The Best Way Out Is Always Through

Sriram Khé describes what he wishes he learned in graduate school, especially when it comes to advising students.

October 19, 2018

I wish I had learned a number of things that I didn’t in graduate school, including what it means to be a faculty member advising students. If only I had been told what I know now: faculty advising and office hours are not really about the classes, per se!

I started teaching economic geography at California State University, Bakersfield. When students came to my office, it was not to talk about agglomeration economies, central place theory or international development (my favorite). Instead, they often talked about their own lives. Earl, a United States Army veteran, talked about his experiences as a homeless person sleeping under bridges. I still recall Frank getting teary as he spoke about his homeland, Sierra Leone, which he had to flee. (I have replaced real names of students in this piece to protect their identities.) And there were more, whose names and faces are fading away in my memory.

It did not take long for me to understand that advising would involve dealing with the anxieties, vulnerabilities and emotions that students struggle with. I was unprepared. I had to quickly learn and improvise. And I did.

I became a listener.

All through my life as a student, and until I became a member of the teaching profession, I had never had such experiences. In my undergraduate years in India, I found no equivalent of “office hours.” Other than during classes, when I tried my best not to fall asleep through the lectures, I rarely saw my professors, let alone talked with them. It is not that I did not walk around with emotional baggage of my own; at times, the weight of my baggage seemed unbearable. But I had no one to talk to about my anxieties that included an acute fear of public speaking, worry about my family’s financial stress due to my father being unemployed and -- the biggest one of them all -- my intense feelings of unhappiness and depression about my electrical engineering program.

Perhaps my formative years would have been less anxious if India had continued with a variation of the old tradition of gurukula. In the gurukula system, the student (shishya) almost always lived in the home of the teacher (guru) and his family. The guru and his wife were, for all practical purposes, a second set of parents, and provided a home -- a remarkable alma mater -- that made possible the shishya’s intellectual and emotional development. In complete contrast to the gurukula, my college professors and I were total strangers in India’s modern higher education system.

Though not operating a gurukula in Oregon, which is where I have been living and teaching for the past 16 years, I am convinced that faculty members can -- and should -- play an important role in students’ emotional as well as intellectual development. News reports empirically validate the struggles of the students whom I come across in my teaching. The Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, which has been surveying first-year students across the country since 1966, notes a significant decline in the emotional health of college students. Life has apparently become even more complicated than it was when I was a teenager worrying about my future.

At the surface, it might seem like the three-legged academic stool -- teaching, scholarship and service -- does not include dealing with students’ feelings. But teaching does have a place for it. After all, we are not dealing with automatons but human beings with emotions. The life of the mind, which serves as an unofficial motto for higher education, includes anxiety and sadness.

I fully recognize that I am not a counselor. I suggest to students to meet with the counseling professionals on the campus if they are not able to work out their problems. One student, Valerie, who does work with counselors, wrote to me recently: “I don't plan on being broken for the rest of my life though. Well, it is not like I am planning it now, but things will be better soon.”

It seems like students want faculty members like me simply to hear them out and not necessarily solve their problems. Listening to students in my office, when they engage me about their life concerns, compels me to walk a fine line -- fully engaged and relating to the person yet detached enough from the emotions and the person so that I don’t get entangled in their lives. Depending on what students tell me, I sometimes share with them some of the anxieties that I experienced as a college student. Always, they are surprised to learn that I, too, was once a walking bundle of nerves.

A few days ago, I met with a student, Gina. As we discussed her classes and the need to look for summer internships, I sensed that something was troubling her. Thanks to the years of working with students, I knew that I should not force the issue, and that if a student really wanted to share their troubles with me, they would. The more we talked about her academic plans, the more I could see her gaining confidence that she could trust me.

She paused and looked away. And then Gina slowly talked about her problems dealing with anxiety and depression.

I listened. We talked about her worries and her interests. I latched on to her mentioning poetry. I told her about a line from Robert Frost that is comforting and encouraging when we struggle with problems: The best way out is always through. “I love Frost. I will look it up,” she replied with a smile.

But then, all of a sudden, her facial expressions changed. With her fingers covering her mouth, and looking deeply apologetic, she asked, “Is it OK to talk with you about these? These are my personal problems, right?”

“Of course, it’s OK,” I replied. She relaxed more when I added that advising and office hours are not merely about classes but -- and more important -- about such issues. And that’s a profound truth that I had not known as a graduate student when I was excitedly looking forward to a life as an academic.


Sriram Khé is associate professor of geography and sustainability at Western Oregon University.


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