4 min readSep 27, 2021

Andrea Lynn, CIIS MFA graduate, writes about teaching undergraduate students to interrogate relationships, coexistence, and the interconnectedness of our world.

“Survival of the fittest or of the most compassionate? That’s the first question undergrads meet in the ROCK (Roots of Compassion and Kindness) courses I teach. Then, we write about ice.

What might it feel like to be trapped in a block of ice? Your body is encased. Imagine the block of ice is in a desolate location — the Arctic, the Antarctic. You are completely alone; the only thing you can see as you stare out of your ice block is more ice. Glaciers, frozen ocean, and ice sheets surround you.

Entering into this writing experience in their journals, students ask a lot of questions about the typically intense feelings of aloneness that come up:

“Why do I need to feel this abandoned and sad?”

“Doesn’t anyone care that I’m out here?”

“Am I worth being rescued?”

Their responses lead us into conversations about living in a collective and building a more compassionate world.

I asked Dr. Maria F. Loffredo Roca to explain why a program about compassion should exist at a public university. Her response was that of a hope carrier and incisive educator who embodies compassion:

What better place to teach these topics? We are charged with helping create the citizens of the future. If we aren’t teaching our students to be compassionate in all aspects of their lives, I believe we are failing them. I have always believed that teaching in a university means developing the whole person, not just a person’s job skills. Compassionate habits of the heart are essential to building the whole person.

Thanks to an anonymous donor with a huge heart and Dr. Roca, I teach courses about compassion alongside my outstanding ROCK peers and bring my CIIS MFA integral education into my (now virtual) classrooms at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Dr. Roca is chair of Florida Gulf Coast University’s Department of Integrated Studies and the impetus behind ROCK, an initiative that endeavors to integrate compassion, empathy, and kindness into education. As a member of the project pilot team developing pedagogy in 2019, I was a recipient of the Innovative Assignment Design Award for the integral course-embedded scholarship I designed, inspired and supported by several accomplished educators who make their faculty homes at CIIS.

I don’t teach students how to be compassionate; I try to help them locate what I believe already exists in all of us.

Using sensory exploration, history, and creative writing, students interrogate relationships, coexistence, the interconnectedness of our world.

I don’t teach students how to be compassionate; I try to help them locate what I believe already exists in all of us. Leaning on the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, we delve into psychologist Paul Ekman’s work. He explains in a review of Charles Darwin’s notes that Darwin saw compassion — what Darwin described in his field notes as sympathy — as the strongest indicator of survival.

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by the creator of Charter for Compassion, Karen Armstrong, is our foundation. Students consider each of the steps within the text, learning first about the crucial role of self-compassion.

We engage in practices that facilitate an understanding of biodiversity and apply them to understanding the exquisite diversity of the human collective. Looking into the poignant graphic novel, Pitch Black, students grapple with how and when we choose to see one another, and then, how we might choose to care.

Mostly Gen Z, my students write with an austere knowingness; the spread of the virus has emphasized the global village’s interconnectedness: we’re all in this together regardless of our political views.

Through these ROCK courses I’ve witnessed undergrads plumbing the depths, and, like my chair, I carry hope alongside an intense belief in what these students can do, will do, for the world.

So, my resounding answer to the course’s central question is that it is assuredly, survival of the most compassionate.

Andrea Lynn is adjunct faculty in the Department of Integrated Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University and a doctoral student in the oldest environmental studies program in the United States located at Antioch University. Beyond ice, her research interests include using acoustic archives as non-invasive interpretive tools to limit seismic survey activity in the Arctic. Andrea writes to shine the light on environmental injustices, considering the tonality of the climate crisis through the lens of ecoacoustics. She is a recipient of The Arctic Circle 2020 Expeditionary Residency (postponed until June 2022 due to the pandemic).




Blog of the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts and Writing program at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA, U.S.A.