June 25 2021

Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable: Reflections on Running and Teaching

Elisabeth T. Vasko, Duquesne University

illustration of a group of masked people

I have been running long distance for almost three decades. I am not an elite athlete or a running expert. I have never won a race or placed in one. Most of what I know about running comes from lacing up my sneakers and stepping outside. I run to claim time and space for healing and recovery. When I run, no one has permission to bother me. Something akin to meditation happens, as I tune into the rhythmic sound of my breathing and footfall on the pavement.

This has not always been the case. There was a period in my life when I let the numbers on my GPS watch dictate whether a run was successful and how I felt about myself. If I ran faster and farther than previously, I had achieved my goals. If I was unable to keep pace or finish a run, I was miserable. Most of my training goals were directed toward running farther and faster. I measured success in comparative and competitive terms. It was as if I had forgotten all of the other aspects of running, like playing, transportation, or being outside with friends. This is not surprising given the emphasis placed on individual productivity in Western culture, including higher education.

I had been running toward the “wrong” goals because I refused to accept the ways in which my life and the world around me had changed. I was a new mom working toward tenure. At that time in my life, I was so tired I could barely even find my sneakers. I was struggling to adjust to my new identity as a parent and the demands it placed on my time. All I wanted was to feel “normal” again. One way I thought I could do this was by running. Translation: I wanted to be able to run as if I was a decade younger and had not just given birth to a baby. So I set training goals appropriate for my former twenty-year-old self. There is nothing wrong with wanting to run faster and farther. Running fast is really fun. The problem was that faster and farther ignored the concrete embodied circumstances of my daily living. No amount of goal-setting or goal-striving could alter this reality.

Authentic goals arise out of a connection to our current embodied circumstances and lived history. Those that ignore the concrete circumstances of daily life (or what Latinx scholars describe as lo cotidiano) lead to frustration, disconnection, and failure. I am reminded of this experience today when I hear the desire to return to “normal” echoing throughout our campuses. Concerns about the transmission of COVID-19 and social distancing measures may not shape our educational practices a few months or a year from now, but there is no return to “normal.” The pandemic has widened longstanding racial and economic inequities in the United States. Black and Indigenous Persons of Color (BIPOC) have suffered record numbers of job loss in the COVID-19 recession. Further, BIPOC workers are more likely to be classified as essential workers than are White workers, thus limiting their options to reduce exposure to COVID-19, secure childcare, and maintain economic security. The situation is exacerbated by longstanding gaps in wages and benefits.1 No teaching tactic, classroom exercise, or goal-striving is going to change this reality. This can be particularly difficult for White people, like myself, to accept because it demands radical honesty about social inequity within higher education and cultivating new identities as educators.

Distance running requires learning how to deal with being uncomfortable for sustained periods of time. Cultivating this kind of stamina does not happen by accident. It requires making deliberate decisions to cultivate habits of mind and body. There is wisdom in this, especially for White cisgendered educators like myself. We need to develop praxes that help us get comfortable being uncomfortable in educational space. Toward this end, I offer three praxes for educators based upon distance running. While my remarks are directed toward White cisgendered educators, others may find them useful.

1. Practice Mindfulness.

Running requires patience. There can be miles of mind-numbing boredom, which quickly turn into self-doubt, self-criticism, or anxiety. Running can also be physically uncomfortable. I am amazed at how relaxed the bodies of elite runners are when they are running at top speeds. Holding unnecessary tension in the body takes energy away from the task at hand. Therefore, the trick to distance running for me has been to train my body how to recover while running, to slow down and relax. One strategy I use is mindful breathing. Breathing exercises not only calm the mind, but they also initiate physiological responses that help the body relax, bringing more air into the lungs and lowering the blood pressure.2

Mindfulness is also important for professors, especially within contexts marked by trauma, as it helps restore a mind-body connection. Teaching can be stressful and is not always incentivized within higher education. I often find myself scrambling to get things done. While teaching, I struggle to focus on what is happening in the moment, instead thinking about what I need to do next. While I had already been incorporating mindfulness practices into my classroom, educators like Patricia Jennings have also suggested integrating mindfulness practice into class preparation to help manage stress and emotions.3 As practitioner Resmaa Menakem explains, white-body supremacy is sustained through white fragility when white-bodies avoid pain or discomfort when faced with the history of their participation in racial trauma.4 Mindfulness is helps me, as White professor, deal with my own emotional discomfort.

