Dear Kerry Ann,
Last week, an essay (“Thanks for Listening”) made the rounds on social media about the invisible, unrewarded and time-intensive emotional labor involved in listening, empathizing, problem solving and resource finding. It described how the offices of “nice women” become confessionals where students disclose private information, share secrets, request assistance, present crises, unload emotional problems and cry (a lot).
When I read it, all I could think was: Ugh. That’s me! I understand all the structural reasons why this happens, but I don’t know how to change it. I’m exhausted, and I’m falling behind on my research and writing. I’m ready to make some changes, but I’m not sure what changes to make.
Warm and Fuzzy
Dear Warm and Fuzzy,
Your experience resonates with me personally. I’m 4 feet 10 inches tall, a woman of color, a great listener and definitely perceived as “warm and fuzzy.” Early in my career, my office was an unending stream of emotional disclosure. Part of me felt honored that people feel safe with me. Part of me felt like I wanted to be the professor I never had. And part of me cared so deeply about my students that I want all of them to feel seen, heard and supported in their growth.
Despite my good intentions, I quickly burned out, because there are personal, physical and emotional costs to that level of emotional work. Doing this labor in addition to classroom teaching, service and maintaining a high level of research productivity left me working all the time.
I’ve written elsewhere about how race, class, gender and size shape professors’ daily interactions, so I’ll respect your question by focusing on what you can do to change this pattern. Let me say this with love, compassion and respect: it’s time to talk about boundaries.
Why Boundaries Are Important
At the most basic level, boundaries are the guidelines that we use to set expectations, responsibilities and limits for ourselves and other people. As a faculty member, boundaries determine what is (and what is not) OK in our relationships with students. Because there is a power differential between you and your student, what you create and allow drive the conversational boundaries of what happens in your office. In other words, you are the professor, so you set the boundaries.
It’s helpful to imagine boundaries as Henry Cloud and John Townsend describe in Boundaries: “A personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible.” But where you draw that personal property line is up to you and depends on how you understand your role as a professor.
To be clear, I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong place to draw your boundaries. But it’s important for you to make conscious, intentional and consistent choices about your boundaries. And because the way faculty members understand their role varies, let me share a few guiding questions you can use to start choosing where you want to create boundaries for yourself.
Where Does Your Responsibility as a Professor Begin and End?
The foundation of creating healthy boundaries between yourself and students is how you understand what you are -- and are not -- responsible for as a professor. At one end of the spectrum, some faculty members imagine that their responsibility is restricted to teaching the material outlined in their course description. Faculty members who have a short list of responsibilities tend to have high boundaries and formal interactions because they don’t feel responsible for solving students’ personal problems, helping them navigate the campus support services or advising them on major life decisions.
At the other end of the spectrum are faculty members who believe that their duty as a professor includes advising, mentoring, role modeling, being on call 24-7 and playing a quasi-parental role in students’ lives. This far more expansive list of responsibilities results in lower boundaries and far more frequent and informal interactions.
I encourage you to spend some time asking yourself: 1) What precisely are my responsibilities as a professor? 2) What are my students’ responsibilities? and 3) Where exactly does my responsibility end and my students’ responsibility begin? This clarity will help you to feel more comfortable defending your boundaries when students cross them, without any guilt whatsoever. Once you’ve written down what your responsibilities are (and are not), then it’s time to take stock of whether your behavior supports (or undermines) those boundaries.
What Nonverbal Cues Are You Sending?
When it comes to your office and the conversations that take place with students in it, you are in charge -- whether your realize it or not. You create the space, you cue students (verbally and nonverbally) about what you will allow, and your responses either give students permission to show up outside of your office hours and start disclosing private information or not.
If you are young, female, underrepresented and/or generally perceived as a nice person, you may find students making assumptions about your boundaries or testing your boundaries in ways that are not aligned with where you have drawn them. I’m not saying it’s fair that you may have to frequently defend your boundaries. I’m saying that’s real and it’s why you have to be extra clear about where your boundaries lie and skillfully push back when students cross them.
To that end, it’s important that you do not unintentionally send mixed messages. In other words, even before you say anything, you nonverbally communicate a wide range of messages. For example, when it comes to your office, pause to ask yourself:
- Do you close your door when you’re working? If not, why not?
- If someone knocks, do you jump up to answer the door even if you’re in the middle of something?
- How do you answer the door when people knock? Do you open the door wide or body block the entry?
