Tag Archives: anxiety

Breathe

Steve Volk, April 23, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Scrolling through radio stations while driving back from a conference in Michigan last week, I happened on a discussion (and performance) of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, which he titled “The Age of Anxiety.” It had been a long time since I last heard that piece – it’s not a part of regular classical playlists – and listening to it made driving the Ohio Turnpike in the snow a tad more bearable.

Bernstein’s mentor, Serge Koussevitzky, commissioned the piece, which premiered on April 8, 1949, with Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony and Bernstein performing the piano solo. The symphony was inspired by W.H. Auden’s long poem of the same name, which the Times Literary Supplement famously dubbed his “one dull book, his one failure.” (OK, so it did win a Pulitzer.) Bernstein’s short but “electrifying” work, written close on the heels of the Holocaust, reflected – he wrote – the “extreme personal identification of myself with the poem, the essential line [of which] is the record of our difficult and problematic search for faith.”

We are again living in an “age of anxiety,” one which tests our search for faith, or understanding, or ideology, or meaning. But, whatever it’s about, it most certainly has been grinding away on our students.

What the Data Tell Us

Let’s start with the numbers, since that’s what we do: marshal the evidence.

Each year, the American College Health Association prepares a National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA II) to assist college health service providers, health educators, counselors, and administrators in collecting data about their students’ habits, behaviors, and perceptions on the most prevalent health topics. Among its central concerns are factors which, based on student self-reporting, negatively impact their academic performance (i.e., dynamics that can lead to lower grades, taking an incomplete or dropping a course, etc.). The chart below, from Fall 2017, lists the principal factors in alphabetic order:

American College Health Association, National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA II)

The top five factors, in rank order, are:

Stress (33.5%)
Anxiety (26.2%)
Sleep difficulties (22.9%)
Depression (17.6%)
Cold/Flu/Sore Throat (14.7%)

In other words, three of the top five factors (and likely, the top four since sleep-related difficulties are often tied to the others) are mental health issues, outranking both more medically related issues (from chronic health problems to sinus infections and colds) as well as “time-management” issues (internet use; extracurricular activities).

Digging deeper into the data, we find that, within the last 12 months, students reported that:

  • Things were hopeless (53%)
  • They were overwhelmed by all they had to do (86.9%)
  • They felt exhausted (not from physical activity) (83.4%)
  • They were very lonely (64.4%)
  • Very sad (68.1%)
  • So depressed that it was difficult to function (40.1% )
  • They felt overwhelming anxiety (61.4%)
  • They experienced overwhelming anger (41.8%)

Within the last 12 months, 26.3% of women students (and 10.4% of male students) reported being diagnosed or treated by a professional for anxiety-related issues; 20.8% of women students (and 10.1% of men) were diagnosed or treated for depression, and 14.1% (4.0% of men) for panic attacks.

In the same period, 51.7% of female students (and 39.3 % of males) reported that “academics” (broadly defined) had been traumatic or very difficult to handle, and 44.3% of students reported that they experienced more than average stress, with12.3% reporting “tremendous stress.”

According to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey (AUCCCD) for 2016, “Anxiety continues to be the most predominant and increasing concern among college students (50.6%), followed by depression (41.2%), relationship concerns (34.4%), suicidal ideation (20.5%), self-injury (14.2%), and alcohol abuse (9.5%). “

Indeed, college students are manifesting record levels of mental health issues, with anxiety newly at the top of the charts. Depending on which survey one consults, somatic symptoms of depression have been on the rise since 1982, and self-reported levels of mental health issues have been increasing since 1985. Some studies suggest that the level of depression college students report have been trending up since the 1930s.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have not reached anything close to a consensus as to why this is the case. Studies have pointed to everything from “modern life,” to  increased social media use, the ubiquity of smart phones, increasing pressures to succeed, helicopter parenting, the fact that many students come from unsafe neighborhoods, that they read about or experienced school (or other) shootings, are terrified that their parents may be deported, or are teetering on the edge of financial disaster. (A New York Times article from 2017 explores this further.)

