Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Oh, the Ledge. The View Might Be Gorgeous, But That Hardly Makes Up for Feeling Like You Might Plummet to Your Death.

Sometimes I think that this job has a great deal in common with being that person who gets called in when somebody is threatening to jump off a building or a bridge or a high cliff. And sometimes I think that being a student can feel like you're that suicidal person who feels like the only answer is to swan-dive from the highest tower. And both of those roles, well, they suck.

When I was a student, I had a fair number of Ledge experiences. Typically I was far too proud ever to get a professor involved (though there are a few exceptions to that). Most of the time I just went ballistic on my mom or on whatever boyfriend was handy. But the pressure of being a student can sometimes be so great, and one's fears about failure can be so great, that one becomes totally paralyzed and lost. And one doesn't quite know how to handle all of the pressure that one feels, and that takes a serious toll. And you feel alone and confused and horrible, and there seem to be absolutely no solutions other than to stand on that Ledge and to hope that somehow you'll get talked off of it.

Now that I'm a professor, well, it's weird. It's weird to be the person who talks the stressed out people off of the ledge. And yet, at this time each semester, I find myself in that role. Sometimes I blame myself for being the kind of professor that puts students on the Ledge. Maybe if I were "nicer" somehow, or less demanding, or less scary, they'd never get there in the first place. But then I think, well, I can't be all bad if they actually come to me in order to be talked off of that Ledge. I'm doing something right if they come to me. But then I think that they wouldn't need to come to me if I were different. It's a vicious cycle.

So this afternoon I took my place on the Ledge, beside a student who is so, so bright and so serious and who's afraid of the future and freaked out about my class, and in a conversation that started on the verge of tears (though thank god the tears didn't come, as my office is woefully ill-equipped for such things) ended in the student smiling and feeling (I think) ok. And while I often see myself as not being a terribly "nurturing" professor, what I'm thinking right now (perhaps because I'll be spending the weekend with my Mom, who's not conventionally "nurturing" either) is that maybe it's true that I'm all about the "tough love" but that at the end of the day, there is love there and nurturing, just not in a sort of warm and fuzzy and I'm your best friend sort of a way.

My friend A. and I joke that her mom is totally the epitome of nurturing and is all about supporting even the most ridiculous things, so for example, if A. came to her mom and said that she was in love with a troll who lived under a bridge that she'd be like, "That's so great! Love! A troll! You can totally make his lair under the bridge homey!" whereas my mom would be like, "Crazy. You do realize that he's a troll. And under the bridge is filled with disease and hooligans. I mean, come on." And, see, I think I'm kind of like that, too. It's the whole thing of telling it like it is, even if it hurts somebody's feelings thing. But in times of real trouble, my mom is totally hard core and resilient. She's practical and gives the best possible advice. And she's always got my back, and she'd kill that troll if he did me wrong, whereas A.'s mom would probably ask what was so bad about the troll and couldn't we two crazy kids make it work. Anyway, I think that's kind of how I am with my students.

I'm hard on them. I tell them when I think they've done crappy work, and I push them really hard, and I'm not always "nice." I don't protect their feelings. And maybe I should do more of that sometimes, and maybe the fact that I don't puts some of the more sensitive ones on the Ledge. But see, this is the thing. I really care about getting them off the Ledge not in a way that erases what the original problem was but rather in a way that helps them get through that problem. And I do think that this is a good thing about my "style" (whatever that is).

But so anyway, one of the things that I said to this student was that when I was a student, I thought I was the only person who wigged and freaked out and lost it under the pressure to perform academically. What I realize now, after 10+ years of teaching, is that it's a totally normal occurrence for people to crack under the pressure. Hell, I still crack under the pressure sometimes. I'm trying to find better ways to express it and to notice the patterns that guide my freak-outs so as not to cause too much collateral damage, but I also forgive myself more for when I crack. I realize that I'm not a freak, even when I'm insecure or when I fuck up. Change is scary, high expectations (either of a professor for you or of one's own for oneself) are scary. And it's ok to be scared. It's ok to fuck up and to freak out. It's not the end of the world.

