Friday, February 19, 2016

On Believing Students

a guest post by Adam J. Dexter

I must open this essay by admitting that I am probably the least qualified person to write an essay on teaching anyone: my teaching experience is scant and largely unremarkable and, besides an A in a tedious pedagogy class that I was required to take, which was taught by a professor who would talk sweetly about her children and mark your paper with smiles but never give you any practical feedback, I have not studied pedagogy or pedagogical issues seriously. Yet I have been in undergraduate and graduate classes almost regularly since George Bush was president and I must confess that I know a lot about being a horrible student: though certain professors did much to nourish me intellectually, most of my college courses — the normal roster of sciences, mathematics, and psychology courses — went by in a sludge of depression, alcoholism, self-harm, physical and emotional abuse, and suicide attempts that I would prefer to forget. My nineteenth year, for example, was one of such struggle and torment that, even now, I am genuinely surprised I made it out alive.

When I later started teaching, halfway to thirty and supposedly wiser, I found myself completely unable to lecture my young, smiling students, none of whom remember major events like September 11 or when Britney changed the world by stripping to a nude ensemble on the 2000 VMAs, on the importance of regular attendance. It felt hypocritical to enforce a strict attendance policy, complete with points off for every absence after four, when my own college attendance had been, to use the words of my mother, piss poor. Colleagues responded that teaching is usually a do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do kind of thing but I wondered: how will that help me truthfully impact their lives and leave them inspired, as I so desperately wanted? Is meting out punishments for attendance really the most effective way of ensuring that students will come to class and learn? Apparently, I had a lot of grand misconceptions about why people get into teaching.

My time in college was very difficult and my grades often suffered. I hardly attended class. Of course, I wrote the papers, took all the exams, but weeks would go by without my setting foot in class; one embarrassing example returns to me now, freshman statistics, that damnable scourge of college students everywhere, whose classroom I saw twice: once on syllabus day and once for the final exam. I was (still am) suffering from bipolar disorder and insomnia and was crippled by anxiety and a desire to die (or, at the very least, a desire to feel very numb). I self-harmed; I drank so heavily that I would be hungover until two p.m., at which time I would start drinking again; all of this left little time for class. Later on, when I stopped drinking, I was so lonely and sad and miserable that I would often skip class just to drive home for days at a time, where I would spend twelve hours in bed.

Even now, many years after walking the stage to get my diploma, this is surprisingly embarrassing to admit. When I am around fellow graduate students, I find myself shy to talk about my own undergraduate academic achievements, partly because I am so ashamed by what had transpired in those four years.

But shame can be productive and instructive. I realized something about those of us who enter graduate school, for whatever sick and masochistic reasons: people expect you to have been a flawless student with impeccable grades and an unblemished record. And perhaps some graduate students were exemplary; I was not; this does not mean I am less deserving of my success.

The issue here, and this is where I get to the heart of the essay, is that, if any of my professors noticed my struggle, they did not care enough to do anything. Getting poor grades because of attendance and participation was certainly not unusual but some professors were more cruel in administering them: one of them called me into his office and told me he was failing me and that I should abandon all dreams of graduate school. In this manner I skated through four years of not going to class, sidelined by depression, and when I graduated, and my father looked at me and, ever the kind, supportive father, asked me if I had earned at least cum laude, I hastily ignored the question because I could not tell him the truth: my sickness had forbidden it; it had kept me bedridden, laid me low, made me sicker than any other disease I've ever had (except for a nasty staph infection, which turned my urine the color of Coke and which caused me to hallucinate).

The son whom my mother and father, a minister and an accountant, love so dearly had failed. I beat myself up over it for years; the illness that ravaged my brain was similarly unequivocal in its condemnation of my shortcomings: you are responsible; it's in your head; you're crazy; you should just kill yourself; it's not a real sickness; you're lazy; you're stupid; you'll never get into a good grad school; your parents are smart and hardworking and successful and you've failed them; you can't afford care; it's easier to die. Twice after seriously harming myself with a dull butter knife, incidents I kept from my parents (hi, mom!), I went to student counseling (which is horrible at every school, no matter what admissions tells you, but this is another issue for another essay) and was bluntly told by the kind counselor there that my problems were too big for their office. I was referred out to a psychiatrist, who charged me $ 350 for fifteen minutes of his time (a bill I still have not, proudly, paid), and to whom I never returned because South Carolina is a horrible state to be crazy in.

