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Fighting Fire With Fire

Health, Safety, and Well-being Initiatives Faculty
May 13, 2022 Peter Mather Ohio University

JCC Connexions, Vol. 8, No. 2, May 2022

Lessons in Moral Development Learned From a Sabbatical Adventure: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

Pete Mather serves as the senior associate editor for the Journal of College and Character and is a professor in higher education and student affairs at Ohio University. He is providing this column in Connexions based on his 2021-2022 academic year sabbatical. During his sabbatical, Pete has been interviewing innovative thinkers about the future of student engagement in higher education, reading on the topic of higher education reform, and has been on a soul-searching mission to discover ways of encouraging best models of practice for today's and tomorrow's students. This column focuses on how higher education faculty and administrators can promote moral development in an evolving higher education environment.

Please see his reflection/adventure/sabbatical blog here

“The world is on fire.” This was the first line of a journal reflection I drafted last summer while traveling and camping in the mountain states of Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Many campgrounds were closed, mountain views were obscured by smoke, and air quality was compromised due to the forest fires ravaging the region. These realities highlighted one of our planet’s most significant concerns: climate change.

The literal fires of the Western United States also can serve as an apt metaphor for many other global crises:  At the time of this writing, nearly a million lives have been lost in the United States alone due to COVID. Also, on the day I write this, pictures from Bucha in Ukraine were published online, showing the brutality of the unconscionable onslaught by the Russian military on Ukrainian citizens. Other realities include ongoing efforts to dismantle democratic society at home and abroad. It is not a surprise that, in this context, there exists a global mental health crisis. Even before the onset of COVID, a survey of senior student affairs officers highlighted student mental health as the number one issue facing students.

Amid contemporary challenges, we educators are struggling to cope with the same daunting realities as our students. As I have traveled through the Western states, I have spent much of my time alone. As blissful as much of the time away from institutional life has been, the problems of the world are unavoidable. Consequently, there are times that I have faced overwhelming angst, and at other times a heavy malaise born of a sense of helplessness. Undoubtedly my own experience reminds me that the mental health crisis is not just a student issue; it is manifested in society at large and is a reality for those of us who are appointed to guide and mentor students.

As I consider the reality of going back into life after my sabbatical adventure, I believe that my colleagues and I can find our own healing through the work of fostering hope and agency among our students. I am also aware that there is a certain comfort in the conventions of meetings, classes, and even the everyday gossip that serve as distractions from the important realities of the day. This is not unlike the lives of students who also can get lost in their own routines that often serve as buffers from the larger matters of the world. However, it is important to acknowledge that these conventions and everyday rituals are mere bandaids and are insufficient to deal with the immense fear and pain that are so vital to address in today’s world.

As the world burns, perhaps our only way out is to fight fire with fire. Fire-fighting professionals know that large fires can sometimes be contained or thwarted by burning away the prospective path or fuel that could expand fire-related damage. This approach called back-burning is most often used in forest wildfires. The educational context provides other ways of fighting fire with fire. I suggest we consider the metaphors of the passion of fire, the warmth of fire, and the regenerative properties of fire in our work. 

Fiery Passion

Prior to my work as a faculty member, I had the pleasure of overseeing the internship program at The Carter Center (TCC). TCC is the headquarters of President Jimmy Carter’s post presidential humanitarian work. From eliminating guinea worm in Africa to mediating and managing deeply entrenched conflicts, the staff and interns at TCC invested themselves deeply into improving the lives of their fellow global citizens. These issues they address are daunting and require commitment and creativity. I have never witnessed such an invested group of students as these undergraduate and graduate interns, who were learning about and engaging in addressing these formidable issues. They were, to put it simply, on fire; they were passionate about their work. As interns were exposed to the deep human needs of the people and the complexity of the problems, their hearts and minds were on fire.

As I consider my return to work on campus, I am imagining the kinds of engagements that will spark my students’ passions and will fan the flames of deep investment in learning. These can present themselves through engaging in and learning about people who are hurting economically and emotionally in local communities; studying and addressing the toll of today’s deep political divisions and fostering creative reconciliation strategies; and learning about the pain inflicted when people’s identities are marginalized through meanspirited public policy. Across disciplines, we can find ways to foster students’ passions for a better world by shedding the fire’s light on the world’s greatest needs and visions of inspiration.

Offering the Hearth

Gerry Saddlemire was a professor in the higher education master’s program at Bowling Green State University. By the time I was sitting in Gerry’s class, he had made extraordinary professional contributions, including building one of the most respected graduate programs in his field. Despite this class being led by someone of such accomplishment, it was a place of comfort. His ego was never center stage. That place was reserved for his students. I never felt more at home in a classroom as I did in his. Despite sitting with approximately 25 other students, Gerry’s classroom felt like a family room, with our community circling a warm hearth. When students are surrounded by a world that is on fire or at least spurs frantic movement and dispersed attention, they can benefit from places that draw them into rest, to contemplate and reflect. And, they seek a place that invites authenticity over repression and performance, where their strengths are appreciated, their areas for growth are gently and thoughtfully nudged and where they feel the warmth of the hearth.

Renewing Fires

 In moderation, fires can be regenerative, by controlling against larger, more destructive fires, by killing invasive vegetation, and by germinating certain plants. It is most certainly a time of renewal in higher education, in which innovative practices are needed to replace anachronistic conventions of the academy. When we take risks as educators by experimenting with new pedagogical or programmatic practices, we are, metaphorically, building manageable fires. By definition, risky practices will sometimes not work. However, innovations and risks are the best approach to generating learning and adaptiveness and the potential for germinating a richer community to confront the issues of the day.  


Fighting the fires that are literally and figuratively consuming the world is not for the faint-hearted. As we fight these fires, we will also summon the courage to build new fires of passion, warmth, and innovation in our classrooms, meeting spaces, and throughout higher education communities. I am ready to light and embrace the fire in the places where I gather with students and colleagues because doing so is the way forward in a world that is on fire.