Tuesday, December 05, 2006

On Freaking Out

As a student, I was the sort who freaked out. I remember vividly as a graduate student crying in a mentor's office because "I don't know what a dissertation is" (this is when I was about halfway through the process, incidentally, but my director was on leave). "How long is a chapter? How long is a dissertation?" (Why length was my big concern, I'm not entirely certain. I believe it was because I felt that at least that was controllable.)

I also freaked out as an undergrad, though that tended to translate not into crying in mentors' offices but instead into insomnia and/or screaming in my sleep. Literally. I've been known to sit straight up in bed, while sleeping, and to belt out blood-curdling screams. (Aside: my mom actually asked me whether I was "screaming in my sleep again" when I was going on and on one day about job-search-related stuff. I responded that I have no idea, as I live alone, and my cat's not talking.)

Anyhow, the point here, is that I'm no stranger to freaking out.

But at this time of the semester, I become not the freaking-out-person but rather the person who freaks people out, in spite of my best efforts not to freak people out. Today, I had a freaking out student who cried in my office. Yesterday, I had a colleague mention that all of my upper-level students whom we share are "freaking out" about their research paper in my class. (In fact, my colleague wondered why they weren't freaking out about the research paper that they will submit in her class, as part of this conversation. She seemed to think it was a good thing.)

On the one hand, I feel like it's good that my students are a little freaked out about their ability to do well in my class. I think that's a mark of them taking it seriously, of them caring. But then I worry: is the reason that they freak out that I make them do so? Is this a mark of me scaring them rather than being nurturing, etc.?

I do think, in part, that we create (as instructors) our students, and that we often create the students whom we ourselves were, for good or for ill. If we have a tendency to be high-strung, so too, will our students. Similarly, if we exhibit a zen-like calm, I think our students will be calm. I guess what I'm wondering tonight is whether one approach is better than the other.

The problem is, I can't pretend a zen-like calm. It's not in me. I'm kind of an intense person - both about my own work and about my students'. And what that means, at the end of the day, is that they (and I) will freak out. What I try to do, and I hope that I succeed, is to make that freaking out productive. I don't want to be "mean" to them, getting some sort of charge out of their anxiety, and I don't think I do. But I do believe that anxiety can be productive - that it can push us to levels that we wouldn't otherwise achieve.

But I hate it when students cry in my office. And I hate that the tasks that I set for my students make them feel like crying. I hate that rather than feeling exhilerated by freedom to choose their topics and by challenge they feel oppressed by those things. I hate that at this time of the semester everybody feels so freaked out - because freaking out is contagious.


Anonymous said...

my TA students are freaking out but it's because the prof is an arbitrary grader. This is a bad thing and it's actually exacerbated, I think, by his completely calm demeanor.

Anyway, I'm sure that's not what's going on with your students, which made me think of Dr. Mentor. She's terribly high strung. I've noticed that when her colleagues see me being high strung they seem to assume it's her. And you know, it probably is. Not that she puts pressure on me (which is I'm sure what they think, from things they've said). She just...I don't know, she just creates the conditions for high strung-ness or something.

Hilaire said...

Oh, I agree...I have been having quite a few students freaking out, tears, etc., and it worries me.

MommyProf said...

I hate crying students, too. And I have to remember to treat them like I do my 7-year-old child...having a fit doesn't get you what you want. Then I feel heartless.

itinerarium said...

I'm freaking out - last day of class, evaluations, etc. Is it inappropriate to slip them twenties along with the evaluations? Is it wrong to cry in my own office?

life_of_a_fool said...

I am so glad I just read itinerarium's comment. I am sitting in my office, trying to avoid crying (and avoid wanting to) after giving out my course evals after a dismal class in which I sounded particularly inept. I very much want to curl up in a ball under my desk and wait until June.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

The drama can be draining. I try to remember that making them cry is a sign they care, which is is better than having them give up and quit.

Dr. Crazy said...

I felt like I wanted to cry in my office today, too, if it's any consolation. That said, I gave all of my evals. before today, so it had nothing to do with my students. Just remember this about evals: don't believe the hype. Sometimes you get great evals in a class that you thought sucked; sometimes you get shit evals in a class that you think rocks. There's no rhyme or reason.

As for making them cry, yes, I think it is a sign they care. Especially as students never pull the crying thing with me to try to get something - usually they're crying for what might have been or what they are afraid to do, but they don't cry for sympathy, and usually they're quite embarassed. (This was not the case at my grad institution - I think the crying is more of a failure for students at my current institution... I don't know.)