teachers at the margins

Lisa Marchiano, a psychoanalyst, describing her encounter with a student who had a “panic attack” during an exam and didn’t want to take any more exams:

I asked this young patient of mine what in fact had happened during the first exam. She responded again, I had a panic attack. I lightly pressed her to move beyond the jargon and tell me about her actual experience as she took the exam. Eventually, she was able to tell me that, as the papers were being handed out, she become flushed and light-headed. Her heart was pounding, and her hands felt clammy. What happened then? I asked. She felt like running out of the room, but she was able to calm herself down enough to take the test. Though she successfully completed the first exam — and did okay on it — the fear that she might have another “panic attack” had prevented her from attempting the second exam.

What had happened here? One way of understanding this young person’s experience is indeed that she had had a limited-symptom panic attack. According to the diagnostic criteria for panic attacks in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a limited-symptom panic attack can be diagnosed based on a pounding heart, sweating, and shaking. Of course, as anyone knows who has ever taken an exam, performed in front of an audience, or asked someone they like out on a date, these are in fact utterly normal reactions to feeling nervous. I gently attempted to reflect this back to my young patient. “So you were nervous about taking the exam, but you didn’t run out of the room. You did it. You pushed through the fear feelings.” I wanted her to see this as a success, one that she could build on, that could help alter her stuck story that tells her she is too anxious to function adequately. Her response to my positive reframing was telling. She looked up at me from under her brows and held my gaze. “Yes,” she responded firmly. “But I had a panic attack.”

Reflecting on this experience, Marchiano raises a key issue: “I found myself wondering where she had learned that she ought not to be expected to tolerate ordinary distress or discomfort. How have we come to the point where we believe that emotional disquiet will cause harm, that we ought to be soothed and tranquil at all times?”

Some years ago I had a student — I’ll call her M — who came to me and said that she could no longer take the reading quizzes that I give at the beginning of many classes. If she had to take them, she preferred to do so in the office on campus that deals with students who have disabilities, even if that meant missing most or all of my classes. And M clearly, though in no way angrily or aggressively, expected that I would do as she preferred.

I ended up talking with the case worker assigned to M, and the case worker told me that M was anxious about not having time to finish the quizzes, and, further, that M had problems, not to be disclosed to me, that made it necessary for me to accommodate her preferences.

Several elements of this situation puzzled me. First, M was usually among the first to complete her quizzes. Second, she had the highest quiz average in the class, and it wasn’t even close. Third, her very intelligent contributions to class discussions about the quizzes added significantly to the value of our class time. And fourth: those facts, and my observations, had absolutely no bearing on the expectations my university had for me. M’s feelings and preferences, as interpreted by her case worker, were all that mattered — I was strongly discouraged from sharing with M any of my thoughts, no matter how positive.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I agreed to make any accommodation necessary. But M kept coming to class, kept taking the quizzes, and kept excelling in them. Why she didn’t follow through on her request I can’t say. Maybe her knowledge that I would do what she wanted was enough to relieve the pressure the had been feeling.

I’m glad M stayed in class, and that there was a peaceful resolution to the situation, but the whole sequence of events troubled me then and troubles me now. The first, and larger, problem is that we’re now in a moment at which any attempt to resist the pathologizing of perfectly ordinary experiences of nervousness or uncertainty is tagged as indifference (at best) or cruelty (at worst). To encourage students to believe that they can overcome their anxieties is, it appears, now a form of abuse.

And second — perhaps not as important but still significant to me — there is the marginalization of the teacher-student relationship. It was made very clear to me that the case worker — who had never been in my class, who had never observed either M or me — could dictate the response to M’s concerns. I didn’t push back, because I didn’t want to bring any further anxiety to a student who was already anxious, but I wonder what would have happened if I had insisted that my own view of the matter, which was after all backed by some experience, should be taken into account.

More seriously, it seemed to me that the case worker was constructing, or allowing M to construct, a narrative in which I was M’s antagonist and it was the case worker’s job to intervene to assist M in her struggle against her antagonist. The idea that I might be on M’s side and want to help her, and indeed should, as part of my job, help her was never considered.

The work done by the “bias prevention units” or “diversity offices” that have proliferated in many universities might seem to be a very different phenomenon, but that work has a similar effect on the relationship between teachers and students. A key premise — sometimes unstated but sometimes quite explicit — of such administrative offices is that faculty are often the enemies of diversity and the perpetrators of bias, and therefore these programs must step in to correct the injustices inherent in the system. Again the faculty member is cast as the students’ antagonist, or at least as a possible antagonist. I do not know of any circumstances in which the “learnings” or “training modules” produced by these offices — which are often mandatory for all students — have received any faculty input, though I suppose some faculty may occasionally be involved. The “learnings” seem to be designed to emphasize the untrustworthiness of teachers.

I think students in general have a pretty good grasp of these dynamics. My observations suggest that disgruntled students these days rarely take their complaints to department chairs or deans, but rather to these amorphous “offices” which exist independently of the faculty structure and are typically empowered by the university to impose decisions without consulting anyone in that faculty structure.

I also think that this way of doing our academic business exacerbates, quite dramatically, one of the worst features of academic life, which is its legalism. Knowing that they are being overseen by these distant and almost invisible “offices,” faculty end up writing more and more detailed syllabuses, working to close every possible loophole which might be exploited by students to get what they want even when, from the faculty point of view, they don’t deserve it. And the more desperately faculty look to close such loopholes, the more the students search for them. It’s no way to run a university — at least if the university cares about learning.

There were certainly flaws in the old way of doing these things, in which individual teachers almost certainly had too much power. But certain experiences of learning were possible in that system that the current, or emerging, system is rapidly making impossible. The marginalizing of the student-faculty relationship is not a good recipe for addressing those old flaws.

October 23, 2019

In Uncategorized

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