And, since this is not my field, I couldn’t even hazard a guess outside of the unhelpful observation that (to paraphrase a bumper sticker) “If you’re not anxious, you’re not paying attention.”

But, regardless of the cause, the data are clear and point to very troubling rise of student mental health issues in general and anxiety-related issues more particularly. Our students, quite simply, are feeling anxious and overwhelmed.

Paying Attention

The central thing we can do at this point of the semester is to be aware of the high levels of anxiety which are present as a base line as we head into the most anxiety-producing weeks of the semester, when final projects are due, exams will be taken, and summer or future plans, if not yet made, must be finalized.

  1. Be aware of the mental health issues faced by students. Really. We’re not talking about the “delicate snowflake” crap that conservative pundits and a triumvirate of columnists at the New York Times seemingly can’t get enough of. We’re talking about being aware of the pressures our students are under in general and at the moment, and then doing all we can to promote learning and student success.
  2. What if — you respond — you’re pretty sure that YOUR students don’t fall into this category. In the first place, the data would suggest that they do. In the second, it doesn’t matter. The basic principles of universal design for learning indicate that by organizing classes to serve everyone, you will benefit everyone, including those you weren’t particularly thinking of. By eliminating barriers to learning without eliminating challenges, everyone in the class can gain, not just those who may have documented disabilities or who enter with different strengths than those traditionally valued by the academy. (As has been noted many times: curb cuts in sidewalks were “intended” for wheelchair use: but look at how many people pushing strollers, on rollerblades, lugging grocery carts, or riding skateboards have benefited.)
  3. Tune into your own emotional state. You can’t help your students when you, as well, are short of sleep, short of breath, and short of patience. P.L. Thomas recently observed that, “When ideology, cultural narratives and myths, are ‘out of joint’ with reality, the consequences are devastating to everyone, creating an environment of anxiety.” To experience anxiety is to be pushed into isolation. Thomas quotes Vik Loveday who, in “The Neurotic Academic,” explains, that while “viscerally felt at the individual level, to admit to feeling anxious and stressed-out is also to risk being perceived as failing to cope with the demands of academic life.” We are compelled to feel responsible for correcting those forces beyond their control. Don’t allow yourself to become isolated; talk to colleagues and friends.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Autumn Flowers on the Otsuki Plain in Kai Province, no. 31 from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji (1858). Color woodblock print. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

What Can We Do To Help Our Students?

  • Slow them (and yourself) down. It is very late in the semester to begin “mindfulness” practices – helping students to check into their own mental, emotional and physical health – but it’s not too late to help them calm down. Understanding that this is the moment when you tend to shift from 33 1⁄3 to 78, it is nevertheless important to take a few minutes to slow down. Consider starting each class by having students (and you) close your eyes for a 1-2 minutes (it will seem like a very long time, trust me), and simply focusing on breathing: in and out, in and out.
  • Alternatively, project an image for them to focus on, and ask that they simply observe it while paying attention to their breathing, for 2 minutes. (Bonus points: have them comment on it for one more minute.)
  • Remind them to SHED (sleep, hydration, exercise, diet). Remind your students to drink a lot of water, to pay attention to what they are eating, to get some exercise every day, and to try to get a good night’s sleep. They won’t pay attention to you, of course. But what if the faculty in all their classes said the same thing? (Bonus points: bring in a few extra water bottles to hand out.)
  • Be aware of our counseling services and what they provide (Oberlin’s Counseling Center offers regular appointments and walk-in hours; talk to the Dean of Students’ office if you are unsure whether you think a student needs more attention than you can provide; bring a student to counseling if you think it is an emergency.
  • Make use of SHARE (Student Help and Resource Exchange). SHARE is a multidisciplinary group promoting student success by providing a forum for faculty, staff, and students to share concerns, supporting a collaborative approach, and providing opportunities for meaningful interactions. Students may visit the SHARE website to schedule a meeting with a SHARE Advisor. Anyone working with a student can complete a SHARE form. [Added April 24, 2018]

If you have other suggestions that can help students in this age of anxiety, please pass them along and I’ll add them to this list.

