Wednesday, April 12, 2017

If not you, then who?

"I'm so glad you're talking about this in class, because none of my other classes do this."

"You told us we could come talk to you, and I don't know who else to go do."

"I can't believe I'm in fourth year and no one ever explained [something basic and important] to me before! Thank you so much for taking the time."

"I really appreciate you letting me take more time with this. I'm just so frazzled with my job and all my other courses."

These are some comments of a type I tend to get from students. They're flattering, in a way: they mark me as someone special, someone particularly empathetic, or practical, or accommodating. Students like me, they are grateful to me. They come into my office and I read their drafts, explain tricky concepts, go over punctuation rules, give them contact info for counselling services, let them cry, share a joke.

But you know what? I'm not feeling super special, or empathetic, or practical, or accommodating. I'm feeling--can I be honest?--resentful and burnt out.

Read the comments again: what students are describing is not a situation in which I particularly shine, but rather, a situation in which I have seem to have wound up in the front of the line because many, many other people took at least one giant step back. "No one" else is talking about the campus suicide in any of their four other classes? I'm the "only one" of five profs students feel comfortable talking to? My fourth year students don't know how to name the difference between humanities and social science research methods, or incorporate a quotation into flowing prose? No other profs grant extensions or workarounds to meet compelling student need? Really?

I'm doing the care work of five professors, by this kind of calculation, and it's killing me.

There are two paths we can move down now, to resolve this dilemma. We might say: Aimée, you're taking on too much, you can't baby them, you need limits and boundaries, if they can't manage work and classes that's not your problem. That is, we can encourage me to be more like the other four professors: go to class, frame myself as a researcher and content expert, teach the stuff, grade the stuff, enforce the deadlines, let them sink or swim according to their own 'merits.'

This has its appeal, believe me: it would way, way easier than what I do now. However, in my 13 years of professoring here, I've come to see my students as human beings and learners who need me to really teach them, and who also, importantly, need me to accommodate their humanity. This is matter of social justice and equity for me. And here's the thing: my students really, really thrive under this kind of teaching. This is what they tell me in my office, this is what I see in how their last papers are better than their first, in their exams, in their confidence, in their happiness. I derive satisfaction from this, of course, but if I didn't do it I would feel it as a dereliction of duty.

I'm proposing another path, then. MAYBE THE OTHER FOUR PROFESSORS NEED TO STEP UP. I'm truly beginning to feel that while some people are just kind of clueless, others are pretty deliberately designing courses and personas that say: this course is hard, life is hard, deal with it. Not my problem. That say: I'm too busy and important and I do not want you to talk to me about your problems. Not my problem. That say: the only thing that matters is what happens in the 180 minutes you're in my classroom per week. Everything else is ... not my problem.

Maybe what those professors are doing is not "not making more work for themselves" but actually and in reality simply transferring that very real and necessary work onto me. I don't think students get through a degree without some exentions, without crying in someone's office sometimes, without needing something explained in great detail, on on one, without mentoring and advising, without meaningful interpersonal contact. And if that's true, then someone is always doing that labour. And I can say for certain that it's not everyone and I have deep suspicions that the there is a strong gender and disciplinary factor in who actually is doing this work.

I can do this work, and I want to. But I can't do it if my colleagues across the institution do not share the load with me. I cannot sustainably always be "the only professor" who does X or Y or Z. This results in me coming home from work and crying, sleeping for hours on my nominal research days, grading on the weekend and booking weekly office check-ins with at-risk students. I know many of my colleagues do this work to, and to a one we are burnt out and emotionally exhausted, giving up all our slack to accommodate our students' real needs. Our own health suffers, our research suffers, we get really, really tired.

How can we change the culture of the university so that this care work is recognized and shared? How can we make people do it, how can it become part of the acknolwedged core work of teaching and professing? I see a vast need from students, reasonable and developmentally appropriate, and I don't see enough people working to support them. And I see myself, daily, getting closer and closer to burning out and giving up and it's just not sustainable.


