Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies

Stressing student resilience

September 25, 2019

Students are maxed out in Tiffany Muller Myrdahl’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (GSWS) course on gender and the environment, and it’s not due just to the off campus work that many of them take on. She knows that devoting a semester to studying issues surrounding the climate emergency creates a burden that can feel overwhelming.

“Students in GSWS are critically aware of social issues and social justice, and I’m presenting 10 more things they have to worry about and address,” says Muller Myrdahl. “As instructors we need to ask what our responsibility is when we’re teaching really difficult content. We’re not social workers or therapists but we do have to be thoughtful about offering students some tools to respond to this content that we are presenting.”

Muller Myrdahl will focus on student resilience when she begins her Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) Teaching Fellowship in January. She intends to find out whether students are getting the skills to address the heavy content as part of their courses or if there are other ways they’re acquiring coping skills.

“Awareness over student mental health and wellbeing has shifted since I was a student and the expectation is that institutions should be attentive,” Muller Myrdahl says. “Could the curriculum, collaborative learning and other creative strategies help to build student confidence in their own resilience? Could our pedagogy help students deal with the psychological weight of the material being presented, and foster their capacity to respond?”

Helping students see the “So what?”

So what? Even if students don’t ask that question out loud, they want to know if what they’re learning will give them what they need to pursue a career of their choice.

“I have learned that students want to understand the ‘So what?’ Unpacking the scope of the problem does not go far enough; students want to grapple with tools to solve the problem,” Muller Myrdahl says. “And students increasingly identify a desire for skills training as part of their university experience.”

Muller Myrdahl tries to cultivate opportunities for her GSWS classes that do double duty: in addition to facilitating learning outcomes like critical thinking and learning how to communicate through writing, course activities often include elements that foster students’ professional development. Student projects have included the co-creation of the Vancouver Planning Commission’s 2018 “A City for All” report, as well as the development of the Harassment on Translink blog, which was completed in conjunction with CityStudio, an increasingly important component to FASS. Students in another of Muller Myrdahl’s classes collectively developed a teaching guide for SFU faculty member Joanna Ashworth's documentary Women Bending the Curve on Climate Change to help support using the film in secondary school classrooms.

“We are active members of the community,” Muller Myrdahl says. “One way we can show this is to foster student work that doesn’t die in the classroom.”