Tea and Sympathy

While it’s usually not mentioned in job descriptions or part of any formal training, a major part of the unofficial duties of faculty members involves helping students deal with personal challenges, writes Angela B. Fulk.

February 28, 2017
 
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As an adjunct, I do not formally advise students. But after nearly 25 years of relating to students at a variety of colleges and universities, I am very experienced in the types of informal interactions that faculty members have with students on an almost daily basis.

We may call this informal advising; we may call it mentoring. It is part of the expectations that our institutions and students lay on us as professional educators. Yet it is seldom mentioned in any official job description, and we are offered little if any official training or guidance in this area. The pedagogical instruction usually given to faculty members does not often stress the degree to which students tend to share with us the details of their personal lives.

At SUNY Buffalo State, one of the two colleges where I teach, even part-time faculty members are encouraged to file end-of-year reports that can be used for awarding merit or performance-based recognition. Last year, the form I was given to fill out about my teaching and other professional activities included, on its last line, a question about the informal advising I had done during the previous year. Given the one-line space that was provided for an answer, all I could think to respond was that this is a task I perform constantly -- every day that I am physically on campus meeting with students, and even through email on the days when I am not with them face-to-face. For instance, a student with schizophrenia once asked me for advice about how to concentrate on his studies when the voices in his head were too loud. A student in my course on biblical and classical literature pulled me aside to ask my theological position on the practice of glossolalia, emphasized in her current church, from which she was starting to pull away.

Margaret McCarthy and Terri Mangione’s 2000 study, “How Undergraduate Students Identify and Utilize Informal Mentors,” broadens the category of informal mentor to include friends, family members and all other individuals to whom students may regularly turn for guidance. And students’ survey responses indicated that even in their interactions with faculty members, they were seeking “personal advice and encouragement,” as distinguished from academic or career advice, nearly 25 percent of the time.

I’ve found that first-year students are the ones most likely to be struggling with issues relating to moving away from home and making the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It is often necessary for faculty members to be proactive in noticing when they seem to be having difficulties and asking them what is going on, rather than waiting for them to come to us.

For example, when one of my first-year students last September developed a cold that kept worsening, I suggested that she see a doctor at the health center. She explained that she could not be seen there because she had forgotten to bring proof of health insurance with her to campus. Apparently, she had not been living with her parents before college and had no one back home who could send her health insurance information. She was planning a drive of several hundred miles to her hometown to retrieve it on an upcoming weekend. I suggested that instead she might contact her insurance company and ask them to send the necessary information -- a solution that had not occurred to her. She was subsequently seen at the health center for her illness, and proof of health insurance later became even more crucial when she was sexually assaulted and had to go to a nearby hospital.

Because students are often hesitant to seek out faculty members even when they need help, I frequently build a required one-on-one conference in my office into my syllabi early in the semester. This conference not only allows students to discuss and evaluate with me their progress in the course, but it also shows them that seeking out a professor during office hours can be a positive and helpful experience. I receive many more office visits after this initial conference than I did before. Once students make their first intimidating visit to a professor’s office space, if the experience is positive, they will feel more comfortable about return visits.

As educators, we often work to build an image of ourselves as important scholars, leaders in our field. While that is vital for career advancement, it is also crucial that we build an image for our students that shows we are also human beings who care about them and can be relied on for guidance and support. A student of my husband’s, after coming to his office for a conference about a paper draft, recently breathed a huge sigh of relief and said, “That wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.” When my husband asked about her reaction, she told him about negative experiences she had with other instructors in the past that had made her feel frightened about seeking criticism from him. This is a tragedy, pedagogically speaking: no student should ever be frightened or intimidated out of turning to a professor for help.

Conversations held in the privacy of the office are often the best ways for professors like us to present ourselves as allies to students of color, LGBTQ students, Muslim students and students with disabilities. Over the years, students have come to me to talk about family issues, pregnancies, sexual assaults and mental and physical illnesses. One young man told me the dramatic story of his and his family’s escape from Hurricane Katrina. Another told me that he had been missing class lately because he had recently been diagnosed as HIV positive, and when he relayed that to his mother, she hit him in the face and threw him out of her house.