And you know what? It's scary to learn new things, and it's scary to think about things in ways that aren't comfortable. So this doesn't end when one stops being a student. It's different, but there's no point in time (as far as I know) in which one is immune to those feelings. As one gains experience, one does (I hope) get (at least slightly) better at handling it. But one's never "cured."

This student of mine.... I have such high hopes for this student and I really believe in this student. And I wish that my class hadn't put this student onto the Ledge, because the Ledge blows. But I hope, and I do think, that this student is going to get something out of going onto that Ledge, going out on that limb. Sometimes I think that without those experiences, it's impossible for us to grow.

Anyway, this is rambling and vague, but I suppose I wanted to post it because it seems that every time I face this situation with a student they always seem so ashamed for having gotten themselves into this situation, and I want to put something out there that says that there is no shame in this insecurity, or fear, or stress. Your professors, at least some of them, will have seen this before, and they won't judge you for it. In fact, they may have their own experiences that mirror yours. And I want students to know that once they get off of that Ledge that they'll see things differently, and that it really will be ok.

Having cracked under the pressure doesn't make a person a bad student or a bad person. It just makes a person human. And even though it sucks, it's probably really positive. Even if it doesn't feel that way at the time.


Tiggerfly said...

I do not remember if I have commented here before, but I just had to delurk in response to this post. So, hi I'm Tiggerfly and I read your blog pretty regularly. Thanks for your all your posts.

Thank you for this post in particular; my preliminary oral exam is tomorrow and I am having a bit of a Ledge moment myself tonight. Your post helps put things into perspective, thanks!

I'll not comment on why, exactly, I am reading blogs on the eve of my oral...

Dr. Crazy said...

You've not commented before that I remember, so welcome! And good luck on your oral! You will be fabulous! You are ready! All good oral exam vibes are being sent your way from me!

And I'm glad that something I said might have made you feel less anxious :)

(And you're reading blogs on the eve of the oral because dude, it's all there in your head. You can only do so much :) )

Hilaire said...

As someone who has inhabited the Ledge and now feels completely ill-equipped to help out as many people on the Ledge as I do, I thank you for this post. I have also tried to be honest with students about the fact that I inhabit the Ledge. They are so shocked that sometimes I wonder if it's wrong to say so. This post is another one yours that I'll be printing and saving in The File.

timna said...

Thanks for reminding me how uncomfortable learning can be. and how that's probably fine.

Bardiac said...

What a great post.

I think what you've said about realizing that most people spend some time on the ledge, especially as students, is most important. I really wish I could convey to my students that it's sort of normal to be there, or crying in my office, or whatever.

Good job. Amazing how many students can really stretch to meet high expectations, isn't it?

m. minkoff said...

Dr. Crazy,

I graduate a year ago (from undergrad) and while college never put me on the ledge, pretty much this entire year out of school has been lived on that ledge. This post really hit home & was consoling in a surprising and much needed way.

Thanks for that.

Gorgon said...

More kudos for you Dr. Crazy - I just blew a presentation for a class in my doctoral program and now I have to completely rewrite the paper and write a paper for another class at the same time (shall I even include the fact that I have a full-time job in addition?). So here I am on the Ledge, too, thinking perhaps I'm not made for graduate work. Your post has put me a bit more at ease by reminding it happens to all at some point.

Belle said...

All to familiar, that Ledge. Your approach too; that's kinda the way I do things too. Amazingly enough, I get students from all over who need help off that damned thing. I'm always astonished when a student - from a previous term even - finds me to help.

There's a new book for you Crazy! The pain of the ledge!

Anonymous said...

i own real estate on the fucking ledge. This accounts for whatever popularity my blog has. My hits are never so numerous as when I am hard core threatening to plummet to my (academic) death if someone doesn't fucking listen to me right. bleeding. now.

meanwhile, I would have loved an undergraduate professor (if only in hindsight) who exercised a little tough love. It's one of the things I love one of my committee members. I end up feeling like he's the only one who hasn't given up on me because he still presses.