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Professor Creates Class to Ease Students’ Pandemic-Related Suffering

Throughout the last year of the pandemic, many people have looked within to identify ways to help combat the impact of COVID-19, such as sewing masks, 3D-printing PPE, and volunteering to register senior citizens for vaccines. For Louise Woodstock, one opportunity seemed natural for the associate professor: she created a class.

Woodstock has been studying the popular culture of positive thinking for several decades. She took her passion for the pursuit and created “Self-Help & Therapeutic Culture,” a special topics course in media and communication studies (MCS) aimed to empower students to help themselves—and teach them how to help others through a series of student-run gratitude workshops.

“I knew the pandemic was contributing to students‘ suffering. I designed this class to respond to the current crisis and to provide a deep opportunity to practice known ways of managing precarity: meditation, yoga, journaling, time in nature, compassion, and community,” said Woodstock. “I also designed the class to dig into the ideological downsides of self-help and therapeutic culture—primarily the overly simplistic and misleading notion of positive thinking—an idea that obscures structural realities.”

Throughout the semester, students have studied self-help historically, theoretically, and as a set of embodied practices. In addition to analyzing best-selling self-help books, podcasts, and self-care products, students completed group research projects, testing the impact of self-help advice on themselves.

“I am hoping students will feel more grounded and energized while also critically analyzing how power operates in self-help cultures,” said Woodstsock. “Students designed a series of excellent workshops, open to all, to practice generosity and to learn deeply about a self-help modality they find rewarding.” Topics included yoga, therapeutic art, and journaling.

Each group had six weeks to research their topic. To help prepare for a workshop on mindful eating, Jenna Menapace ’22 and her group sought the expertise of Katie Bean, director of prevention and advocacy. “We reached out for mindful eating tips and beginner’s resources,” said Menapace. “Katie directed us to a few activities and fun practices, as well as an organization’s website that promotes mindful eating education. All of our activities and information came from these sources, though we adapted a few aspects.”

“We ended our workshop by focusing on how social media can negatively portray mindful eating. Some accounts that promote diet culture and harmful eating habits were using a mindful eating hashtag to gain viewers. As an MCS class with many communication students, we had a thoughtful discussion about this problem,” said Menapace. “Some students, as well as Dr. Woodstock, acknowledged the importance of bringing the misrepresentation of mindful eating into the discussion.”

For Ardashes Dulgerian ’22, the most beneficial part of the class is that it’s led him to understand himself better “in a mental aspect by relating to our readings and then writing about my thoughts and questions concerning the topics through our journal entries.” His group will lead a workshop on guided breathing on April 30. During the hour, attendees will learn the origins of and steps for guided breathing meditation, as well as the mental and physical benefits of daily practice.