Teaching reflections, sem II 2011, or: some battles you can never win

So. I survived a semester without having a single undergraduate cry on me!1 I’m really not sure that that’s cause for celebration, though.

Slightly twitchy star - Ursula VernonWhat I’m telling myself instead is that this semester, I talked one of my friends-and-former-students into applying for an extension when it was needed. I talked one of my current students through Special Consideration applications which she’d started. I’ve had a couple of honest conversations with undergrads about Ye Olde Mental Health Problemes and academia – some in a teachery capacity and some in the context of less formal relationships built up through extra-curricular CMS activities. I’m starting to get a sense of how much I’m happy to say and in what contexts.2

I think can be pretty happy both with the coping skills demonstrated by some of my students, and with my own behaviour/example/wossname. But. But. I’m still not used to the fact that every semester it seems like I have to watch some kids slip through the cracks.

There’s the ones who come to you at the end of semester in despair because of problems that have been going on all semester, maybe longer, and say “what can I do, I can’t afford to fail anymore courses?” There’s some who turn up to most classes and suddenly stop handing in work. There’s some who have every right to special considerations, alternative assessments, whatever, and just… never asked for them.

It breaks my heart, every time. It’s also a good case study of Professional Boundaries and all that: there is help I must give (according to the institution’s rules and my immediate supervisor’s policys); and there is help I can give, mostly advice, because I am basically a nice person, or perhaps I spent too long in the Brownie Guides and ended up with a compulsive urge to ‘lend a hand’. But there’s also a whole range of stuff clearly outside of my power, like the extension system and so on (we have a faculty-wide policy and system here, which is great for uniform practice, but intimidating to use as a student). And regardless of how much concrete help and practical advice I give, first, the student has to ask for it and then the student has to use it.

Reward for information leading to the return of lost marblesI have to get used to the fact that some kids will never ask, and others won’t put into action the advice they get. That might be their own silly fault, or it might be because whatever their problem is, they’re kind of drowning in it and can’t get the logical-thinking thing together to fix it.3 It may not be the student’s fault, and I really wish the university’s support systems were less confusing to find and use, but there’s still nothing I can do about it.

But. When students do talk to me, y’know what I keep seeing? Students with actualfax perfectly legit problems are afraid of talking to their teachers, and of using the support systems available. Because they:
– are ashamed of themselves
– are scared of disappointing their teachers
– think the support systems aren’t for people like them, they’re for people with real problems
– don’t want people to know they have real problems.

I haven’t had any of my students say as much to me, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if there was a fear that People In Positions Of Power would dismiss/laugh at/be unwilling to help students, especially those with invisible illnesses of the mental-health type. I like and trust my supervisors, but I’ve also seen other faculty members laugh off, or gripe about, students requesting help for mental health problems.

I can’t fix all the problems in the world, but if I could wave a magic wand and make all my students not afraid to talk to me I would be a very happy person. (My second wish, mind you, would be that this not-afraidness come with a sensible concept of the difference between ‘asking for advice on coping with study and personal crises’ and ‘telling me waaaaay too much about your personal problems on the first day of class’; but if I only get one wish, then I’d rather enforce that boundary myself.)

A rainbow-coloured small fluffy creature thingIn some parts of the world – not here, so far as I know – there are whole programs set up to train staff and faculty in being aware of the particular problems faced by queer students, and how to help them. Such programs, I am given to understand, also have ways of identifying “this staffmember is not an arseface” for students who need to seek advice. Last year (wow, was it only last year?), in the aftermath of a spate of campus suicides, the internet was awash with advice on how to be a visibly-queer friendly academic.4

Have any of you encountered such a program for training academics to deal with students who have legit life and health problems? Is anyone running programs like that? Sometimes I think teachers ought to get basic… pastoral care training, or whatever the term is for the secular equivalent. Or possibly everyone should line up to be administered a dose of the Cluebat, that’d also be nice.

Paranoia/Social Anxiety = OTPWhat does one do to make it as safe as possible for students to talk to you when they need to? I mean, I have my personal toolkit – I have and keep office hours and tell the class that I’ll be horribly bored if no one comes to talk to me during that time. I try to remind them a couple of times per semester about a. where the extension system is and b. that really, I promise, they’re entitled to use it. This semester I also added in some personal comments, letting them know that I don’t see the applications or the reasons, and that the course co-ordinator, who makes the decisions, is an understanding and fair person and I ought to know, she’s my supervisor. I specifically mentioned mental health problems as legit reasons for special considerations.

I know that, no matter what I do, I can’t actually make all my students get their shit together. Perhaps I’ll develop a thicker skin with time, or when I’m no longer teaching in my own undergraduate institution. I don’t think I want to lose this concern entirely, though. Even if there’s a limited amount or nothing at all that I can do, I don’t want to turn into the person who doesn’t care.

