Towards the end of last semester, a blog that I follow featured an essay entitled “I’m Your Professor Not Your Therapist.” In it, the author described feeling helpless and unprepared for dealing with students in crisis. The only advice offered by her advisor was to take the distressed student to the counseling center at their institution. The ensuing comments were really helpful as different folks offered strategies, support, and ideas if (when) the situation presented itself again.
I have faced many students in various crises over the last decade in higher education. And I developed my style of working with students long before I entered the classroom. When I started graduate school, I also worked in retail sales at a gourmet kitchen store for some extra cash. One of the tenets of their customer service policy has always stayed with me: go home with the customer. Ask them about their habits in the kitchen or their cooking successes and failures and then help them find the “thing” they’re looking for. I towed that company line to a certain degree. Much to my employer’s chagrin, I often doled out advice or suggested a workaround rather than a product (a little anti-capitalist I admit), but I took the time to make the personal connection with each customer.
I employ the same style of working with my students. With professional experience as a college administrator and as a peer educator, I feel particularly well-suited to work with students who break down in my office. I am not surprised when it happens and I am not frustrated that it takes time away from my research. I think about how my students might be balancing things or struggling outside of the classroom. It’s often harder for students to see the broader picture because they’re so closely involved with what happens on a day-to-day basis on their campus.
The work of a college educator is unlike elementary, middle or secondary education because there are no parents around. Some students are not equipped to handle their newfound autonomy, the flexibility of their schedule, or unexpected stress or trauma. And we are the caring adult (and sometimes the only adult) they have in their lives. We are on the hook for helping students who find themselves struggling on campus, and we should not act surprised by that expectation.
Many new faculty members are advised by their senior colleagues to avoid this informal, ad-hoc mentoring and advising. It’s the most invisible kind of work because no one knows you’re doing it, no one knows how competent you are at it and no one recognizes you for it. This invisible labor–counseling, advising and mentoring–is never mentioned in a faculty job posting.
The bigger issue is that institutions of higher education typically don’t recognize that the current generation of students is facing greater stress or more complex mental health issues than the generation before. We think students are “college ready” if they demonstrate academic ability or enthusiasm for the extra-curriculum, but it’s the noncognitive skills like time management, coping, stress relief, and self-care that we fail to teach students before they come to campus. And as the corps of college educators is further adjunctified, there will be fewer trusting adults with any allegiance to the campus to provide support for these overextended, overworked, stressed out students.
The expectation that professors harbor around preservation of their office time for research only, seems outmoded. Graduate programs must also be preparing the next corps of college educators to manage these multiple demands of the professor role. If your graduate program offers you any teaching experience, that’s a plus. But beyond teaching, there is the small-scale advising and interpersonal work that happens. Teaching involves interfacing with actual people. I recognize that I am not a clinical therapist, but I am an empathic person, and I know the resources my campus has to offer our students.
It’s week four of the semester, and students are slowly trickling in with questions about their academics and about what they’ll do after graduation. Just got a message from a student thanking me for support over the last few months. I wear lots of hats besides professor, and I keep my door is open.