  1. This is an excellent post, one that I have wanted to write for a long time, but was always more concerned that it would be offensive to my colleagues. I am not completely certain why mentoring is gone out of stye. I do know that spending extra time working with students will not get you tenure. That is one thing.

    But I know too that from my own academic career, I have been given breaks. I accumulated a whopping 0.7 GPA during my first go round at college. 15 years later, and having dealt with my substance abuse issues, I came back and maintained a 4.0 through PhD. I got lots of help along the way. I have always felt the need and desire to give back.

    Just in the past month, I have had one student who received a paid internship (and offer of two others) at the Smithsonian say - "had you not encouraged me, I would not have even applied." An exceptionally bright young woman who had been thinking of dropping out of her MA program because of the lack of support in her dept. She seems very empowered now.

    - - - another student just got a 12k scholarship on top of their GA position who has told me on multiple occasions she would not be in a PhD program had I not encouraged her over the years. A student from Latin America, she had not been given any support to pursue from her other North American colleagues.

    The best I can tell these folks is that 20 years from now when they are in my shoes as the professor, to remember what it was like to be that student who just needed someone to offer them support and mentoring, and do likewise.

    And then, there are those students who feel perpetually entitled and just suck you dry.

    I retired this past year. I am pleased to be free of all the academic bullshit responsibilities of committees, reports, and the "business" of higher education. I continue to teach some, carry out "research" that I want and not what the dept wants, and most importantly mentor students.

    I enjoy getting the notes from students I had over 20 years ago, keeping me up-to-date with their adventures - to know that the time spent had meaning to them.

    In my experience over the past 10 years in particular, as a general statement, professors in higher education have abandoned mentoring students, except to occasionally create clones of themselves. As Donald Duck says "Sad, so sad."

  2. I recently moved to a UK institution from Canada, where they have a system of tutors in place. Everyone in the department is responsible for mentoring a group of students, and calling them in for a chat if the attendance and assignment submission systems flag up issues. The tutor is also supposed to be a point of contact for reference letters, advice re. careers and academics, and letting the department know there are issues. For students who feel uncomfortable with their tutors, or who have more difficult circumstances, there are three senior tutors in place to see them. This is officially part of the workload. It is by no means perfect, but I think it works much better than the non-systems at Canadian universities where certain people take on more than their share of the emotional load without recognition.

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  5. This post really resonated with me. As a Mad-identified grad student I try as much as possible to have an ethics of care in my pedagogical practices and to run an accessible classroom. Many students who may be struggling are not necessarily comfortable coming forward and asking for accommodations ("coming out" with a mental illness is really hard. And many students may not identity as such- the stress of school may be causing anxiety and depression that's new for them). But it's hard, especially as a TA, when you end up working extra unpaid hours to help students struggling with the material, to answer emails from students who likely can't make it to campus, and even grading late assignments after the semester has ended. I often find myself in the position of advocating for my students- explaining to the prof why I don't want to make them get a doctor's note for an extension (barrier to access), that I want to build assumed absences into the participation grade, that I want to incorporate more process marks. Emotion is anathema to academia in general (and mental disability particularly- Margaret Price articulates this very well in Mad at School), which makes it very hard for students to get the support they need- and very hard for those of us trying to help not to become overwhelmed ourselves. I gave a guest lecture on Mad studies this past semester and a student came up afterward to thank me- she said it was the first time someone in a teaching position had spoken openly about having depression, which made her feel more comfortable speaking about her own experience. So often I hear teachers speaking disparagingly about "lazy" students missing class or not participating- assuming they are playing hooky or didn't do any of the readings. We pathologize mental illness in the classroom every day; we normalize stress and exhaustion as just "part of school" and then we are shocked when a student commits suicide. The university needs to do a lot more than download the responsibility of student well-being onto a few overworked profs and grad students, which seems to be where the policies are headed (i.e. training grad students to identify suicide risks, promoting quick and easy self-care, pointing students to counselling services that have many barriers to access, etc).


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