Tag Archives: Stress

Between the World and Our Students

William Blake, "America a Prophecy," New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “America a Prophecy,” 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

Steven Volk, August 16, 2016

Another hot summer of discontent dogs our heels as we prepare for the start of classes. It has been two years since Michael Brown was shot by a policeman in Ferguson, 18 months since a grand jury sitting in St. Louis County refused to indict officer Darren Wilson for his death, sparking protests in 170 cities across the United States.

Two days prior to the grand jury’s verdict in Missouri, 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot to death by officer Timothy Loehmann two seconds after Loehmann and a second officer slammed their squad car to within a few feet of the young boy playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park. A grand jury convened by the Cuyahoga County prosecutor refused to indict either officer in the case.

These two were a small part of the hundreds of cases of black men, and women, killed by police in the past two years.

The death roll, sadly, infuriatingly, continued to grow over this past summer with, among others, the shooting of Sherman Evans in Washington DC (June 27), Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge (July 5), Philando Castile in suburban St. Paul (July 6), Earl Pinckney in Harrisburg (Aug. 7); and 23-year old Sylville Smith in North Milwaukee (Aug 13). According to an on-going project by the Washington Post, approximately 28% of the 587 individuals killed by police so far in 2016 (whose race was recorded) were black. An additional 17% were Latino. The proportions are similar to those from 2015.

Over the course of the sweltering summer we also witnessed the shooting deaths of numerous police officers, most notably five officers in Dallas, killed by Micah Xavier Johnson on July 7 and three officers in Baton Rouge, killed by Gavin Long, 10 days later. (Thirty-six officers have been killed by gunfire so far in 2016, which compares with 39 killed by gunfire in all of 2015).

And “witnessed” is the right word since, many of these deaths were recorded as they happened and circulated via social media, placing all of us at the “scene of the crime.”

William Blake, "Thus Wept the Angel..." 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “Thus Wept the Angel…” New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

Literally thousands have died in terrorist attacks in the past three months, from the massacre of 49 party-goers at an Orlando night club on June 12, to countless hundreds killed in attacks in Istanbul (June 28), Baghdad (July 3), Dhaka, Bangladesh (July 1), Balad, Iraq (July 7), Nice, France (July 14), and Kabul (July 23), among many others. And these do not even take account of the on-going annihilation of Syria. (Wikipedia carries a continually updated list of what it terms “terrorist incidents.”) Closer to home, in Chicago, 67 people, almost all black, and as young as 2, were murdered in July alone.

And to this list of unsettling events we can add the tumult of what has surely been the most unsettling presidential campaign in many decades.

The purpose of this catastrophic catalog is not to lend credence to the Trumpian charge that all “we” hold precious rests on the thinnest of threads (which only he holds in his hands), but rather to call attention to the fact that as our students arrive on campus over the next two weeks many, likely most, will carry the events of this summer with them in their heads and hearts, not to mention their smartphones. And so will we – faculty, staff, administrators, and all who have a hand in the education and well-being of our students.

The question is how should we address the events of the summer when our students return to class? How do we attend to our own health and well-being? I would propose both an immediate answer and some thoughts for the longer-term.

When Classes Begin

Most immediately, we must recognize the emotional toll that this past summer (and the year before that, and the one before that) has likely taken on our students and on us. We arrive at the first day of classes well prepared to teach calculus, Russian, Middle Eastern history, modern dance, Buddhism, organic chemistry, and much else. Addressing the crises of this and other summers doesn’t mean that we drop everything to examine the moment in which we live and ignore what we are trained to teach. Our responsibilities as teachers are much greater.

But we should, I would argue, acknowledge the emotional and mental costs of the on-going turmoil on our students, and recognize them in ourselves. We are humans before we are biologists or computer scientists, and many of our students want to know that we are not oblivious to what is happening in the world or to the pain that many of them feel.

In the end, such an acknowledgement is not difficult or time consuming. The easiest thing to do is to state, simply and directly, that the we are well aware that summer has been a hard one for students, just as it’s been for faculty, staff and all who work at the college. It is also important to note that there is support for students when they need it and to encourage them to speak to us or to others who can help in times of greater stress. But, even as we recognize how current events pull on their time and emotions, it is our responsibility as teachers to provide them the education they will need to succeed in the long run, and that we will strive to do that in each of our classes and all of our interactions with them.

In some classes, the subjects studied will directly address on-going events in the United States and elsewhere. But for most, our subject matter is different. Nonetheless all of our classes have as a goal the same fundamental objectives: to prepare students for their lives after college: to enable them to think analytically, reason critically, write persuasively, argue from evidence, engage with energy and passion, see different sides of a debate, and contribute productively, intelligently, and compassionately. These are things that they will learn in astronomy and art as well as in courses on Middle East politics and race in America. These are lessons to be absorbed in classrooms, athletic fields, co-ops, and dining halls.

