Beyond Collegiality: Community Care in Academia | Rachel Wagner

written by: Rachel Wagner

Will this person be a good colleague?  That’s a question that surfaced in multiple ways for me as I participate in various faculty searches at my institution. Peers and administrators wonder aloud how we might measure this. They speculate about what evidence a candidate could provide that indicates they will be a good colleague. The answer is typically about service. Will the future colleague take leadership for a project or a laborious task? Will they help recruit? Help advise? Will they say yes to students to serve on a committee or supervise an independent study? Will they do, so I can do less.

Such conversations are commonplace and, given the budget freezes since the start of the pandemic in 2020, predictable. Yet, the pandemic has caused me to think differently about doing less. Witnessing  the burnout of former colleagues and students has caused me to pause. The ensuing great resignation has reinforced how our few services and social nets are more taxed than ever. And as the pandemic continues and wreaks havoc on underserved and under resourced communities, I conclude (as many disability activists have argued) that these systems are insufficient. We must be our own collective solutions. Scholars refer to this as mutual aid (Spade, 2020) or community care (Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2018). Centering independence, these solutions acknowledge the inadequacies of our current social and political systems, and turn to the creative and generative ways our disabled, queer, people of color, and poor communities have worked together and around to cultivate care tending despite systemic neglect and life-taking circumstances.

The current state of the U.S. impacts so many of my loved ones. Folks find themselves—as is the practice of our profession—doing more with less. Folks found themselves risking more with serious consequences; returning to classrooms and workspaces where they might be exposed to an unforgiving virus. People have had to isolate and quarantine and live in ways that actively contradict interdependence and community. And while the introvert in me has greatly appreciated the respite from dinners and parties; the caregiver in me began to wither. So when last semester, a colleague shared a bit about the challenging circumstances they were facing, I saw an opportunity to help both of us. Not to be someone else’s savior, but because I believe that we are interconnected.  When we embrace interdependence we recognize that each other’s needs can be met when community members have space to make requests and other community members have opportunities to surface what they can contribute.

When my colleague, who is single and parenting a toddler during a global pandemic while seeking tenure, admitted that she was nearing a breaking point, I realized three things: (1) I cannot help her with work—we have different sub fields and our current projects don’t align; (2) I cannot help her with childcare because someone in our household is immunosuppressed and I cannot justify the risk of possibly contracting COVID-19; and (3) I love to cook, and I am really good at it. Helping with meals is a substantive contribution; meal planning, food shopping, and actual cooking is ridiculously time intensive. So cooking is what I did for 12 weeks. Got her through most of the semester by adding a half dozen more servings to my weekly meal prep. I find meal prepping to be akin to a moving meditation (with sharp knives). It ensures that I cook once and eat several times. And being in the kitchen reminds me that sometimes there are immediate rewards to the work we engage in. Delicious rewards. This is comforting for those of us who have devoted our careers to student development. We do not always get to see the results of our efforts. Meal prep gives me a feeling of accomplishment, something that I treasure when much of my impact as an educator and scholar is incremental or hidden from my awareness.

It was not the first time I chose to feed my colleagues. As a director of student housing, I spent two years in a lunch sharing group where each member took responsibility for feeding the group one day a week. We understood that it was easier to cook once for five than to cook five times for one. And that space offered so much more than calories. It brought a group of queer and/or disabled, and/or people of color together to share heart joy, heartbreak, and heart work. It helped us survive an institution that was not built with us in mind. And neither last semester nor the time with our affectionately dubbed Creta lunch group was the last time I parlayed my cooking talent into a community act.

Last week I spent three hours chopping lettuces and herbs, boiling noodles, poaching shrimp, and rolling rice paper wraps. I was putting the finishing touches on my household meal prep and packing up some containers for a friend and colleague who is recovering from a recent illness. This latest act of community care compelled me to reflect on cooking-as-care-tending. While the act of cooking inspires and centers me, doing it for a living is a different story. I worked for years as a caterer and cook. If cooking as a profession wasn’t so hard on the body, I probably would have done it longer. But it’s hard on the knees, the feet, the circulatory system, and the back. It’s hot, and long, sometimes tedious, and terribly hard physical work. Yet, I like to cook for others. It is soul satisfying to feed folks.

So, now I cook as a way to take care of myself, family, friends, and students. I get paid in smiles and satisfied groans. I get rewarded with an outlet for my creativity that taxes different abilities than academia. I get paid in stories of other meals, other dishes, other cuisines, and other people who cooked for my loved ones. And I get the satisfaction in knowing I made a useful and tangible contribution; that to paraphrase Martha Nussbaum, I located the sweet spot where my unique skills and talents could catalyze someone else’s flourishing. I learned how being in community is a necessary action in a time when mutual aid is more necessary than ever. It feels good to give, to apply my gifts to someone else’s survival. The rewards of doing more in the service of all of our survival, and eventual, thriving? Abundant.

What can mutual aid look like in our student affairs spaces? Meal chains? Rotating child care? Running errands? Accompanying folks to appointments? Normalizing remote work? Welcoming dependents to offices, programming, events, and services? As we meet one another’s needs, what might we gain? What stories, what psychological gifts, what ease, what world-making possibilities might we proliferate?