Prior to each class, I do a short breathing meditation. I set the timer on my watch or phone, plant my feet on the floor, close my eyes, and focus on my breathing (adapted from Menakem, 2017). While three minutes is not enough time to work miracles, it is a place to start. As a parent of an elementary-school-aged kid, doable matters right now. Like social change, mindfulness does not happen overnight. It requires commitment and practice. After several months, I have found that I am better able to let go of expectations about what I think my students should be learning and able to pay attention to what they actually need. Over time, I found myself asking questions, such as: Why is there a penalty for handing in late work? Will my students learn better if I assign less reading and more podcasts? Does this assignment make me personally feel better, like I am accomplishing something in the classroom, or does it actually achieve its intended learning outcome? Is there a more inclusive way to teach this material?

2. Redefine Success.

If you want to run faster, you have to rest. While it might sound counterintuitive, the best preparation does not always involve running more miles. Athletes who do not rest between intense training sessions will overtrain or risk injury. For many athletes, slowing down or sitting out can be more miserable and uncomfortable than running itself. In part, this is a reflection of unattainable athletic ideals: a runner must run all the time, or a runner is trim, quick, and athletic. Those who do not fit the paradigm are often excluded. Ultrarunner, educator, and writer Mirna Valerio (@themirnavator) is redefining both what a runner ought to look like and the purpose of running itself. For Valerio, running is not primarily about health, fitness, or racing. It is about activism and building community. Valerio’s counternarrative creates space and invites new people in.

This concept translates to higher education. Rarely is achievement or success measured in cooperative terms. Most faculty, staff, and students struggle to balance personal and professional responsibilities while managing expectations in a hypercompetitive environment. This has intensified over the past decade. Faculty are expected to produce more with fewer resources. The same can be said of students. Many are trying to balance full-time employment, family relationships, internships, and their class work. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting financial crisis has intensified the situation. In this context, finding new markers for success is an essential part of healing.

One way I do this in the classroom is through an “anything goes” assignment in my introductory undergraduate theology classes. The purpose of the assignment is to change the conversation on what it means to be valued in an educational environment. In this assignment, students have five minutes to teach something that they enjoy: I have learned how to frost a Dunkin’ Donut; meditate with chakras; conduct in 4-4 time. While some students are initially skeptical about the assignment, it has opened the door to a broader conversation about what markers are used to define success in the classroom and beyond. For example, many of my students feel that to claim a skill or talent in public you have to have to be an expert, the best of the best. It is important to create space for counternarratives in the classroom and publicly within the broader sphere. As a faculty member, redefining success has meant critically reflecting on the goal of education and what steps I am taking to work toward the actualization of this goal within the institutions with which I am affiliated. For example, whose voice do I endorse and whose do I overlook in defining what counts as teaching and learning, and why? When I see microaggressions, macroaggressions, or bias against BIPOC leaders or people with marginalized identities on campus, I say something. When BIPOC and LGBT members of my community share their experience and perspectives, I believe them. I believe them when it contradicts my own experience. I believe them when it is difficult for me to hear.

3. Show up.

One Saturday morning, I attempted to join a local running club on their training run. However, while using the restroom, I missed the group leader’s announcement about pacing and course maps. As a result, I spent most of the morning huffing and puffing, trying to keep up with the group so that I would not get lost. At the midpoint, I gave up and made my way back to my car, feeling sorry for myself. I felt cold, frustrated, and defeated. Regretfully, I let that single experience negatively taint my perception of other running groups, and it was years before I tried another. That’s on me. While the event could have been better organized, the real problem had to do with the way I showed up and how I interpreted the experience.

A key aspect of showing up as an educator is being conscious of how identity shapes our interactions with others. Our interactions with others disclose who we are to ourselves and to others. They provide us with important information about our core beliefs, insecurities, and the ways in which we have appropriated cultural norms. White, cisgendered people tend to ignore this fact and focus on external attributes when interpreting situations. In the example above, I was frustrated and freezing cold. I projected my feelings of discomfort onto the leaders of the running group without knowing what was going on in their own lives. In retrospect, most people ran in silence for the first few miles. Perhaps the pace was too fast for them as well. Had I taken the time to reflect on the situation or gotten to know the other runners, the outcome could have been different. Instead, I quit before the work had even begun. 