Our task, then, is not to make our classes something that they are not intended to be or to privilege a relentless preoccupation with the present that can obscure a thoughtful consideration of both past and future. But it is a recognition of the burden of the present that allows us to better engage our students with their own future.

William Blake, "The Terror Answered," 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “The Terror Answered,” New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

The Long Run

In the longer term, we answer the question of how we address the events of the summer by acknowledging that this is hardly a new question; the world is always with us although we like to think that we can somehow escape it once inside our classrooms. But not only does the “real” world shape the complex lives of our students, it also influences the outcomes we seek through our teaching and how we imagine and plan for a future that our graduates will soon inhabit.

Secondly, we answer the question by building communities that are both a part of the world and apart from it. When we invite students into our classrooms, laboratories, studios, athletic fields, and residence halls, we usher them into a world that should honor the communities they come from, but also allow them the space to imagine and practice new ways of thinking, new forms of being, the creation of new selves and new communities. In this sense, education as an act of transformation can help students recognize the urgency of the world while also understanding how they will need to prepare themselves in order to change it. In other words we want to help our students address, in Shakespeare’s words, “necessity’s sharp pinch” while equally gaining the patience and perseverance required not only to get to the end of a semester, but to last over a lifetime of struggle.

To the extent that we are strategically positioned between the world and our students, to borrow from Ta Nehisi Coates, we can most productively occupy this position by acknowledging the many ways that the world presses in on them, and us, and by providing them the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to understand and change the world for the better.

Preparing for Student Stress

Steve Volk, Director, Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence (CTIE), Oberlin College

September 2, 2013

We talk often about getting to know our students at the start of the semester, starting with learning their names. You likely know, for example, that your courses on Blackboard provide a photo of your registered students. Find “Course Tools,” and then “Student Roster.” At the very least you’ll know what they LOOKED like when the picture was taken (which might bear no resemblance to what they currently look like). Often faculty hand out index cards or small slips of paper asking students to mention one thing by which you, the faculty, can use to remember them: a kind of mnemonic device (Elizabeth loves Maine lobster). In small classes, you can have students interview each other for a few minutes and then the “interviewer” introduces the “interviewee” to the class.

There are also ways to learn about in-coming students in a broader, sociological, sense. I always enjoy the famous Beloit College “Mindset List”, which reflects the world view of new students. Some of my favorites for the incoming Class of 2017 (born in 1995): Eminem and LL Cool J could show up at parents’ weekend, and Gaga has never been baby talk.

For a more serious look, the Chronicle of Higher Education publishes a yearly “Almanac” which provides useful data about entering first-years as well as students in general. In it, you will discover that:

  • the number of degrees awarded in “personal and culinary services” has gone up by 1,078% over the past 20 years while the number of degrees in education has declined by 6%;
  • Ohio ranked 5th in the U.S. in terms of drawing out-of-state first-years in 2010;
  • 29.6% of entering students in 2012 saw themselves as “far left” or “liberal,” as opposed to 22.9% who placed themselves as “far right” or “conservative;”
  • nearly half spent 1-5 hrs per week studying during their last year of high school while 31% worked (for pay) from 6-20 hours a week; and
  • just under 80% ranked themselves either “above average” or “in the highest 10%” in terms of their ability to work cooperatively with diverse people (whereas only 45% self-evaluated at that level in terms of their writing ability).

And on and on. (This year’s edition was published on August 23, 2013). [NOTE: If you are not a subscriber to the Chronicle, you can gain access via the library’s website.]

But there is an additional set of data that I’d like to draw your attention to as you are thinking about the students who are taking in your classes. This material comes my way from a College senior, Hannah Daneshvar, a neuroscience major, who recently completed a remarkably thorough and useful paper, “Mental Health Programming: Recommendations for Change.” While not a scientific survey of our students, it nonetheless provides very useful ways of thinking about the challenges our students face. Of particular importance for us as teachers is the section on “Academics: Awareness of Professorial Responses to States of Distress.”

Rather than report Daneshvar’s data, I’d like to refer to a much larger study undertaken bi-yearly by   the American College Health Association/National College Health Assessment, which she cites in her paper.

(The most recent report, for Fall 2012,  was for a reference group of 28,237 respondents with a 20% overall response proportion.)

Here are some data we need to keep in mind when we think about our students:

The results of Daneshvar’s informal survey of Oberlin students suggest that the likelihood of students feeling emotional or mental health distress (academic or otherwise) is even higher at Oberlin. Still, if we take the larger ACHA/NCHA study into account, there is a good chance that between a quarter and three-quarters of our students are likely to face significant emotional or mental health issues while at Oberlin.

