Testing the Limits of Kindness: Writing Course Builds Connections

At the end of Fall 2022 semester, after extending multiple opportunities for students to catch up and successfully finish her course, Instructor Susan Perala-Dewey (Writing Studies) wondered, Is it possible to be "too kind" to one another, in our careers, studies, families, communities? And if so, why? If not, then why not be as kind as we can be to one another?

She decided to explore that question with her WRIT 3140: Advanced Writing for Human Services students in Spring 2023 with the intent of lowering student stress and anxiety. Perala-Dewey explained, “Everyone going into these professions has a stake in learning how to manage stress and anxiety. I wanted students to experience how kindness (and noticing kindness) can elevate our mood and discover through research just how impactful and necessary kindness is to our human experience.”

In order to achieve those goals, Perala-Dewey challenged her students to “to look around, notice, and record acts of kindness and connection from their daily lives in a journal.” Each week in class, they reflected not only “on what they noticed, but more importantly, how it made them feel, think, and act.”

An overarching takeaway was, “There is a lot of kindness in this world, but sometimes it can be difficult to see unless you are looking closely.”

To help students further understand the science of kindness and connection, student teams chose a theme or topic and examined how kindness and connection influenced that area. They next identified an audience who might be impacted by their research and wrote to that audience in an effort to make change. Most of their pieces were published either in the UMD Bark or Duluth News Tribune.

The class didn’t stop there, however. Perala-Dewey rallied both her in-person students and her fully asynchronous online students to host A Day of Kindness & Connection at UMD on April 18, 2023, in the Kirby Rafters, Swenson Atrium, UMD Library Atrium, and Kirby Tabling area.

Perala-Dewey recounted, “The Rafters event kicked off with a welcome by You Matter President, Megan Bump, and a traditional Native drum song by Nick Smith. Students and volunteers (some former students) wore UMD Connections Matter T-shirts and ‘Be Kind’ bracelets, as they challenged the student body to make ‘intentions of kindness’ and participate in activities to explore kindness and connections through games, letter writing, music, and art. Students printed and posted their research findings in visual form, along with their reflection of their journaling project for participants to view and learn from.”

A Day of Kindness & Connection materialized via the qualities it promoted. The day was co-sponsored by You Matter, a student organization focused on supporting students with mental health struggles and the UMD Kathryn A. Martin Library. The event was additionally supported by a CAHSS Teaching & Learning Grant, the UMD Department of English, Linguistics, and Writing Studies, the UMD Department of Art and Design, and the UMD Bookstore. Perala-Dewey also noted, “the CAHSS Journal Club (and Kelsey Pederson, Emma Ricke, and Jennifer Webb, along with Associate Dean Mitra Emad) played a big role by helping me form my vision and encouraging me to carry out the Day of Kindness & Connection!”

 “Students and faculty who attended were really moved and appreciated the opportunity to relax with simple activities, conversation, and music,” Perala-Dewey reflected. “Students are truly stressed out and need ways to manage their stress and anxiety. Genuine kindness is incredibly important to our relationships, our workspaces, our mood, and our mental and physical health. I believe we have an obligation to help students (and each other) learn about and manage our stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. We can learn together and experiment to see what happens—that’s what teaching and learning are all about.”

Students shared her sentiments in their reflections. One stated, “I have been surrounded by kindness this week … All of these things have drastically changed my mood the last few days. I cannot be more thankful to these people in my life. Some barely know me and yet, they still are willing to go above and beyond for me. … Kindness and love [are] real.”

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