Religion’s Frances Garrett hopes to provide students with 'paths to well-being'

March 16, 2022 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

“As we are blown by waves of grief or fires of rage, a global pandemic, climate disaster and social injustice, can we channel our energies into strengths?”

Associate professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies, Frances Garrett, poses the question on her recently launched website, Windvane. And hopes that with the resources gathered there — designed to help students understand and attend to their well-being — that the answer is yes.

Garrett is with the Department for the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts & Science and director of the Buddhism, Psychology & Mental Health program at New College. Over the course of her career, she has studied the relationships between Buddhism and medicine, Buddhist travelogues and nature writing in Himalayan mountain cultures. She also practices experiential learning and outdoor education, and has a special interest in ensuring students’ well-being.

“During the pandemic, all of my online classes included assignments aimed at promoting student well-being because, I thought, people need to take care of themselves during this stressful time more than ever,” says Garrett about the inspiration for Windvane.

“Many of the students were appreciative of these assignments and said, I never thought I should or could take care of myself. They found it very beneficial, and I decided I should make this self-care work into a bigger project.”

That project is Windvane, a collection of reflections, insights, exercises and practical resources to help students and other members of the U of T community “put student flourishing at the centre of post-secondary course design.”

Among the resources are video interviews featuring faculty, students, alumni and staff from the U of T community reflecting on and giving guidance about a myriad of topics.

For example, Alistair Dias is an associate professor, teaching stream, in the Human Biology Program. In a series of videos, he talks about how a strong mind-body connection is beneficial for healing both physical and mental conditions; and that by strengthening the mind-body connection through mindfulness, we can strengthen the brain’s ability to adapt and change.

Marsha Hewitt is a professor in the Department for the Study of Religion and the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College. Among a variety of topics, she talks about how the COVID-19 pandemic has traumatized us on a global scale, and how “now more than ever, it is important for educators to show deep care for their students.”

Windvane also provides practical help for achieving well-being with guidance in practices such as creativity, breathing, eating well and listening to music.

For example, it describes the practice of using movement and physical activity — not simply to become fit or make our bodies look a certain way — but as “one avenue towards learning how to be deeply present.”

In the section describing the practice of meditation, students learn about the mindfulness exercise of focused attention and how learning to focus is important in “quieting our minds, calming our anxieties, and strengthening our ability to choose presence.”

There is also guidance on “putting Windvane into practice” by developing a personal plan for well-being.

Windvane reflects Garrett’s view that the popular “wellness movement” neglects the understanding that an individual’s well-being often depends on their social, political and cultural circumstances. What it means to “be well” depends on factors that are particular to individuals — in other words, well-being is different for everyone.

If we are experiencing racism, or living in poverty, or experiencing sexism or homophobia or something else that has an impact on our well-being, we can't just go and meditate on a cushion or take a yoga class and make those things go away.

“If we are experiencing racism, or living in poverty, or experiencing sexism or homophobia or something else that has an impact on our well-being,” she says, “we can't just go and meditate on a cushion or take a yoga class and make those things go away.

“We have to think about what well-being means for each of us as individuals. It might be different for you and me, and for people in different cultures. We have to consider what’s within our own power, and what requires a more collective action with support from other people and institutions.”

The project is supported by eCampus Ontario's Virtual Learning Strategies program which provides funding for improved access and innovation to digital resources for Ontario students.

“Windvane is for students,” says Garrett. “But it's also for instructors, because I’d like this project to be used by all instructors in all disciplines in the classroom. Many of them think: I'm not a psychologist; I'm not qualified to teach about well-being. Windvane is an attempt to give instructors the tools and the confidence to include something like this in their courses, no matter what subject they teach.

“As university professors, it’s our responsibility to address well-being in our classes,” says Garrett. “It just doesn't make sense anymore to have a class where you're not addressing the current reality of students’ lives.”