Inclusive and transparent communication takes time. Yet, it has never been more important to take the time to do so. Similar to the way that “pandemic pods” have exacerbated educational disparities between White upper- to middle-income families and Black low-income families, efforts to maintain social distance have deepened patterns of social isolation and segregation on college campuses. For example, when families form pandemic pods in an effort to maintain social connection without spreading the COVID-19 virus, they dip into existing resources within their social networks, thereby maintaining relatively homogenous environments and isolating others. In a college environment, where opportunities for connection have been drastically reduced by the pandemic, students who face social and academic barriers (such as international, commuter, and differently abled students), have also been isolated. Therefore, establishing equity in higher education means that all involved (not just student life staff) have a responsibility to actively create opportunities for connection. Professors can do this by building community in the classroom through the inclusion of synchronous sessions, structured small-group discussions, and an explicit focus on social identity.

It is easier to go to the people we know in setting committees, designing curricula, and facilitating class discussion. They might be more likely to affirm our ideas or work, we think. While personal affirmation and achievement might feel good, they are not the goals of higher education. Personal affirmation and individual achievement are not indicators of excellent teaching. White cisgendered educators often fall into the trap of calling upon those who feel familiar, look familiar, and sound familiar for validation because we can. By and large, higher education remains White-dominant in the United States.

Showing up means doing the necessary inner work and making a tangible, concrete, daily investment in community-building. This is easier said than done. As White educators, we need to remind ourselves that our own avoidance tactics reveal more about who we are than about the situation at hand or our students. This means we cannot be afraid to ask questions or say something if an injustice has occurred, and we must create opportunities for our students to do the same. Instead of constructing committees in ways that minimize conflict, we need to participate in authentic dialogue across and within difference. Instead of complaining about being overworked and undervalued, White educators need to share resources and let others lead.

Conclusion

Sometimes, White cisgendered people are quick to dismiss ideas on the grounds that they are too much work, require too many resources, and would take too much time. The trauma we encounter in the classroom and in our communities demands much of us. Yet, White cisgendered educators cannot be so fearful of change that we never begin. Perfection is not expected nor is it needed right now.

Watching the latest vlogs, listening to podcasts, downloading training programs, or running a certain pace may guide and inform my training, it does not make me a runner. I am runner because I lace up my sneakers, step out the front door, and run. As an educator, you have what you need to begin and you are not alone. The real question is: when are going to lace up your sneakers and step out the front door?

 


Notes

1 Valerie Wilson, “Inequities Exposed: How COVID-19 Widened Racial Inequities in Education, Health, and the Workforce,” Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, Economic Policy Institute, June 22, 2020, https://files.epi.org/pdf/203287.pdf.

2 “Meditation for Running,” Headspace, last accessed February 26, 2021, https://www.headspace.com/meditation/running-meditation.

3 Patricia Jennings, Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015).

4 Menakam, Resmaa. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2017), 108.

Special thanks to Autumn Greba (@runnergreebs) for critical feedback on this essay. 

Select Recommended Resources

Désir, Alison (@alisonmdesir). “On Pregnancy and New Motherhood Vs. Reality.” Posted April 2, 2020. YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrEC_LrPCaQ.

Hall, Marielle (@mariellehall). “Racing to Stay Alive: The Consequences of Racial Bias Have Found Their Way into the Running Community.” Runners World. June 2, 2020, https://www.runnersworld.com/runners-stories/a32729943/marielle-hall-racing-to-stay-alive/.

Lännström, Anna. “How to Build Community in Online and Hyrbid Classes.” Online Teaching, Online Learning blog series, Wabash Center, July 31, 2020, https://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/2020/07/how-to-build-community-in-online-and-hybrid-classes/.

Menakam, Resmaa. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2017.

Jennings, Patricia. Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom. W. W. Norton & Company: 2015.

Valerio, Mirna (@themirnavator). A Beautiful Work in Progress: A Memoir. Grand Haven, MI: Grand Harbor Press, 2017.


Elisabeth T. VaskoElisabeth T. Vasko is an associate professor of theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Empowering young people to work toward social change and to think critically and constructively about Christian tradition and gender-based violence are the heart of her teaching and research. Vasko is the author of Beyond Apathy: A Theology for Bystanders (Fortress Press, 2015), which explores the theological significance of bystander participation in LGBTQ bullying, sexual violence, and white racism. She has published articles in scholarly journals, including Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Feminist Theology, Journal of Religion, Journal for the Society of Christian Ethics, and Teaching Theology and Religion. Prior to her work in higher education, she worked in youth and young adult ministry.