I tried to remember this experience I've just recounted when I started teaching. The only training we as new instructors received on how to handle the kind of student I had been was: Make them aware of the resources; include a line on your syllabus. This was all. We were bluntly told by a professor that we were not there to be their therapists; we were not to get involved; we could tell them where counseling services are but nothing else; you're not their friend or their mother. This is how, we were told, good teachers taught. I knew instantly that if this apathy made one a "good" teacher, then I, again to borrow my mother's words, would be a piss poor teacher.

I first started seriously thinking about writing this essay when I read Dr. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's post on In the Medieval Middle entitled "On Becoming a BetterTeacher." In it, Dr. Cohen writes of struggling to help his students in an environment which seems to forbid reaching out to students beyond issues of papers, exams, and due dates; as Dr. Cohen notes, non-involvement is the law of the land when it comes to academics and their students' mental health. Yet Dr. Cohen is not only affected by his own students but also relates his son's own struggles with anxiety, and he wonders how to become the kind of teacher he would want his son to have.

Dr. Cohen's words made me weep when I first read them and every time I read them now, I feel a lump in my throat. I feel a strange sense of pride when I think of his son, who, at eighteen and willing to ask for help, is far wiser than I had been at that age. This essay, to put it simply, is brilliant and changed my life because it made me feel unafraid to talk about my own past. I am not normally prone to such hyperbole, especially where academics are concerned (Beyoncé, yes; academics, not usually), but I first conceived of this essay as almost a thank you to Dr. Cohen and his son, a response to assure him how much students likewise yearn for a professor like him, even if they do not show it. Students often act disinterested and impetuous, like they can't be bothered (I did, my students do) but a professor who looks past assignments and due dates and page lengths and citation styles to see that students are young and struggling and sometimes need a little help and a little understanding is indispensable. I did not need my professors to be mental health professionals; I did not even them to be my friends. I needed them to be human beings who gave a damn about the lives they were teaching four times a week.

The first semester I taught, I had a student I will call B. She rarely came to class and when she did, she was disinterested, sullen, looked sleepy, and did not answer any questions or participate in group activities; she barely did any homework and on quizzes and exams, she did poorly, usually scoring 70 or below. I did not know how to handle this student and sought help from people supposedly wiser than I: a colleague, the woman who was supposed to guide us graduate students through our teaching, told me that each student's success in the class was in their own hands; I wasn't a babysitter. She wanted to impress upon me the belief that this student, and any issues she had, were not my problem. This is probably how many of my professors handled me: they trudged to class, they read their lecture notes, they gave out assignments, they sat alone during office hours grading papers, then they went home at five; if they had any concern that I was thinking about harming myself, or was skipping class because I could not get out of bed, because my body ached with the depression, they did not view it as part of their job description to say anything.

To state plainly, without any sort of nuance or exception, that "each student is responsible for their own success and to blame for their own failures," however true such a statement may be, is more than a little problematic. We had had to put clauses in our syllabi excusing long-term illnesses (illnesses we could see and test for, perhaps?); why were we not willing to do the same for mental illness? Furthermore, we were legally obligated to insert a sentence informing students that they were entitled to special accommodations for any condition that might cause them to miss multiple classes, but I knew that most professors took this to mean things like sporting events or Crohn's Disease or chronic migraines; I however went out of my way to state that, in my class, this meant mental illness as well.

I told them them that this was not a classroom of shame and that I had gone through all of the things that a college student experiences: homesickness, anxiety, depression, self-harm, alcohol abuse, among other things. I wanted them to think me honest and open — above anything else, I wanted them to know that I was interested in their well-being, both emotional and academic. I also stressed that they certainly did not have to tell me, or anyone else, their entire medical history, that there was a legal precedent to be as private about your health as you wanted. Even your dog doesn't have to know, I joked. They could tell me anything they wanted, if they wanted, but I was not going to require it of them nor was I going to demand excuses for absences. They could tell me as little or as much as they wanted, so long as they kept me in the loop. If they needed to miss class, or do an alternative assignment because of anxiety or depression, I was simply willing to believe them, to accept them at their word, to tell them I understood, and to not punish them by failing them, gestures which mean more than we think they do.

