Breath Journals and Ungrading

Students sitting on outdoor building staircase.

Editor’s note: This is the first of two diary entries by this author addressing teaching during the pandemic. The second is available here.

Before the start of our Covid year, Duke Student Government wrote a letter to The Chronicle encouraging faculty to be flexible in schedules, assignments and grading so as to help alleviate the academic and mental health stress of the pandemic. Taking their request seriously, I experimented with a new exercise and a new approach to evaluation in my fall Medical Anthropology course.

The Breath Journals was a Zoom activity that introduced students to a practice — meditation — that can help reduce anxiety and stress. As an anthropologist and dancer who researches and teaches about and with the body, I have long felt that I should utilize embodied practices in all my classes, not just my studio ones. But how to do this in a comfortable, non-intimidating way for students who might not be expecting such a thing in a seminar/lecture course? Zoom offered a perfect platform. Once a week we began class with a five-minute focused-breath meditation followed by a 10-minute free-write during which students were encouraged to write about anything they wanted. It was the one time I allowed students to turn off their cameras, and while they were encouraged to share some of what they wrote with the class, it was not required. My screen displayed basic instructions and suggested journal prompts that tied into the particular meditation technique and class topic that week.

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