A couple of recipes to stimulate your engagement in community care:

Mushroom Risotto


Love, care, joy

Mushrooms, cheap and/or wild (expensive unless you forage, I do not), whole and dried

4-5 cloves of crushed/chopped garlic

1 large white or yellow onion

2 Tb Grapeseed Oil (or other high smoke oil)

2 Tb of butter (or more oil if vegan)

Fresh thyme (if you have it, otherwise optional)

Fresh oregano (if you have it, otherwise optional)

Ground black pepper to taste

Salt to taste

1 Cup dry white wine (or stock or water if you abstain)

5-6 cups of chicken/beef stock or water

2 Cups Arborio rice

Parmesan Cheese

  • Buy lots of mushrooms, whole and dried
  • Chop whole mushrooms and reconstitute dried (read the package for instructions)
  • Sauté a few cloves of crushed/chopped garlic with half a white or yellow onion in a high smoke oil (I like grapeseed)
  • Add a few knobs of butter (or more oil if vegan) and a bunch of mushrooms in batches. Do not crowd the pan. You want there to be space between mushrooms, so they pan roast instead of steam.
  • If you have fresh thyme or oregano, throw it in with some salt and a couple of grinds of black pepper (turns out, seasoning is most of what the chef-y folks call technique. Most home cooks don’t use as much salt as restaurants do).
  • Let the mushrooms get happy. Don’t turn them too much but watch so they don’t stick/burn. You want the heat to roast them and give them a bit of a crust.
  • When all the mushrooms are done, deglaze the pan (pour the liquid over the brown and greasy bits and agitate them with a wooden spoon because as Carla Hall says, the flavor is in the brown) with a little dry white wine or chicken or vegetable stock (even water works here, beef stock would be good too, but I use whatever I have. Except shell/fish stock.)
  • Add enough liquid until you have six cups. Add all those mushrooms back in (should be at least two cups). Bring the stock to a slow boil. Let it bubble gently until at least ⅓ reduced (4 cups). This might take a while. Bask in the earthy aromas from the pot.
  • Separate mushrooms and set aside. Keep mushroom stock on a simmer while you start the rice.
  • Get a good heavy bottom pan or Dutch oven. Start more high smoke oil and add the other half of the onion (fine dice or mince) and more crushed garlic (to taste. I love garlic).
  • Get it glistening and happy and add your arborio rice. (most ratios are 1:1.5 for risotto—so 1 cup of rice needs 1.5 cups of stock/liquid; but I let taste and texture be my guide. Depending on the age of your rice and the humidity of your air, it could take more or less). Let the rice be coated in the oily garlicky oniony goodness.
  • After it has toasted 2-3 minutes, deglaze with a ½ cup of dry white wine (or stock or water). If using wine, cook down so you get the most of the underlying flavor notes without the alcohol.
  • Begin adding ladlefuls of stock while stirring over medium low heat. Lower heat and hot, not boiling stock are your pals here. You want to coax out all the creamy starch from the rice. Move it around a lot. You will be adding liquid every few minutes and stir, stir, stir for at least 25 minutes.
  • Get in a rhythm. Breathe with it. Or move your hips. Feel your body as you make food magic.
  • When it is creamy and unctuous and the texture is satisfying, add in the mushrooms, good parmesan and taste before you add salt. Parmesan—especially parmigiano reggiano is pretty salty.

If you need to keep it vegan—Mike Symon has an amazing vegan parmesan that is ground cashews, nutritional yeast, and salt. It’s ridiculously good.

Dish it up to the ones who need their heart nourished along with their bodies. It will not disappoint.

Chicken Soup, Bone Broth, or Dumplings: Slightly Less Demanding Options for the Cooking Rookie


Small whole chicken

3 quarts water

2 stalks celery

2 carrots

1 yellow or white onion

3 cloves of garlic

1 bay leaf

Your choice of spice (I like ginger and turmeric, but some folks like thyme or rosemary – you can also do without)

Salt and pepper

**1 can of premade biscuits (optional)

  • Pat your chicken dry and remove organs (in a bag inside the chicken)
  • Place in a large pot and cover with water, probably 3 quarts
  • Rough chop (big knuckle size pieces) of onions, celery, and carrot, add to pot
  • Add garlic, spices, and seasoning
  • Bring to a boil, skim any greasy or grungy looking foam with a big spoon, and boil until the chicken is done (either the skin will pull back from one of the legs, or a thermometer will register 165 degrees Fahrenheit—about 45 minutes at a full boil)
  • Take out the chicken and large chunks of vegetables and let cool. Refrigerate if not using within a half hour. Shred the chicken and dice the vegetables.
  • Reduce heat to a slow bubble (just between low and medium) and let the stock reduce and manifest its brothy brilliance, at least one hour. More if you have time (you can also do this step overnight in a crock pot on low, just make sure that you refrigerate the large vegetables and chicken for use later, or if you want bone broth, pull the chicken meat off the bone and refrigerate and return the carcass and any bones back to the broth. Put it in a slow cooker and give it at least 24 hours. 48 if you want to be extra—spoiler, I am always extra.)

An hour before you are ready to serve, heat the broth up, chop the vegetables small, and shred the chicken you took off the bone. Reunite the delicious morsels with your savory broth.

This is the kind of chicken soup that will deliver physical and emotional sustenance.

*If making bone broth, keep the chicken separate and use it for any number of other things—add dressing and make chicken salad; add salsa and make tacos/bowls/quesadillas; add your favorite sauce and serve over rice (I am addicted to David Chang’s ginger scallion sauce).

**If you want chicken and dumplings, grab a ¼ of a cup of cool water and 3TB of corn starch and whisk briskly to make a slurry. Add to the pot and bring to a low boil; after 2 minutes turn the heat down and gently drop the biscuits in (I cut them into fourths because they will inflate in the broth). Cook through—about five minutes. Taste one before turning off the heat, for quality control purposes, only, of course.


Piepzna-Samarasinha, L. L. (2018). Care work: Dreaming disability justice. Arsenal pulp Press.

Spade, D. (2020). Mutual aid: Building solidarity during this crisis (and the next). Verso Books.

Author Biography:

Rachel Wagner, EdD, (she/hers) is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs at Clemson University. She’s just your average SA pro, gender scholar, cook, @rachellwag.