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the occupational hazards of distance education

February 19, 2013

lisa hammershaimb

Every job seems to have its occupational hazards. Chefs, dancing precariously between razor sharp knives and scorching flames; teachers, spending hours at a time pacing rows of desks and bending down to be eye level with even their smallest pupil; tattoo artists, retaining a relentless grip on their buzzing guns as they fire burst after burst of needle point ink into porous skin. Bodies seem to always take a beating through the everyday rigors of vocation.

I’ll admit as a distance educator I once thought that I might have the one job in the world that was pretty much free from occupational hazards. I don’t have a rigorous physical schedule. Sure I could get carpal tunnel from too much computer work or eye strain from too much screen staring but with proper positioning those things are totally preventative. I spend my days moving from ergonomic office chair, to coffee shop armchair, to (dare I even admit it) semi-firm innerspring mattress. I am location neutral and my job can occur wherever I happen to find myself. In consequence, the majority of my day is spent moving from one comfortable spot to the next, giving my body the most comfort possible so it can fade to the background and my mind can move unfettered, to explore all the creative potential for which a situation might call. I always saw this as an asset to what I do and while I still think it is definitely an asset in many ways, I’ve recently come to think that there might be a strange occupational hazard to the distance education world that seems almost crazy when you first think about it but has become eerily present in my own life. The occupational hazard that I think all distance workers might suffer from a bit is the loss of their own bodies.

When you spend all day, everyday working in a world that is almost exclusively digital, screen-based, and location neutral the most important aspects of your work persona tend to be digital, screen-based, and location neutral projection of you. Your mind is elevated and your physicality becomes just as irrelevant as the color of your socks you happen to be wearing. Everyone works and exists in this ephemeral meeting place governed by pixels and bits of information. While I think this is a very good idea and an even better place to make your office, it is also very very dangerous to become only a mind….to forget that you have a body and that you do in fact have a geographic location and it’s unique and it’s real and it’s part of your identity.

So how do you get your body back? I’m not entirely sure and as I’ve only just realized I am heading down a path that is growing more and more anti-body by the month, this is all my own very unscientific exploration. We shall see what happens in the next couple months.

The first thing I’m doing is learning a new very body-oriented skill: playing the piano. Piano has a mental aspect for sure but it’s even more about moving your fingers in patterns and sequences and your fingers move to your arms and then to your back and pretty soon (especially when someone is watching you) you become pretty much all body. It’s exhilarating and terrifying and the rush and repetition of it all is something I have yet to really come to terms with. That said, the hour or so I practice each day has brought me into my body in so many ways that my daily job never will. The next thing I’m doing is getting more aware of my internal body rhythms by practicing yoga. I totally support that the body and mind are integrally tied and must be treated as such and that breathing, oxygen, etc are vital to a healthy life and yet in reality I spend most of my day breathing fast and shallow…constantly ready to put out the next virtual fire, send off the next email, grade the next round of revisions. My mind thinks itself a multi-tasking maestro and the present is totally irrelevant to what might happen 2 hours or 2 days from now. My body is kind of old news.

But that changes when you’re in the midst of a yoga session. When you consciously sit in silent meditation, feel your body and quiet your mind you begin to realize what an amazing gift it is to actually have a body that is present in a unique moment. When I’ve been breathing deep and slow I try to imagine that the amorphous brain/mind that seems to be constantly racing to the next idea, worry etc. is moving back into my actual skin and the reunion is so soothing and complete. My mind always wants to be the dominant voice but I try to consciously ask the other bits of me what they’re doing, how they feel, and actually listen to their responses. Again, it’s very much a work in progress but it feels like a very good practice because I feel grounded and even more I feel real.

So…hopefully this year will indeed be about being a real body and not just a location neutral brain. I know my default will be to divorce the parts of me and segment myself into compartments that never cross and yet I also know that for my vocation and even more my life to be sustainable and effective it must also be lived as a whole thing. Though my body doesn’t matter so much in the day to day parts of my job, the inspiration and ideas I gain through being a whole person matter tremendously to how I can connect with my own students and my own connection to my geographic location must set the example for how we not only can transform our communities through our ideas but also through our own physical presence for good.

Hello body….my name is lisa. It’s nice to meet you. I hope we can be friends.

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