So, is there anything we can do about this now, at the beginning of the semester. In other words, can we prepare our students for their future stress levels (just as we try to prepare for our own, as was raised in last week’s Article of the Week)?

Here’s where I think that Daneshvar’s paper is most useful. I’ll just pull out a few of her points for your consideration. Most students, according to her informal survey, do not feel comfortable approaching professors about their situations. So:

  • Think about sending your student a clear signal in the first week of classes that you know that, as the semester develops, they will be facing a lot of demands, that these will put them under considerable pressure, and that not only should they not hesitate to contact you if there are issues along these lines, but that this will not be seen as a sign of weakness, incompetence or poor performance in your class.
  • · Make yourself aware of the services readily available on campus for students that are relevant to emotional and mental wellness and health. These include Student Health & Counseling Services (John Harshbarger, director); Wellness and Health Promotion (Lori Morgan Flood, Associate Dean and director); Active Minds (a student organization for mental health advocacy and awareness); and, as always, the Class Deans. Further, we should soon have on board (if we don’t already), an Assistant Dean for Health Initiatives.

Send your students a clear signal that you know they will be under stress and that they can talk to you about it.

  • Explicitly inform students of the types of support you can offer them or guide them to, as well as your personal policies on physical and mental health, and treatment of extension requests related to mental health/emotional health issues. Put a statement in your syllabus, or in a tab on your Blackboard course site, to address these issues. Two examples (there are more in Daneshvar’s paper):
  • “If you feel emotional or mental distress this semester, you are welcome to talk to me about your situation. However, I am not a therapist and will most likely try to inform you to the best of my ability of the resources we have on campus, because your health is key to your success.”
  • “I realize that you have classes in addition to mine and that you may experience periods of anxiety and stress because of overlapping deadlines. If you feel absolutely overwhelmed, or are looking at your schedule now and see a week in which you’ll have five assignments due in two days, please see me and we’ll discuss your individual situation.”
  • Remind students of your policies in this regards in a few weeks time when they are likely to be feeling more pressured and anxious.

There are other ways that individual faculty (and departments) can become aware of these issues, but for the start of the semester, think of these as ways to introduce yourselves to your students.

We all decide what works best in our classrooms and for the learning goals we have established, but, if nothing else, do keep in mind these two points: (1) a significant minority, and perhaps a considerable majority, of your students will experience moments of anxiety and even depression during the semester; and (2) in general, they will not feel comfortable raising them with you unless explicitly invited. Taking that first step is a lot easier for you than for them.

From Debbie Millman, Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design (HOW Books, 2009)

Preparing for a new semester: Make plans now to manage your future stress

Originally published in the “Prof. Hacker” blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education on August 28, 2009.

By George Williams (with Oberlin context additions from Steve Volk).

Whether you’re a student or an instructor or a researcher or some combination of those things, your semester is about to get very, very busy. No, seriously. Unfortunately, this means that your stress level is about to go up significantly–unless you’re a zen master who’s learned to bend like a willow in a heavy storm, in which case please contact team ProfHacker a.s.a.p. so we can ask you to be our official therapist or offer you a position as one of our writers. Natalie Angier of The New York Times, reports that your “Brain is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop,” according to a new study to be published in Science.  (You can read more about stress and anxiety on this NYT “Times Topics” page.)

Fortunately, the causes of your stress are easy to predict because the ProfHacker labs have developed a patented crystal ball that looks into the future the semester-long pattern tends to repeat itself over and over again, with some variations depending on circumstances.

Here’s what you need to do right now: anticipate what’s going to frustrate or overwhelm you and make plans for keeping the stress that results to a minimum.

We’re team ProfHacker, and we’re here to help. What follows are a few specific suggestions learned from experience.