Advices, O Internets?


1. I did make a student cry, but she left the room to do so. Pretty sure that wasn’t because of my unusual meanness, just a matter of straw, meet camel’s back, in the form of midsemester results.
2. Case in point, apparently I’m telling the internet that I’m both not-straight and not-entirely-mentally-well. Interesting. For reference, anyone who deals with me IRL, neither of these are secrets, but nor are they things I go around shouting from rooftops in professional contexts. I have no problem with people knowing but I don’t necessarily want to talk about it.
3. I have seen this student, and I have been this student.
4. A lot of this advice actually upset me a lot, and did not make me feel very comfortable. I strongly resist the idea that anyone is obliged to Come Out, even for the sake of the Yoof of Today. What of teachers who are just figuring this out? Who don’t feel safe themselves in their classrooms or workplaces? When it comes down to it, too, if you expect of me certain behaviours or public declarations in a classroom that you wouldn’t expect of my straight best friend (who’s just as down with queer theory and rights and whatnot as I am), then you have a sexuality-based double standard, and I don’t wanna play. I much preferred Lesboprof’s very concrete, curriculum and policy oriented advice.


12 Responses to “Teaching reflections, sem II 2011, or: some battles you can never win”

  1. Chally Says:

    I really wish the university’s support systems were less confusing to find and use

    I’ll say. Could they have made it any more ridiculous?

    I think you’re actually doing rather wonderfully, and the shortfall can only be made by faculty-based decisions of the kind you’ve linked to.

  2. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    I don’t know this kind of thing, really. What I try and do is pitch myself as the help for this one thing; I will help you get the marks on this course, as long as you recognise that I help but you do. If there are things outside the course that are making that difficult, then help is available (and I should find out more about what) but that’s not actually my job (and there is someone else whose job it is).

    There is a system, that we had back in Cambridge (I hate myself even for saying it like that but it’s true) and that some of the colleges have here, where each student is assigned a tutor (Cambridge) or moral tutor (Oxford; I know, where on earth would Oxford get off teaching morals, just leave it), the point of whom is that they will not ever be teaching the student, but will be concerned for their welfare. Obviously this doesn’t get round some of the approachability problems, and obviously the system only works if the person and the teachers of the student know when to talk to each other and when not to, but, it is meant to ensure that help can be got without risking damage to your marks or your teaching environment, so that problems like, e. g. I can’t stand my teacher he is foul to me, have a route of resolution that is not the teacher or the teacher’s superior. (It also means the teacher can proceed without the student’s personal life being their problem.) It’s not the whole solution but it seems like such an obvious prerequsite of a support system that I’m always surprised not to find it in more places. Also, anonymous counselling services who understand university procedures, those help, but I’ve no idea where any of the places I’ve worked stand on that; they all had or have such services but I don’t know how much use they are.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      Most American institutions have ‘advisors’, I believe, whose job it is to generally keep track of your performance across the board. I can see how those would be good to have – but by no means can we afford to have them!

      Then, of course, there is the question of to what extent it is the institution’s job to provide “pastoral care” or some equivalent thereof. That seems to fit better with a college-structure than the sort of set-up we have here. It’s the English department’s job to teach you critical literary analysis skills, not to keep an eye on your general health and well-being: and yet. And yet that’s what many teachers end up doing.

      • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

        Certainly the college structure makes it easier; the relevant person has an office near where you live, for a start. There is also an ethic of community and membership that means that kind of responsibility is more automatically felt, I think. But even where it’s not institutionally automatic, as you and many others say, the teacher-pupil relationship can wind up making it felt, especially if there’s no-one else whose job it more clearly is!

        I was also going to say that it shouldn’t take extra money because the people are already there (teaching other people) but of course if their roles are being broadened then it would be nice to think there would be either extra recompense or a decrease in other allotted responsibilities. Without such a person, though, who is keeping track of a student’s performance enough to know whether they should be booted off the course etc.?

  3. Kath Says:

    Teaching induction at the Arts Faculty at Monash included a couple of hours on dealing with this kind of thing, both from the perspective of what assistance you can and should offer students (including the phone numbers and websites of the relevant internal agencies), and where and how to draw the line at preserving your own mental health and space in the face of the kinds of problems students might bring to you. We were encouraged to know about the referrals we could/should make, but discouraged from trying to be the person who actually did the counseling, etc. And there was also a two day special course you could sign up for (but it cost, and I was busy…): so I would have to say this is something they take appropriately seriously.