Here’s a short piece by Nancy Darling (Psychology) on “How to Relax in Five Minutes” that appeared in Psychology Today (March 10, 2017). [Added 04/22/18: 11:51 AM]

Share Your Fears

Steve Volk, April 3, 2016

NoFear“No Fear” is a U.S. clothing brand designed for “active living”: extreme sports, mixed martial arts, surfing, energy drinks (energy drinks?). Anyway, you know the stuff and the message: go anywhere, do anything, live on the edge. (The company, by the way, filed for bankruptcy in 2011 – maybe the “fearless” life doesn’t always pay dividends.)

While the attempt to brand Oberlin “fearless” back in 2005 stopped short of bankruptcy, neither was it a hit. Oberlin College, after all, wasn’t marketing a lifestyle or an energy drink. But, even more than that, the slogan was peculiarly inept because it suggested that we, whose essence is to introduce our students to the “examined life,” either have no fears or that we can (and should) brush them off like crumbs from our pants.

I was reminded of this episode when reading a blog post from Cathy Davidson. I’ve been following her work for some years now. Davidson, a cultural historian, is the director of the “Futures Initiative” at the CUNY Graduate Center. Trained in English, linguistics and literary theory, her current work, in her own words, “focuses on trust, data, new collaborative methods of living and learning, and the ways we can change higher education for a better future.”

I’m also an attentive follower of the HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) project she co-founded in 2002 with David Theo Goldberg. In 2004, Davidson and Goldberg published “A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age” in which they argued that emerging global forms of communication and digital learning are so complex and potentially so revolutionary that they require a new alliance of humanists, artists, social scientists, natural scientists, and engineers, working collaboratively and thinking and acting collectively, to envision new ways of learning that can serve the needs of a global society.

Diego Rivera, "Open Air School," lithograph, 1932, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Diego Rivera, “Open Air School,” lithograph, 1932, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Last August the HASTAC community of scholars sponsored an on-line conversation entitled “Towards a Pedagogy of Equality.” The conversation was led by Danica Savonick, a HASTAC (pronounced “hay stack”) Scholar and doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center; it was sponsored by The Futures Initiative at the CUNY Graduate Center. The program’s planners designed this “conversation” to be the first of eight discussions which would serve as a foundation for a larger project intended to tie student-centered, engaged practices in our classrooms to larger issues of institutional change, equality, race, gender, and all forms of social justice. Quite nicely, I thought, they call the project: The University Worth Fighting For.

The Pedagogy of Equality

As part of the “Pedagogy of Equality” conversation, the organizers launched a Google Doc on which they asked all those participating in the online discussion to describe their favorite strategies, practices, activities, techniques, or assignments that were designed to promote or model equality in the classroom. In the document, contributors gave the activity a name and provided a short explanation of how it works.

The Google Doc of that conversation is still available, and if you check it out, you’ll find a wealth of concrete ideas for increasing participation in the classroom, making assignments more interesting, and bolstering opportunities for student learning. Among others, these include some relatively well-known activities such as “Think-Pair-Share”: the instructor poses a question, students are asked to think about and then write their responses, pair with another student to discuss the question and their answers, and then share their conclusions with the whole class. (You can find a more detailed description of the activity here). But I also found activities and approaches I hadn’t previously encountered, such as pairing learning with music (after we have a particularly heady or difficult text pair it with a song that is a mnemonic device or another way into the work”).

One exercise, in particular, caught my eye. It was from Cathy Davidson and she called it, “Share your fear.” Here’s what she wrote:

Have people write down, on post it notes, three things that they fear will keep them from mastering the material in the course and then, on post it notes, three skills/experiences/areas of expertise where they excel and that they know they can offer to others. Have them put the “fears/inadequacy” post-its onto giant post-its arrayed around the room.  Then, in a single file, have everyone go and silently (no talking or joking) circle the room and read all the things classmates are afraid they won’t/can’t/lack the ability to fully master. Take that in. It’s humbling to see all the areas where people feel inadequate.  Then, have everyone go around and put the “skills” post its, with their names, over all the “fears.”  These are partners for the course, resources, collaborators.

