A colleague posted a link to a blog by drmellivora at Tenure, She Wrote called “I’m your professor, not your therapist!” wherein the author struggles with the issue of how to manage interactions with students who come to office hours with serious personal and mental health issues. She does not want to shut the student down, but is also not very comfortable dealing with the student’s emotions since she herself is not very big on sharing with people she doesn’t know well.
I am so glad this issue was raised on Tenure, She Wrote because I think the issue is about WAY more than just a simple question of “How can I best manage my interactions with crying students?” Because this question of how to deal with personal issues in a professional setting is NOT a personal question… As feminists remind us, the personal IS political.
For faculty, the college is a workplace with a set of behavioral norms based on the idea of being a “professional.” We are expected to see teaching in the same way one would go about doing any other profession, like lawyering or doctoring or accounting. And graduate school trains us to for that. It socializes us to be “professors” – people who teach disciplines to students. It is our job. And we expect it to have a separation from our personal life.
But here is the problem. College was never meant to be a business – it was not built on market principles of separate individuals interacting through commerce. It is meant to be a community of learning. A place that shapes young adults, that turns teenagers into grown ups. That gives scholars a place to study and research and consider the impacts of the work that we do. When young people go to college and when parents send kids to college they are sending them to be socialized, not to be handed a bag full of facts that they can walk away with and use to create wealth.
Of course students come to our office hours with their hopes and dreams and crises! Who else would they go to? We are the adults in their lives. Human being don’t raise themselves. We are social animals. But the rampant individualism of America is so out of control that we have forgotten that education is about human connections not about bits of data moving from one head to another.
We often hear academics say, “We have long struggled with the balance between education and research” But that is a lie. We aren’t struggling with it, the battle is over. Research won. Only in a handful of liberal arts colleges around the country is there any emphasis or value given to good teaching. The big public schools pretend to focus on teaching by using student evaluations and asking for teaching portfolios which are documents that you put together to make you look like you are a good teacher. But these are symbolic stand-ins for actual pedagogy. The research shows that student evaluations are a better measurement of personality than they are of how good a teacher someone is. And a good teaching portfolio tells you more about how good you are at building a teaching portfolio than it tells you about your actual teaching.
It is just not true that keeping up with the latest research in your field makes you a good teacher. The only way to become a good teacher is to focus on being a good teacher, to learn how to connect with your students. But the US graduate school system is designed to make researchers and money, not to develop amazing teachers. You can not be a good teacher if you are teaching a topic. You can only be a good teacher if you are teaching a student. And a student comes into the classroom not as a separate individual with no ties to anything or anyone. A student comes into the classroom with all of their humanity messily spilling out around them, oozing over the floor, steaming into the air, mixing with your own humanity that you also bring into the classroom with you.