Hey look, relevant content on the internets

Over at Jezebel, Anna North is talking about How Should Colleges Help Mentally Ill Students. She’s got links to an article in the Wall Street Journal, which I will freely admit I have not read, because of the high probability that mainstream media articles about mental illness will make me want to hit things.

This is a topic which concerns me, as you may have noticed.

Imma gonna quote some bits of the Jezebel article at you:

Says David Cozzens, dean of students at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, “There’s the danger that we take too much care and when they hit the real world that same kind of support isn’t there.”
How to support young people while still preparing them for adulthood is a perennial question, whether the youth involved have mental health problems or not. And we should certainly be considering how to extend the kinds of resources that exist in college settings to the so-called “real world” so that people with mental illness can continue to lead fulfilling lives after they graduate. Like many articles on the subject, Petersen’s piece points out that better treatment and support services have made it possible for more people with mental illness to attend college — these same people deserve the chance to participate and excel in the working world as well. But therapists sometimes talk about balancing supportive care with challenging a patient to attain new levels of functioning. Universities need to figure out to what extent they can help students by accommodating their differing needs, and to what extent they need to train them to meet the challenges of adulthood.

OK. I will freely admit that I spent too much time in the Brownie Guides and have a compulsive urge to “lend a hand” (within the bounds of what’s appropriate/allowable for my role as tutor). I just plain feel better about myself if, say, when Student Jane Doe emails me asking what she can do about her late work, as well as telling her “apply for Special Consideration”, I slap in a linkspam with links to the extension system and the counselors and the doctors and disability services and the webpage about how to Discontinue Not Fail for medical reasons. Currently I’m wasting time making that list up every time I send it, but one day I’ll remember to save it as a template email, and it won’t cost me anything at all thereafter.

But. Let’s imagine Student Jane Doe.* Student Jane Doe is at university to get an Education. And she has some Problems. Problems aside, it is our job to teach Student Jane Doe various things, including but not limited to:
– how to write coherently and present her thoughts in a logical order
– how to present her thoughts, in a logical order, in a public presentation
– how to research things, critique what she finds, and turn it into coherent information or just plain Knowing Stuff
– how to manage her time and juggle deadlines without going kersplat.

Anyone noticed that item four is not built into many courses? Some, yes. I’ve had classes where you submit a research proposal or draft halfway through semester, have another opportunity to have a draft critiqued later on, and submit a final essay at the end. I’ve been in classes where weekly “journals” on the readings have to be submitted. I’m not sure that either of these are the most effective way of teaching that skill. I know you can take Learning Centre courses on how to not procrastinate all the damn time.** The Learning Centre and the Writing Centre both run short courses on managing essay preparation.

But by and large, the skill of “keeping all the balls in the air without breaking anything or going kersplat” is a skill you really have to learn by practice. Nevertheless, if you get yourself a generalist degree, that’s one of the most useful skills you can walk out saying you have. Yes, I can do this office job which involves writing one long problem paper, helping out with two other people’s jobs, and doing random bits of editing. I have a BA! I can juggle multiple tasks without going kersplat! And avoid using the passive voice while I’m at it!

Teaching students that deadlines are endlessly malleable doesn’t really assist in teaching this particular skill.*** But, on the other hand, asking for help when you need it is also a solid gold skill. Let’s say someone wants to pay Student Jane Doe to write policy documents in the future. That’s awesome for Student Jane Doe. Have we really done her any services if she comes out of university knowing that her superiors are God Kings of Deadlines; that last-minute panic jobs are better than talking realistically to your boss about what you can feasibly achieve; that her superiors are going to care more about immediate deadlines than having a long-term productive employee? This might be true of some employers, but if she’s got ongoing Problems that’s not going to be a good workplace for her, and maybe, just maybe, if she’s used to approaching her Problems like an adult and asking for accommodations when she needs them at uni, she might come out knowing she deserves better in the Real World too.


* Who is a mishmash of students I’ve seen, taught, and been, not anyone in particular, btw.
** Skill #1: stop writing your blog at work! Oh, wait…
*** As I think Kath was saying in an earlier comment.


2 Responses to “Hey look, relevant content on the internets”

  1. Kath Says:

    “…asking for help when you need it is also a solid gold skill”

    Amen. That is why I pretty much always give extensions if people ask me for one (*even* if the reason might appear, at first glance, to be fairly slim…), prefaced with an email saying something like “I want to support your forward planning and thought process in thinking through how long this is actually going to take, and so I’m going to give you until…”. And similarly, when the students facing Problems who have delayed asking for help for whatever personal reason finally do, I would generally say, “I’m so glad you’ve told me about this; it’s utterly appropriate and valid that you have asked for help; and please always let me (or your other teachers) know about difficulties as soon as possible so that we can help you manage, and remove at least one source of your stress by (a) showing you that we care, (b) talking about some strategies for moving forward, (c) agreeing on a new and realistic goal for your circumstances, and (d) helping to identify and navigate the other assistance procedures available to you.” The principle, I think, is positively to reinforce so that honestly asking for timely assistance of _whatever_ sort is a normal (and normalised) part of planning and doing. No?

    And thumbs up for course design that actually includes good time/work management rather than just expecting it to materialise out of the void just because ‘students haz smarts’. In fact, I would include ‘how to research’ in a hypothetical list of stuff that isn’t actually built into courses. This is a bug bear of mine after teaching a unit full of really motivated, great students, shocking numbers of whom (I discovered somewhat late in semester) didn’t actually know how to use the library (or internet, or footnotes, or …) to identify resources on their chosen topic. It’s a key thing we try to test in essays etc., but an amazing number of students don’t actually arrive on campus (or, sadly, leave it) knowing what it means or _how_ you go about it, even before Problems of any kind are thrown into the heady mix…; and the ones that are motivated enough to go along to the Learning Centre courses that undoubtedly exist are probably not the ones that need this kind of modelling: it has got to be more systemic.

    *goes off to cease ranting and write wishlist for 2012 courses*

  2. Kiera Says:

    As a student myself it took me a really long time to figure out that it is actually okay to ask for help when you need it. Unfortunately for me I still feel really guilty asking for help when I do need it, but it’s nice to know that most teachers are reasonable and are willing to give extensions and other help.

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