The Walls are Shaking: A Case for Anxious Pedagogy in the Present- and Post-COVID Writing Classroom

Santa Monica College

Note: The following article is not an official statement of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The article is intended to engender discussion and consideration by local colleges.

The academic institution is a professional space; perhaps it always has been. Thinking pithily within a western context, from the Socratic seminars to the modern R1 university, teachers and students alike have always negotiated and operated upon a set of norms, conventions, and protocols that aired the hallways of intellectual thought. And while pinpointing where professionalism may have first arisen in the long-storied history of higher education might be a futile endeavor, one must acknowledge with greater accuracy the large degree to which the utilitarian shift of the academy in the mid-twentieth century toward job market-facing, skills-based education solidified the link between education and professionalism, or perhaps fused them altogether.

Faculty and staff, by the very nature of campus being their workplace, utilize professionalism to help outline their roles and modes of interaction as educators, counselors, administrators, and colleagues. For students, a vastly underwritten portion of their learning consists of acclimating to functional protocol: how to be punctual with deadlines, write a proper email to superiors, and participate under a standard mode of communication governed by decency and respect for others (Morse, 2012). These written and unwritten codes are as nuanced as the academic landscape is diverse, but they all, to a large degree, dictate how members of a college community operate on a day-to-day basis.

Professionalism is either like a tightrope or a set of walls in this sense, but unlike a tightrope to which one might keep one’s eyes glued, the walls of professionalism divert attention away from its materiality – from questioning the literal codes and values embedded within them –and, instead, busy individuals with their own movement, their navigating, and thus reinforce a complex social labyrinth.

Moreover, the personal-professional divide signifies the classroom threshold as a bizarre self-separating moment. Students arrive with their writing already postured by professional discourse, the “I” long-removed, and they, as a result, are dislocated from self-ideation and meaningful investment altogether. For junior, non-associate, and contingent faculty –marginalized groups such as women and BIPOC educators especially – academic freedom and agency are compromised by pressures to conform in a space that is coded in and rewards an unstable universal definition of professionalism historically rooted in white male hetero-normative notions of objectivity and non-emotional stoicism.

Thus, for teachers and students alike, coming to campus can resemble a departure: a departing from oneself as one arrives into prescribed roles and the values and codes embedded within them. More than just a maze, professionalism acts as a set of walls because of its propensity to compartmentalize diverse areas of one’s personage.

The walls of the academy are shaking, not because professionalism in academia is entirely moot, but because value exists in interrogating professionalism as a standard operating mode. When faculty perform their jobs, and thus relegate a portion of their shape to professionalism, they simultaneously make claims about who they and their students can be within a given moment. For a space that encourages teacher and student agency and the proliferation of ideas (Velez and Curry, 2020) and yet precludes context and full embodiment of its actors in the name of professionalism, far too much is at stake. The walls of academic professionalism are shaking because it was always unstable in design.


Emotions in the workplace are locked into their culturally connotative baggage: rash, sensitive, and unsubstantiated. Such values are reflected in traditional writing instruction, which steers students away from emotional, non-objective claims, personal anecdotes, and other affective modes by confining them solely to poetry and personal essay.

This practice compounds with the present era of disinformation, where the re-privileging of facticity and objective appeals to rationality continue to render all emotions within a critical context as negative. Campaigns of returns to science, while most appropriate and necessary in a global pandemic, should also give approximations of how far society is, culturally, from accepting emotions as valid sources for theory and praxis.

But the college campus as a unique professional space has the potential to reexamine its walls and carve openings for reading value into that which professionalism traditionally disallows: fully emotional and autonomous beings. Anxious Pedagogy is a field within rhetoric and composition studies, popularized and formally coined by Shawna Ross and Douglass Dowland (2019), that encourages ways of theorizing the complex functions of anxiety in the classroom.

As Dowland (2020) posits, students and teachers alike arrive already saturated with anxious discourse. Under the larger cultural umbrella of a global pandemic, mass protests, and political insurrection, everyone bears individual stressors: relationships, domestic disputes, or the hardship of food or housing insecurity. Imposter syndrome runs rampant as a product of an assessment and evaluation culture, which often creates for teachers and students alike more pressures to fit in than stand out.