- Do you keep tissues visible and easily accessible on your desk (silently communicating, “Feel free to cry here”)?
- Do you nod and maintain prolonged eye contact when people disclose personal information?
- Do you give out your personal cell phone number to undergraduate or graduate students?
- Are you Facebook friends with students?
- Are you responding to student emails in the evenings and on weekends?
- What are your touching practices? (Do you hug crying students, put hands on their shoulders or arms, or grab their hands for reassurance?)
I’m asking you to reflect on these questions as a way to take stock of what messages you are sending to students nonverbally and determine whether those messages support your boundaries or undermine them.
Do You Choose Your Responses or Default to Listening?
When you clarify your boundaries, you can be more assertive in shaping conversations. The problem is that when you lack clarity, it may feel as if you have no options in how to respond to common ramp-up question such as, “This is confidential, right?” So you default to yes (or nod).
In doing so, you are giving a student permission to disclose personal and confidential information. And if saying yes is within your boundaries, great! There’s no problem. But if that question is a clear red flag that somebody is about to cross a boundary for you, then guess what? You have plenty of other ways to respond, including the following:
- Hold up your hand in the stop gesture.
- Shake your head to indicate no.
- Say no.
- Give the time-out gesture and say directly, “Let me stop you for a minute to clarify the boundaries of our relationship as a teacher and student.”
- Lean back, cross your arms and say: “Well, I’m your professor, so if this is directly related to your classroom performance you can proceed. But if not, then I don’t need to know.”
- Say, “It sounds like you need a space to have a confidential conversation, and I can’t help you because I’m not trained as a _______ (therapist/crisis counselor/financial aid specialist, etc.). Do you know how to connect with the _______ on campus (insert appropriate support service)?”
These are examples of acceptable responses if a student’s disclosure is going beyond what you feel responsible for as a professor. I’m providing examples because, many times, new faculty members don’t know how to defend their boundaries verbally. I encourage you to use these if they are helpful and remind yourself that, in doing so, you are modeling professional boundaries for your students.
What Structures Do You Have in Place to Communicate Your Boundaries?
Since you’re clarifying your boundaries, it’s a great time to review your course policies to see if they support -- or undermine -- your boundaries with students. Have you:
- Defined your relationship in your syllabus? (For example, “My responsibilities as your instructor are …. Your responsibilities as a student are ….)
- Set up your office-hour time slots to reflect your boundaries? If you have a wide sense of responsibilities, then longer appointments are fine. If you have a narrow sense of responsibilities, 15-minute increments let students know that you have limited time and they need to stay focused.
- Explicitly stated who is eligible to attend your office hours in a way that supports your boundaries? Again, if they are wide, anyone is welcome. If they are narrow, clarify that only students currently enrolled in your classes are eligible for office hours.
- Put contact information for campus support services (psychological, health, academic, transportation and security) in your syllabus?
- Created a flyer with relevant support service information to hand students in your office hours when they present concerns that are outside of your responsibility?
- Calibrated the contact information you make available and your email policies to support your boundaries?
All of these questions are important, because the messages you send via your course policies can support the boundaries you want to establish.
What Are the Signs That You Need a Boundary Adjustment?
Finally, I encourage you to notice now how you feel when your boundaries are crossed. You have identified feeling exhausted and frustrated as red flags. I would add that resentment, anger and excessive frustration with others who aren’t doing the same emotional labor are common signs that it’s time for a boundary adjustment. If you know what the emotional signs are, then you can make adjustments whenever they pop up.
I also want to warn you that when you first start to experiment with setting boundaries, it may feel awkward and difficult. For example, you may feel powerful waves of guilt the first time a student (particularly one who is not enrolled in your class) asks, “Do you have time to talk?” and you politely decline. That guilt will be particularly intense if your gender, class, religious or cultural socialization has a strong element of self-sacrifice in it. It may be intensified when others openly express displeasure with your unwillingness to meet their needs. That’s a normal part of the process! So acknowledge the feelings, remind yourself about what you are (and are not) responsible for, and affirm the value of healthy boundaries with your students.
I hope that these questions are received in the spirit they are given: to help those of you who find yourself exhausted from listening too much to feel empowered to listen when, where and under what circumstances you choose to do so -- as opposed to whenever someone wants to unload and considers your office the best place to do that. I’m sure readers will have lots of additional concrete tips and suggestions on setting boundaries, and I encourage everyone to share those freely in the comment section below.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.