing some of the downtime in schools, some youth had more time to engage in religious practices and develop hobbies and skills while, at the same time, other youth struggled with boredom and isolation.

While for some youth, the stress of online school (taxing motivation and attention) was greater than the stress of social isolation (thanks to social media), for others the opposite was true.

In response to these stories and challenges, our students offered a broad range of prototyped solutions that include pairing social interaction and physical movement, creative approaches to mentoring and counseling services, injecting fun through zoom spirit days, and much more.

I’m proud of the work they have done and look forward to sharing it with teachers from schools who supported us. I said as much to them in our in-class mini-graduation moment in which we sent many seniors off into the world. And I also shared my own sense of connection with them.

There is something about enduring together – about witnessing one another’s humanity during times of struggle and challenge – that bonds us to one another. I remember vividly the moment I encountered one of my students in the stairwell as I rushed down to check in with my class after seeing the planes of 9/11 hit the twin towers. He was, I learned, in the ROTC program and wore his uniform. It hit me like a ton of bricks.

The full lives of our students that lie beyond the classroom are poignant reminders that what connects us – teachers and students – is not what we share in that classroom but what we share outside of it. Our basic humanity. And so, the pandemic, repeats this lesson.

To the students of UNC’s Psychology 471 this spring, I will never forget you. It’s been an honor…….

As Finals Approach

I have been struck by the resilience in the students, staff and faculty during the past three challenging semesters. Yet, pandemic burnout leaves many of us hollow as we approach the most demanding period of the academic calendar. The end of the academic year is not only when final exams take place but it is when many year long commitments end, life transitions take place, and uncertainty and accomplishment go hand-in-hand. Many universities offer self-care advice on websites to help support members of campus at all levels during this time. Of all the lessons we can impart to our students, how to practice self-care during times of stress is perhaps one of the most important.

Encouraging self-care in a way that does not add to the unreasonable to do list (self-care as value-added not an untimely stressor) is a reasonable goal for the month ahead. And linking the benefits of self-care to the goals of the month ahead is one form of encouragement. When we take care of our bodies, minds, souls, and relationships, we perform better, enjoy the journey more deeply, and celebrate with more energy.

During this time of pandemic burnout and societal tensions, self-care may also include acknowledging that the sprint turned into a marathon. And we have done our best. Noting what you are proud of this past year is centering. Realizing what you did accomplish in the face of challenge is important when life is hard, when school and our jobs are hard, and when living in a pandemic is hard. Be bouyed by your success.

And reasonable in your expectations. Divide your to do list into activities that are essential, value-based, and expendable. View the essentials list with a skeptic eye – negotiate deadlines, accept something less than excellence, and verify others’ expectations to pare this list down to the barebones. This trimmed-down version stays on the list. What to-do list items bring you joy and align with your values? Do you value social connection? Be sure you make time to connect with others each day, even briefly. Be sure you to do list includes one thing that aligns with your values to see you through. And the rest, set it aside for another day. You have my permission. All you need is yours.

Be sure to check out other tools for self-care (including our self-care through self-massage videos) to find the right mix for you. Or, if you are a UNC student, check out upcoming wellness workshops we offer through Kenan-Flagler or the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

Spring 2021

Welcome back to UNC-CH students, even though we resume in remote mode. It’s been a week, with historic events punctuating the long-distance shuffling of classes during a later than usual kick-off to the year. This semester, I am more heavily engaged in undergraduate instruction than in recent years and what I am finding in the hearts and minds of these young adults is heartening. Resilience, gratitude, respect, purpose – it’s all there. Sure, there is isolation, fatigue, frustration, and fear for what it all means. But the combination is heady. It is the stuff of hope. And the fuel to put hands to work in making a difference. I know there is concern about the role of colleges and (for some) college students in the spread of the pandemic, particularly for those living in college towns. Recognizing these concerns, the failied and successful attempts of institutions to respond, the responsible acts of some and irresponsible acts of others – in other words, taking that all into account – I get it. Yet, I believe. I believe in these students. I trust in their vision of the world they want to build. I have faith that the lesssons of the pandemic and surging racial tensions of the past year will not be lost to the past as they craft our future. And if I can play even a small role in constructing the bridge that takes them from here to there, I’m all in.

‘Tis the season, even in hard times.

In lieu of a full blog post, this week I direct parents to the following piece in National Geographic Family for what gratitude researchers have to share with parents. (Link available in blog post – click title to follow.)

Give and Receive

At 10Am on Friday, November 6th, 2020, I was belly down, legs akimbo, stretching under my king-sized bed in a desperate yet vain attempt to wrestle two cats out and into carriers for a nail trim scheduled for ten minutes earlier. On another day, I probably would have given up. Let the cats win. But not that day. In this season, on that Friday, in that hour, I needed a win. A sense of control over life around me. And even if I was going to be twenty minutes late arriving at the vet, we would show up.

It’s like that for a lot of us right now, especially other white people like me. Who grew up believing that if we go for it, if we wiggle our butts just a little farther under the bed and grab at it, we can grasp success and hold it to our chests. Our effort, our drive, our motivation, our success. We might think less about how that success has arrived in our hands, and more about the satisfaction of achievement. Acutely aware of our own roles in making it happen, we may overlook the roles played by  others, by  our social privileges, or by serendipity, or by luck,  or – for those who believe – by divine intervention.

