The Accidental Therapist

Nate Kreuter considers the role of instructors when their students come to them with decidedly nonacademic problems.

February 22, 2012

At the end of my first semester on the tenure track I was holding student conferences, meeting individually with each of my students -- my way of wrapping up my two writing sections. Students and I talked about their progress over the semester, their final grades, and things that each student might want to work on in the future in order to continue to improve their academic writing. The students didn’t realize it, but our situations were strangely parallel, as both they and I closed up our first semesters at the university. As they tend to, the conferences began to take on a routine feel, with patterns emerging in the academic issues that students were working through, and as the conversations I had with each student began to bleed into one another conceptually.

A conversation with one student went a bit differently, though. He was, in my experience, a very common sort of student -- bright, engaged with the course material, fully capable, but nonetheless had fallen off the tracks early in my course and had struggled, largely unsuccessfully, to get back on track. We talked through the normal things, his grade, my advice for how he should focus his attention on improving his writing, the normal stuff.

But for some reason, before he left, he apologized to me for not doing better in the course.

"Why would you apologize?" I asked.

"Well, I could have done better. I was just dealing with a lot," he said.

"Things happen, and I don’t talk it personally," I told him.

Before I knew it, in a quiet, deliberate tone, the student launched into his story. It was about the difficulty of attending a new college in a new part of the country, far from family and friends. It was about uncertainty over his academic goals. It was about a painful breakup during the semester with a girl back home. In short, it was a totally typical tale for a first-semester student to have, and while painful for that student, not particularly worrisome in the grand scheme of things. He was coping, but felt compelled to explain his situation. He was asking for nothing, not a better grade, nothing. He was just telling, because for some reason he needed to.

I listened. It was all I could do. I knew the student was a serious music aficionado. I recommended a couple salving tunes, writing them out on a post it note as an M.D. might a prescription. I told him the only thing I know to be true in these situations: time will take care of it, and in the mean time, listen to good music.

I'm concerned here with the times when students come to us with legitimate, serious problems, often because they don’t know where else to go. I'm not talking about the excuses. I'm not talking about the dead grandma excuse. Some of my students have lost, tragically, as many as three or four grandmothers over the course of a semester in my class. And apparently students learn to cope with such recurring loss quite quickly.  In more than one case I have found myself wondering in my own head, "Was your grandmother a complete jackass? — because you seem quite chipper about all this." Just the same, I would never ask for proof, just in case. I wouldn’t want to add insult to an actual case of grieving. But if a student has lied to me, when it comes time for that student to turn in a paper, these things have a way of working themselves out, my philosophy goes. Students who haven’t attended class simply won’t do well, and that is "punishment" enough.

I once had a student approach me before class, while other students were in the room, to explain a recent string of absences. He looked like absolute hell, worn down, exhausted, pale, nearly incoherent with fatigue. He proceeded to explain how his girlfriend had just recently suffered a painful and medically complicated miscarriage after their unplanned pregnancy. Both were in intensive therapy, both were struggling to get through each day, neither was sleeping. And in his exhaustion, he was simply beyond worrying if his situation was overheard by his classmates. You can’t do much in such moments except listen, and put your own course in perspective. In the big picture of that student’s life, my class didn’t matter at all. I suspected that he would struggle to complete the class even if I waived my strict attendance policy, which was of course the only humane thing to do. Once I was assured by his own narrative that he was receiving professional help, all that I could do was nod and make sure that I didn’t add to his problems.

Reflecting the gender biases of our culture, often students will be more inclined to take their problems to a female instructor than to a male one. Anecdotally, I know that my female colleagues over the years have had to deal with more situations where students consulted them about personal problems than my male colleagues have. But ultimately there’s no predicting when or why a student will choose you to confide in. It can be uncomfortable, and frankly, I’d prefer that they never confided in me about nonacademic issues. In virtually every case, I simply would rather not know. Nonetheless, I have to respect that the student chose me to trust with their problem, and if I am capable and it is appropriate, to offer help. Regardless of gender, if you teach relatively small, discussion-based courses, as I do, you’re more likely to find a student confiding in you one day.

I'm not suggesting that anyone should cultivate a classroom ethos that invites students to think of us as counselors. As teachers, we aren’t therapists. But we don’t have to teach for very long until we find ourselves in that role. It’s a tricky line -- most of us, even if we are uncomfortable being asked, want to offer help once we are asked for it. We need to realize what help we are and are not qualified to give. Much of teaching, I feel, is about helping students manage academic anxiety, anxiety about writing in my own case. I am of course qualified to offer that help and I always do.

Students’ lives extend far beyond the classroom, though, and much of what they encounter outside of the classroom is beyond my expertise. It's important to be familiar with your university’s counseling services, because almost inevitably a student will come to you with a situation that you can’t and shouldn’t try to handle or talk the student through on your own. Sometimes pointing a student toward a more appropriate resource is the best help we can offer.

At the beginning of my second semester on the tenure track, as I took role on the first day in one of my second-year writing courses, I looked up when I say a familiar name.

"Did you like those bands I recommended?" I asked.

"To be honest, they weren’t really my style," he replied.

I winced a little. Another confirmation of how out-of-step I am with student tastes. "Well, glad you’re here despite my lousy recommendations," I said back.

"Yep," was his only reply, and all it needed to be.

Looking back on it, though, I am worried about that student. His inability to find solace in the catalogs of either Sam Cooke or the Drive-By Truckers may indeed indicate a life destined to sadness.


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