Anxiety is not a monolith, but much of the work taking place within Anxious Pedagogy recognizes that as a start and tries to understand the many forms through which anxiety manifests. It asks which anxieties should be ameliorated, which should be positioned as a positive force for student learning, and who should be doing this kind of affective labor. Ross and Dowland (2019) posit these as just some of the worthy questions Anxious Pedagogy seeks to answer. At its core, Anxious Pedagogy invites new ways of thinking about teacher-student interaction, agency, outcomes, and transparency within critical spaces.


Faculty, to some degree, already recognize anxiety for the comfort of their students. They give momentary acknowledgements at the beginning of class and create sections in course syllabi with a tone unsettled by unprecedented times. They sometimes fail to consider, however, how these small recognitions fall short in their reach, how compassion and empathy performing in the COVID-19 section of syllabi fail to inform the rest of the document in terms of how the course is structured: how it formulates policy, chooses readings, or formulates assessment.

Ross (2020), in a most effective way, describes anxiety as one of the primary interfaces with the real world in the way that negative emotions, like anxiety, can act as flags that remind people what they value and what matters most to them. Irritation, frustration, or writer’s block often indicate that something important is floating nearby. Anxiety, in this way, acts as a sort of mirror, a form of self-attunement: a tool that can help one reveal oneself in one’s explorations.

In today’s writing classroom, where process is largely emphasized, process has to incorporate these negative emotions as constituent. When faculty preclude negative emotions, they disservice students by selling the deceptively false idea that writing is seamless, easy, or natural for others. They create discouraging moments and exits for whenever students do encounter those inevitable emotions. When faculty disallow the presence and power of anxiety to exist openly, they train students to avoid failure, complexity, nuance, and experimentation that, ideally, sites of learning privilege and need (Ross & Dowland, 2019).

To reappraise and normalize the value of negative emotions, one can begin by creating more affective response exercises, such as individual reflection and group discussion. What students thereby grow committed to is the ability to work honestly, to not feel the pressures to conceal, conform, or rush through uncertain and vulnerable moments of their thinking. Simplified models within process theory are reluctant to consider the speed at which faculty pressure students to pass off as experts in their thinking. Anxious Pedagogy affords students valuable time and place to think through their emotional investments without penalty.


Amid the slew of COVID-19-related professional development opportunities, many faculty have, at one point or another, considered ways to restore the humanity in their digital exchanges. But along this line of thinking lies the faulty assumption that in-person practices were humane to begin with. One thing faculty should keep in mind amid a rhetorically dangerous pivoting back is that a return to on-ground learning does not automatically reinstate a common ground between them and their students. Faculty should disrupt this conflated way of thinking about formal relationships for the sake of students, colleagues, and themselves as they may persist under precarious circumstances, global pandemic notwithstanding.

But even more to this idea of building the classroom – to extend the metaphor further by literalizing it – one should also understand anxiety and other negative emotions as a real meeting place. That is, as has been seen during the global pandemic, when classes are precluded from meeting face-to-face, a shared space, a common ground, between faculty and students can be difficult to find, but it can exist in the broad and rich set of emotions complex human beings experience.
More than recognizing anxiety as a minor presence, faculty can make it the floor and the walls within which more meaningful engagement might take place. In doing so, they begin to make the staunch claim that anxiety and negative emotions can be foundational.


Dowland, D. (2020, January 10). The Problem of Self-Care in Higher Education. Inside Higher Ed.…

Morse, D. (2012, December). Common Courtesy and Professionalism: Do We Expect Less from Each Other than We Expect of Our Students? Rostrum. Academic Senate for California Community Colleges.…

Ross, S. (2020). Interview with Shawna Ross and Douglas Dowland (No. 15). Audio podcast. Pedagogue.

Ross, S. & Dowland, D. (2019, October 1). Guest Editors’ Introduction: Anxious Pedagogies. Pedagogy, 19(3), 509-512.

Vélez, M., & Curry, S. (2020, November). Academic Freedom and Equity. Rostrum. Academic Senate for California Community Colleges.