Davidson suggested that such an activity can help students:

  • take advantage of other people’s expertise beyond the teacher’s as a way of understanding that the instructor is not the only expert in the course;
  • demonstrate their own expertise; and
  • embrace their own expertise.

And Students Are the Only Ones with Fears?

From "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End," by Atul Gawande

From “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End,” by Atul Gawande

It is very late in the semester for such an exercise, and so I offer it as a morsel for you to tuck away and perhaps pull out at the start of the next semester.

But Davidson’s exercise also got me thinking about teaching and learning in general and the fact that students are not the only ones who have worries and fears when they enter the classroom. It is no less certain that, as teachers, we carry our own bundles of anxieties into the room. To be sure, most are different than student fears although some (perhaps a nagging sense of inadequacy) probably are shared. But no fear? No way!

Our apprehensions often march about most demonstratively during the night hours towards the start of each new school year. I don’t have to tell you about the dreams and nightmares which trouble our mid-August sleep, the ones in which we are taking math tests we didn’t prepare for, German exams in courses we never bothered to attend. They are the dreams where we are required to read aloud in a language we have long ago forgotten, and, anyway, the letters seem to be swimming about on the page. The dreams where we show up to lecture in our bathrobes. These pre-semester doubts are part of what I think of as our common culture of teaching.

But anxiety is not the same as fear; fear is a step further, something that often develops after the mid-point of the semester when we no longer find we have time to correct a problem, when we feel that we have lost control of a class, can’t find a way into a conversation that is essential for student learning, worry that we no longer share an epistemology that will allow us either to resolve disputes or even discuss differences. And fear is when we feel that we are about to trip over the barely visible wires that someone (students? colleagues? ourselves?) has set out for us, when we can no longer imagine getting done what has to get done, when there simply is no time for friends, partners, children.

No, students aren’t the only ones with fears. So is there an exercise or assignment we can design that can help us “share our fear”? Perhaps.

If I could gather all of you into a big room, here’s the exercise I’d prepare for you. I would ask you to write down, on post-it notes:

  • Three fears you have about your pedagogical practice, what you are trying to do in the classroom. These can be things that you worry will keep you from doing what you need to do to allow you to reach your goals as a teacher, help the students learn, or permit you to create an environment in which everyone will get the most out of the few weeks we share with our students.
  • Three fears you have about the impact your professional life has on your personal life.
  • Three fears you have about the institutions in which you carry out the work of teaching and learning.

Then I would have you write on separate post-it notes three things you can rely on to help you address your fears: the skills, experiences, or expertise you rely on when you’re feeling overwhelmed or uncertain, the histories of past practices you can remind yourselves of when you wake in the night worried about a class that you feel is crashing and burning, the strengths and resiliency you have built up that have carried you to where you are today.

Finally, I would ask you to write the names of three people you can talk to when these fears gnaw at your stomach and trouble your sleep. You know who they are – the question is whether you will talk to them.

The “Share Your Fear” Virtual Exercise

We’re not sitting together in a big room, but the internet exists for just such moments! While you can’t put post-its on a wall, I’ve put up a Google Doc which you can populate with your fears and the skills you have to help address them, your anxieties and your support networks. While you’re at it, write down the people to whom you can turn to share your fears (although you’ll want to leave that off this doc) You also can add additional information about yourself that you think is relevant in terms of providing context to your concerns (e.g. gender, race, length of time you have been teaching, etc.).

The “Share the Fear” document will be our wall of post-it notes; it will be available for anyone with the link to read and add to (so keep that in mind when posting). After some time, I’ll try to summarize what has been written, where our concerns overlap and where they diverge, and what we can learn by sharing our fears. If this exercise, when used with students, helps them understand their own strengths and how to take advantage of other people’s expertise, this can help us understand that we are not alone in our fears, and that we have resources built up over years and networks of support that can help.