1. Learn to say “No” gracefully but firmly. Students will ask for extensions on deadlines or object to your course policies or complain about a grade. Colleagues will ask you to be on committees. Community members will ask you to volunteer for projects. Family members will wonder why you’re not flying home for the 3-day weekend that’s coming up. Here’s what you must learn how to say when you decide it’s appropriate: “Thank you for taking the time to contact me. Unfortunately, I need to say no right now because my plate is full. I understand your needs, but I’ve already made my plans for the semester and it won’t be possible to make the changes you’re asking for. Here’s a suggestion for what you might do: (fill in the blank, but perhaps point them in the direction of someone else who could help them). I hope you’ll understand my reasons, and (optional: ) I hope you’ll understand why I have to say no.” Women, especially, are raised to be accommodating to the needs of others, and this can be a recipe for disaster. However, you cannot do everything for everyone or be all things for all people. If your correspondents fail to respect your “No,” then say “I’m sorry that you feel that way, but I’ve learned that if I say ‘Yes’ to everything, I might as well say ‘Yes’ to nothing. I can either do a good job on a limited number of things, or I can do a bad job at a great many things. I don’t want to do a bad job at anything. Thank you for understanding.” Updated to add: You should say this as soon as the request is made; don’t make the mistake of procrastinating so that you can think about it or because the idea of saying “No” makes you uncomfortable. Just do it. You’ll be a lot more uncomfortable if you have to keep hearing, “Did you get my email? Have you made a decision? Did you get my email? Have you made a decision?”

[Steve: Knowing WHEN to say know is not as easy as it seems. Sometimes it’s obvious (e.g. when a colleague in asks you to join her panel at your professional conference to present a paper that is only marginally connected to what you are working on at the moment; when a student asks you to attend his lacrosse game on your daughter’s birthday, etc.), but sometimes it’s not. Perhaps your Chair asks you to take on an obligation that is relatively time consuming, or the Dean’s office asks you to be on a committee that you consider very important, but this is the year that you have know you have to finish your book manuscript. If you are unsure – particularly if you are a junior faculty – ask a colleague in the department or elsewhere for advice. On many of these matters, they will know better when you really can’t say “No” and when it’s OK.]

2. Get some sleep. Although–as they say–your mileage may vary on this one, you simply cannot sustain a work life that requires you to stay up until it’s almost time to get up. Either learn to make do with the time that you have available to you or cut back on the number of responsibilities that you have. If you’re not getting the necessary 6-to-9 hours of sleep a night that most people need, you’re going to crash and burn at some point. Even Superman–who doesn’t require sleep (back me up on this one, comic book fanboys/girls)–needs to dream.

3. Exercise. Go for a walk, keep up your running habit, take yoga classes, [go to the] gym–whatever it is that makes your body move and start to release some of those sweet, sweet endorphins, do it. You’ll feel much better and return to the work you have to do with more energy and some much-needed perspective.

[Steve: Some advice from a previous workshop on stress: try to get out of your office once during the day and take a quick spin around Tappan Square – 15 minutes tops, and you’ll feel better. Also: find a buddy who can share your exercise routine; it’s always easier to do with a friend and often harder to say no to.]

4. Eat. I mean, really, do you think it’s a good idea to skip having a decent meal so that you can spend thirty more minutes on that grant proposal? Does your brain run on air and espresso? Are you sure?

5. Consider meditation. You don’t have to be Pema Chodron to embrace the benefits of mindfulness and an ongoing attempt to let settle all of the chaos swirling around your brain at any given time. Meditation is free, it doesn’t take much time, it doesn’t require the purchase of any supplies, and you can do it just about anywhere. Give it a try: start with 5 minutes and work your way up to as long as you like.

[Steve: Don’t forget the “Slow Pedagogy” workshop on September 26 with Allison Pingree, this should be just what you need. RSVP to svolk@oberlin.edu.]

6. Stay in touch with friends and family. It’s easy to think that the argument in the last committee meeting over what typeface to use in the official reports is the most. important. issue. ever. but talking with the people who love and support you can bring you some much needed perspective–as long as you’re open to hearing what they have to say. And if your biological family tends to make things worse–as they do for many people, especially members of the LGBTQ community–then think about who your “family of choice” is and stay in touch with them, instead.

[Steve: Can’t stress this enough. Talk with friends, mentors, colleagues – share. It will help get you through.]

7. Realize that “perfect” is the enemy of “good.” If you keep tweaking and tweaking and tweaking that article, that syllabus, that course plan, that blog entry–guilty as charged–you’re going to reach a level of diminishing returns pretty darned fast. It’s good, just print it out or send it in or upload it and move on to other things. Take my word for it: you’ll be fine.

[Steve: 8. Let go of it. I still remember negative student comments on my evaluations from my first semester here…27 years ago?!? I can still feel a little twist in my stomach when I think on an argument I had years ago. Often I can’t remember what the argument was about, but can still feel the upset. Don’t hold on to that stuff. If someone criticized you, your work, or how you live your life and you felt there was something that struck a chord,  write it down so you can think about it more constructively when you’re not as emotionally engaged. If you really think the criticism was unfounded, leave it behind. Soon it will be hard enough to remember where you left your coffee cup; you don’t need that 2-decade old argument taking up space in your mental hard drive.]

[SV: So, what do you think? What are your strategies for managing your stress? Add a comment and tell us what works for you as you manage stress.]