Revisiting Mutualism: Loving Me, Loving You

Karen Costa
5 min readJan 21, 2022

I have noticed conversations bubbling up about the topic of what I call sustainable teaching. Perhaps I have some thoughts and feelings to add that may be of benefit.

I wrote a book about videos, but pssst…don’t tell my editor…it’s not really about videos at all. It’s about mutualism.

Karen holds a copy of 99 Tips and smiles broadly.
Karen holds a copy of her book during the start of the COVID pandemic.

The title of my book is 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos, but in truth, videos were just one example of how we navigate the emotional work of teaching in higher education. They were how I came to my understanding of mutualism.

My Mutualism Journey

I started to make videos for my learners, and they worked. Students were more engaged. The quality of their work improved. They raved about the videos in their course evaluations, explaining that they felt more connected to me as their online teacher than they ever could’ve imagined possible.

So I started to make more videos, and thought I needed to make fancier videos, and as I spent more and more time making more and fancier videos, I started to get really dang tired of making videos.

I arrived at the question: how do I make videos for my students and take care of myself as a human being and educator?

We could substitute any pedagogical strategy into that question.

  • How do I apply principles of UDL (universal design for learning) and take care of myself as a human and educator?
  • How do I transition to an ungrading model and take care of myself as a human and educator?
  • How do I use problem-based learning with my students and take care of myself as a human and educator?

And really, this is bigger than teaching and learning, right? Isn’t this the question of our lives?

How do I care for others and also for myself?

When videos brought this question into my life and teaching, mutualism was one of the answers that I found.

Some Science

There are a few types of symbiotic relationships identified in the biological sciences. Most of you are probably familiar with parasitism, where one organism is helped and the other is harmed. Parasitism is woven into the dominant culture. It is simply conveyed through the word “or.”

  • Should I create these fancy videos for my students or should I take care of myself?
Photo by TJ Arnold on Unsplash

Mutualism is a type of symbiotic relationship in which both organisms are helped. Mutualism is not an “or,” but an “and.”

  • How can I find and cultivate spaces that benefit both me and my students? How can I make videos in a way that benefits my students and brings me joy?

Loving Me, Loving You

I once worked with a professor who came to our online community to rave about a live lesson she’d just led in Zoom that she felt was one of the best of her career, regardless of modality. She had created a very fancy slide deck scavenger hunt, and she reported that she’d never seen her students so engaged. We celebrated her great work.

“But the only problem is,” she said, “It took me eight hours to make it.”

We walked through that together. There was a voice in her head telling her that when you find that level of student engagement, you need to do it. All. The. Time. No matter what. No matter if it takes every waking hour of your time and eats away at your life and soul. “Students first!” screamed the voice.

We followed that voice to its logical conclusion.

“What happens to you if you keep spending this much time on lesson prep?” I asked.“I’ll exhaust myself. I’ll hate it. I’ll resent my students,” she said.“And when that happens to you, what happens to your students? To their learning?”“They’ll be less engaged. They’ll suffer, and their learning will suffer.”

That kind of truth-telling is love in action.

Someone told me recently that love is being in reality with each other, and I think of that statement ten times a day.

Telling yourself that you can be a superhero teacher for your students, that you can spend eight hours on slide decks, that you can do whatever it takes for peak engagement, and that you’ll be fine, you’ll be okay, you’ll figure it out? That’s not reality. That’s not love. Not for you and not for your students.

Love is being in reality with each other. Love is looking for the spaces and acts that benefit both you and your students. Simple and sustainable teaching is an act of love.

Love might mean you craft an assignment that balances good pedagogy with your need to not have to book a hotel room for the weekend in order to grade all of those assignments (true story). Love might mean taking a sick day because mental health is health. Love might mean keeping your mistakes and ringing phone and barking dog in your video, because you are human, not a robot. Love is realizing that the mistakes are often the best part of our teaching, because they show our dear students how to begin again.

Many of the approaches I’ve seen around sustainable teaching are deficit based, focusing on how we can cut things and and do less. This is advice that I give and take myself, all the time. But mutualism offers another way to frame this important conversation.

Find the AND.

There are spaces in your teaching that benefit you and your learners. Start there. Circle them in permanent marker. Those are your touchstone.

Spiritually and scientifically, we know that what we focus on grows. Focus on the spaces that support both you and your students.

That faculty member that I mentioned before? I reminded her that our brains love novelty, so using the super fancy scavenger hunt in every class would soon become boring. She recognized that using it as a special treat had more power. We also talked about making evergreen content that she could recycle from term-to-term, so that once she did invest a large chunk of time into creating a lesson, she wouldn’t have to make that time investment again. In the end, she found a strategy that balanced her needs and her learners’. Mutualism.

Not only can this model help to address the epidemic of educator burnout, but imagine the possibilities of modeling this concept for our students: that we can care for ourselves and other people at the same time. That we can love each other through reality.

The possibilities are endless.

Recommended reading on Mutualism

Mutualism: The Forgotten Concept in Teaching Science by Abour H. Cherif



Karen Costa

I write about higher education. Here for my work through 100 Faculty, LLC, supporting faculty, staff, and student success.