On their midterm grades, I expressed my concern to B that she was falling behind in the course. I explained that I was not trying to humiliate her or scold her, but I openly and honestly voiced my concerns with her — and encouraged her to do the same. I also told her that I was available if she needed to see me. After checking in with her a few weeks later, she emailed back to ask if she could come to my office hours on Monday morning. I invited her to come at 9 and when she came, she told me a lot of things: she was struggling with the transition to college and had recently been diagnosed with clinical depression, which made it difficult to get out of bed, as depression is wont to do; on top of all this, she was suffering from panic attacks and the thought of speaking in class left her frozen with fear.

I sat with her a while and we reviewed some of the grammar and vocabulary points until I was sure she understood it, giving her some at home exercises, including watching a French TV show that featured people who come back from the dead (not a bad homework assignment, right?) I also told her that I was using my discretion to forgive a lot of her absences, if she could prove to me that she had really worked to understand the material. I gave her an extra credit activity wherein she could produce a poster of famous celebrities who spoke French. I told her that in class the next few weeks, I would ask her simple questions that only required a Yes or No answer but she could give me a signal if she was not feeling up to it or felt too nervous. If she needed to miss class, she could send me an email before or after. Keep the communication open, I said, and I'll believe you. I also talked with her honestly about the shortcomings of mental health, and she asked me how to talk to parents about her struggles, which is never an easy topic to broach with parents. But she followed through on her end and I forgave some of her absences. In short, I showed faith in her, I did not punish her because she had missed class, I respected what she was saying, I believed her.

Was I duped by a student? Later, someone, when I recounted this tale, would insinuate as much. According to this person, I was probably naive and had fallen to prey to a freshman's tricks. "It's not your place to diagnose and treat anxiety disorders," they said angrily, even though I had made no effort to diagnose or treat B. I had simply accepted her at her word, had not questioned her or doubted her, and worked with her on assignments that suited her. Perhaps I was naive: firstly, I do not think a student would go that far in the hopes of tricking a professor; secondly, and most importantly, I did not really care if she was faking. Why? Because too many mentally ill people are told they are faking, or that it's all in their head or to just get over it; I would not be another voice condemning them for an illness they had not asked for but which nevertheless assaulted them every day.

I never demanded that this student "prove" her diagnosis, any more than I would have asked a cancer patient to do so. When one student told me early in the semester that she would miss class because of migraines that left her sick and unable to see, I did not step back and say, "Sorry, I am not a trained medical doctor, I can't do anything for you," I did not uphold any strict attendance policies, I did not punish her for her illness; so why should we do it when our students are struggling with mental illness? Instead of washing my hands of her, or writing her off as lazy or careless, or outsourcing her problem to another ineffective department, I said to her, "I understand that and I sympathize" and we talked about what she should expect at mental health services, and I told her about some breathing and relaxation exercises that soothe me when I am gripped by anxiety and depression.

This student scored an 89 on the final exam and, eventually, a B+ in the course. I certainly do not believe that this story confirms my skill as an educator nor am I wholly sure if my decision was even the best one. I know very little about teaching anyone or working with students; I have not read thousands of pages of dense pedagogical theory; I have not earned a degree in counseling or working with mentally ill students. But I do know how I would have wanted to be treated: I would have wanted someone to listen to me, to understand, to sympathize with me in my struggle — most importantly, I would have wanted someone who believed me, who did not punish me, who saw past my failures as a student and instead saw my possibilities as a human.

Now that I have been both professor and student, I must add that, as professors, we do not need to be impenetrable; we do not need to be perfect, we do not need to prove how strict we are, we do not need to intentionally fail our students or make our class unusually difficult to confirm our own fragile ego. Furthermore, we do not need to be mental health professionals, or priests, or parents. We do not even need to be friends. As a former student who struggled through college, and who literally had to convince himself to stay alive day after day, believing students when they say they are mentally ill, not forcing them to jump through inhuman, confusing, tiring, and ineffective hoops, is not only radical but necessary. As Dr. Cohen concludes in his essay, "I am not saying I have got it right. I am only saying, I know I cannot cease to try."

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