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.
4 years ago