But by doing so, we miss out. We miss out on the opportunities to understand the world beyond our front door. A world struggling with diversity and equity and inclusion and justice. We rob ourselves of perspectives not our own with the power to flex our thinking and enrich our problem solving. And we fail to experience the incredible gifts that others have to offer, that they are giving us whether or not we pay attention, each and every day. Yes, I would argue that our rigorous individualism may not only over emphasize the I in accomplishment but also deprive us of the critical social need for connection.

Practicing gratitude is perhaps one of many antidotes to this societal poison. Many popular practices of gratitude focus on giving – mixing the idea of what happens to us when we deeply receive something with the acts of generosity, volunteerism, civic engagement, and activism. Although these acts may all be ways that we choose to pay forward the kindness shown to us (and in turn engenders the experience of gratitude), they may or may not be ways to practice gratitude itself. As a six-year old in the Raising Grateful Child study once told us, “She said thank you, but she didn’t mean it.” The teens call it virtue signaling – saying the right thing or doing the right thing for the social bonus points it may bring you.  My Aunt Gingy would call it good manners or playing nice.

The practice of gratitude may look very similar on the outside to these pay-it-forward actions and many other ways that we show appreciation. But unless those practices are motivated by the thoughts and feelings that come with noticing the role of others in the good things that come into our lives, they fall short of gratitude. The trick is to set aside our need to protect our own sense of self, of identity, long enough take in others. Teenagers get a bad wrap for how they negotiate this dance, but in truth it is what they do every day. The job of an adolescent, from a developmental point-of-view, is to figure out who they are and how to get and stay connected to others. And if they can learn to do this, so can the rest of us.

For those of you interested in picking up some tools, Andrea will be presenting on the Gratitude Conversations Program at the Love Consortium’s upcoming community event (11.19.20 at 3pm EST) – free event but registration required. Presentations by Sara Algoe and Rainy Gu will talk more about the science of gratitude.

COVID-19, Families and Youth.. the science is coming

Like many researchers around the globe, we have been doing our part in the Co-Lab to better understand the impact of the pandemic on what we study. In this case, the focus is on how parents, children, youth and families function. Pre-prints of our first two papers in this area are available on ResearchSquare as they await peer review. I’m not sure how I come down on public release of pre-prints prior to peer review, but this is another call to action of our times. The families we are studying participated over the years in the Raising Grateful Children study, a relatively privileged sample (in terms of education) from whom we have learned much about the development of gratitude in children and what parents can do to foster gratitude.

In this sample, we are seeing that different types of coping are more helpful and others less so (more emotion-focused strategies) for preventing mental health symptoms associated with the pandemic. We are also finding that pandemic life events, both positive (yes, there might be some for some families) and negative predict how families function during the pandemic, with implications for youth mental health. But we are aware, as we prepared our findings for review, that this is one only modest sample of rather similar individuals (about 80% identify as white). Yet, even in this sample, we see greater impact of the illness on racial/ethnic minority families and those of relatively lower economic resources. How much more is there to learn from families experiencing the pandemic from different corners of the county and, indeed, the world?

We think bucketloads. That’s why we are co-Lab-orating with the Society for Research on Adolescence in their effort to coordinate researchers worldwide in learning about the impact of the pandemic on youth development over the long haul. A free webinar that will kick-off this effort is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct 20th from 10-11 ET (more information here).

In the context of this pandemic, my family is among the lucky ones – luck as much received through unearned privilege as anything else. But each of my family members still experiences the impact of the pandemic in our own ways. Perhaps the most salient finding in our (yet to be peer-reviewed – yep, still conflicted about sharing this prior to publication) work is the benefit for both individual and family functioning of parents getting social support from outside of the family. As we note in this paper: “Encouraging and facilitating social support seeking for parents…is not simply a matter of self-care but also of family-care.” Take care, my friends, and be well. Where ever you are.

Grad Applications

It’s the season for putting together materials for graduate training programs in psychology. And like every other area of our lives, things this year will be a little bit different. For a summary of tips and answers to questions about applying to work with my lab, check out this video.

And breathe. Life is a non-linear path meant for exploring. There are many ways from here to there.

The NIH on COVID-19, children and mothers

One Month out…

As universities look to the fall and figure out a game plan, students, families, and faculty alike are trying to create a vision for what is to come. Here at the Co-Lab we are seeking ways to inform justice intiatives through our work on gratitude and other-focused actions in children from relatively privileged families, on how African American families talk to their college students about the risks of drinking, and on parenting youth in an increasingly diverse world. We have initiated work targeting the wave of mental health challenges that accompanies our shared and unique pandemic experiences (Raising Grateful Children during COVID-19) and developed easy implementation tools to relief associated distress (Self-Care through Self-Massage). But what I am most excited about is interacting with graduate and undergraduate students, even though remotely, this Fall. With more than 20 years at UNC-CH, I know that the challenge of engaging and learning with students and its rewards – the more you reap, the more you sow. We are waiting for you! 7.6.20