Erin Schaefer, hailing originally from Minnesota, knew the Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures (WRAC) doctoral program in MSU’s College of Arts and Letters was the one for her. “I wanted a program that would allow me to pursue my interdisciplinary interests, and WRAC is that program. The department helped me craft my coursework in a way that allowed me to research the intersections between the brain, narrative, emotion, listening, and culture. Having both a space and a set of colleagues and mentors to support me has been an incredible privilege.”
Erin began the WRAC program in 2015. While completing her coursework and exams, she taught WRA 202: Introduction to Professional Writing, ENGL 232: Writing as Exploration: Self and Society, and WRA 210: Introduction to Web Authoring. She says, “Teaching is my passion, and I’ve learned a lot about it during my time here.” Erin particularly focused on her development as a teacher during her time as an Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Teaching Fellow (IIT) from 2016-2018. The IIT Fellowship provides graduate students from departments across the campus with community and mentorship focused on interdisciplinary scholarship on teaching and learning. During her fellowship, Erin wrote an article, since published, on open listening (read the abstract here) and developed a reading seminar on the same subject. Her work draws from scholarship in Rhetoric and Writing, as well as neuroscience and social cognition.
“One of the most exciting things about my fellowship,” she said, “was getting the chance to design and facilitate a reading seminar centered on listening and anchored in mindfulness. The course reframed listening as both an internal and external process, one that requires fostering a very particular kind of open awareness associated with mindfulness exercises. On the last day of the seminar, students shared their multimodal learning narrative, reflecting on what they’d learned in the course. Their wisdom and willingness to listen deeply to themselves and others will stay with me for a very long time.”
Erin says that her work, because it focuses on mindfulness of emotions and listening, constantly prompts her own personal growth. “I pursued my education because I have seen firsthand the ways in which prejudice and violence are harmful. Growing up with two moms, I dealt with my community’s prejudice around sexual orientation. My life has also been deeply touched by the legacy of abuse and trauma as well as the difficulties of mental health issues of close loved ones. My education has helped me gain insight into the systemic nature of these issues, while also providing me a set of proactive tools for responding to them.” In addition to using her role as a teacher to make a difference, Erin uses storytelling and performance to help public and academic audiences better understand topics such as mental health and non-violent communication.
Erin says that her education has also made an impact on her own mental health. She explains, “While I used to view my stress and emotions as burdens and barriers to my work, I’ve found that the obstacle is the path. I learned to respect my triggers, for instance, and listen to them with curiosity. I actually learned from doing and writing about listening from both social and neurological perspectives that there is an intelligence behind the process of triggers that is often misunderstood, and that cultural messages which shame triggers don’t help.”
While mindfulness is often viewed and even marketed as an individually-focused tool, Erin emphasizes the need for mindfulness in community engagement. She is pursuing a graduate certificate in Community Engagement, where Erin and I met this past year. “I see my life’s work as helping to build non-violent cultures, something that requires individual and group work. Culture has the power to bind us together, but it also has the potential to divide us. Prior to beginning my graduate work, my family and I started a business, The Mindful Heart, with the goal of co-creating cultures built around respect and non-violence. To support this work, I’ve been learning how to make a broader impact using digital tools such as video and web authoring, as well as how to do community-centered work.”
In looking forward to what’s next, Erin draws her inspiration from her family, her students, and graduate students that she’s met from across MSU’s campus: “I’ve met so many awesome graduate students from different disciplines and backgrounds through my involvement with the Community Engagement grad certificate program, the Graduate Life and Wellness’s Leadership Academy, the Graduate Employee Union, and professional learning communities. Their courage, creativity, and passion are literally changing the world. It’s inspiring.”