    In practice I try to keep it ‘professional’ in the sense that: I am the “not scary” one (this is a quote!) to whom students are generally willing to talk; once they do so, I am normally generous within my statutory ability to give extra time, etc; I will back them 100% in their administrative approaches to get further assistance; and I will tell them about these opportunities and pester them to apply whenever assessments fall due if they fail to take advantage of them. But I can’t make them apply, or write their essays for them, and I try to be stoic about this. (I should probably say, Monash policies mean that students can obtain more time and/or special exam conditions, but not ‘bonus marks’ through special consideration processes.) Once the work is in, it’s going to be judged on its merits, and I try to be strict about applying penalties for late work without the appropriate formalities having been followed, because I want to be helpful, but not a renowned pushover.

    It’s a tough line to police, especially being a caring person with a trigger point for helpful intervention set -if I’m honest- rather too low (in general… not just in the classroom). I tend to accumulate quite a burden on my own time and energy in this way. I also increasingly sense a risk that one could easily let the pastoral aspects of teaching overcome the primary task of imparting and testing knowledge… And on reflection I’m beginning to feel, although I want to be kind and considerate, that we may not do any great favours by teaching students (even unintentionally or subliminally) that deadlines are inherently malleable, or that some boundaries do not exist or need to be maintained between personal and professional selves/activities. How does this adequately prepare them for the big wide world? Granted, in some cases the issues at stake are really mind-blowingly serious, and I’m in no way arguing for a cessation of special consideration practices. I had some absolute horror stories in my class last term, and often these students were the least likely to seek help for reasons you describe above. In my time, I’ve been that person too. But some were just ‘garden-variety’ slings and arrows; the fortune not so outrageous in the grand scheme of things… and perhaps part of our job as teachers should be showing students how to take such things in their stride? Somehow recognizing daily struggles and being sympathetic without allowing the academic standards of which we are guardians to become elastic or hyper-personalised? Tough one.

    Lastly, on the issue of the money – I think Oz (and the USA… and for that matter the UK beyond Oxbridge) is probably a very different scenario from what Jon describes, not least because such a large part of the teaching load is born by muggins like Highly and myself… namely, grad students on an hourly rate based on time at the front of the classroom, and not on ‘actually hours worked’. The time and energy we end up putting in to getting our students through might (with luck) be reflected in the mystic ‘student satisfaction’ metric… but it isn’t part of any direct financial equation. If it had to be… then it just wouldn’t be done, because the institutions would quickly be bankrupt! I know none of us (in our right minds) are in this for the money… Just sayin’…

    • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

      No, fair enough, I’m speaking from the Ivory Tower. The three places I’ve taught in London had nothing like this system in place. One did have some volunteer faculty who’d had counselling training who were available as neutral go-to persons at least, which would have fulfilled something like that role, but they were available for about two hours a week and of course the relevant pupils didn’t know them so it was no different from visiting your problems on a stranger. Also the fact that it was volunteer work probably didn’t encourage people to load stuff on them. And one of the things we know about people who need help is that they need it to be as free from reasons not to ask as possible…

      • Kath Says:

        I don’t think it’s just a question of towers, be they ivory or otherwise, although cash flow is doubtless an issue; I do think the *residential* aspect is significant. It’s really rare in Australia for students to live in college, and there are no truly ‘collegiate’ universities. Uni is mostly just a place students go on days when they have class (if you’re lucky!)… and statistically they tend to live at home (i.e. with parent/s) as undergraduates. I do think living and working in a shared space creates different expectations (and realities) in pastoral care terms, so I’d be surprised if residential colleges associated with our local tertiary institutions didn’t have systems similar in some ways to what you describe… it just wouldn’t normally happen in the university itself, where the student populace is generally too huge and ‘faceless’ for such individual attention to be offered to all.

      • highlyeccentric Says:

        We have a well-staffed counseling service here, and the heath service are all pretty well on the ball about How Things Work. But what we don’t really have is people who… keep tabs on you. Kath’s right about the residential aspect, of course. This isn’t one’s home, no matter how much it feels like it: to some extent we can assume that students have support networks of their own somewhere (but of course, many of them don’t…).

        I did find – by completely unrelated means – about the university-wide Academic Progression policy. Basically if you raise repeated red flags in the system the uni will catch you and provide/require more support for you. Which is nice, I guess.

        • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

          Well, I don’t want to preach from privilege, but it does seem to me that for an institution that wanted to build such a support system, that kind of early warning system is a fairly fundamental prerequisite. And there are things one can need help with at university for which only an inside view can really help. So I still think making sure a student knows that things will be asked about, and if it arises, reported to, a given person whose business they are, is a good way to go even if they only see each other once a term or so ordinarily. Though if given the choice between that and a free anonymous counselling service, I’d probably want the latter first…

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