Many students neither need nor want any help from me other than an excused absence or a chance to make up a missed quiz or exam. Such was the case with the young woman, one of my best Chaucer students last term, who simply sent me an email to inform me that she had missed the last week of the semester because of an abusive boyfriend against whom she had just filed a restraining order. She attached a court document as proof. In the end, she simply showed up and took the final exam with her usual poise and intelligence, having handled her situation on her own.

Writing assignments that encourage narrative will often be used as a kind of informal therapy by students, who choose to utilize course assignments to work through traumatizing events from their past. For an unsuspecting instructor, it can be a jolt to discover a paper in which, say, a refugee student describes combing through a mass grave in search of his father’s bones in the middle of a pile of the usual bland narratives about “how my grandmother died” or “how we won the big game.” My usual response to papers of this kind is to make supportive personal comments in addition to my writing critique, such as complimenting the depth of emotion that comes through in the writing, or thanking the student for being willing to share such a raw and intimate story with me. I leave the door open for further contact at the students’ discretion, but usually just having the chance to tell their story in writing is all they desire.

One of my first-year basic writing students last semester wrote a personal narrative paper about her experience of an unplanned pregnancy and decision to have an abortion while in high school. She came to a required conference in my office several weeks after writing the paper and nervously inquired whether I had reported her to the college as a troubled student. I assured her I had not, but I reminded her that there are counseling services available on campus should she wish to talk further with someone about her experience.

Knowing Proper Protocols

Faculty members are, of course, not trained counselors and need to be very careful not to assume that role, even though students may sometimes wish us to do so. It is vital that we understand what situations we are and are not qualified to handle, and when a student’s distress must be reported to campus authorities. In “Advising College Students in the 21st Century,” Peggy Jordan lays out the basic criteria that faculty members are ethically obliged to report: “students who are having thoughts or feelings of hurting themselves or hurting others, if they are in relationships in which they are being hurt (physically or emotionally), or if they have knowledge or involvement in any minor (child) being harmed.” These provide good guidelines, and individual institutions often also have their own criteria and protocol for these situations. I have only been involved in one such incident in my years of teaching, in which a mentally disturbed student was sending bizarre and possibly threatening letters to me and other professors, and I needed to add my voice to those of the other faculty members in a report to the campus police.

All faculty members should know what types of assistance are available for students in crisis and be prepared to assist the student in reaching out to them. Two years ago, one of my husband’s students reported to him that she was being threatened and stalked by a fellow student with whom she was serving in campus government. Canceling his next class for the purpose, my husband accompanied her from his office directly to the campus police station and stayed with her while she filed her report to ensure that she, as an African-American woman, would be taken seriously. The student had no further trouble that semester and has since graduated and happily returned to campus to begin graduate study in our department.

In other cases, students may be encouraged to fight their own battles while we as faculty offer background support. One of my students was disabled following multiple back surgeries and was unable to sit at a standard classroom desk for the 50-minute class period. Our campus’s disability support office initially rejected her request for special seating, telling her that the campus could not afford to purchase furniture for every student who requested it. But I was able to locate a document sent by disability services administrators to faculty members some years before in which they had explicitly promised to purchase accessible seating for students who needed it. Armed with this document, my student was able to push for what she needed, which in the end did not require a special purchase, just the moving of a padded bench into my classroom. That student subsequently won an important department award, successfully completed her degree and is now working on writing her first novel.

Incidents like this one clearly illustrate the importance of faculty support of students’ individual needs to ensure student retention, since being unable to attend classes would almost certainly have forced this student to drop out. All of our informal interactions with students, however, casual and trivial as they may seem, help to assure students that they belong within the institution, and that they have access to support that will help them succeed.

We cannot always provide the specific help students require -- often all I can do is ensure that they see a counselor or physician and encourage them to report back regularly to me about the status of the problem. What we can always do, however, is to provide a listening ear and an assurance to students that they are not alone. Our students, the lives we touch as they pass through our classrooms, are our legacy, every bit as much as the scholarship that we produce. And for many of us, it may prove even more enduring.

Bio

Angela B. Fulk is an adjunct lecturer in English, writing and classics at SUNY Buffalo State College and Canisius College. She is the area chair for pedagogy and professional development for the Northeast Modern Language Association.

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