As I got ready to turn in my spring semester grades this week, I was depressed to realize I would have to fail two students who hadn’t finished the work in my classes.
I say “depressed,” but I wasn’t really. I’m using this word as a shorthand to describe my gloomy sense of wishing I had been a better teacher. The students were the ones who were actually depressed, which was precisely the problem.
As someone who teaches disability studies, I think a lot about how to make my classes accessible to students with a range of learning styles and physical abilities. I present material in varied formats and offer different options for completing assignments so that students can produce work that best reflects what they’ve learned and what they are capable of doing. Because of their subject matter, my courses attract students with disabilities, and I’m used to accommodating them.
But I find students with depression among the hardest to accommodate. Students who are depressed tend to withdraw and vanish rather than to ask for help. When they do show up to class or office hours, they are unmotivated and joyless. The very nature of their illness often makes the professor into an antagonist rather than a source of support.
Tania, a student who -- ironically enough -- failed my class on disability studies, didn’t respond to my email messages about an upcoming presentation. She showed up in my office 15 minutes before class looking exhausted, her skin covered in an angry rash. “I didn’t do the work, OK?” she said in a despairing tone. “I know you’re going to yell at me, so why don’t you just do it?”
Putting aside my dismay over the missing presentation, I asked how I could help. Tania dissolved into tears: she was depressed and having trouble getting her work done. She hadn’t bothered to register with our Office of Disability Services because she felt so confident at the beginning of the semester. I made sure she had seen a therapist and gave her the chance to make up for the missed presentation. I urged her to stay in touch and ask for my help rather than vanishing if she continued to struggle. I also suggested that she contact the ODS to help her get accommodations for her other courses. (Do I even need to say that I did not yell at her?) After that day’s class, I never saw her again. She didn’t do the presentation or turn in a final paper. When it came time to turn in my grades, I had no choice but to give her an F.
My other student, Aurora, did register with ODS late in the semester after sitting silently during seminar discussion for most of the term and then missing a series of classes. Through ODS, she asked for extra time on her final paper and the opportunity to make up for her lack of participation. The deadlines we had set came and went, I was unable to reach her, and she too failed the class.
Tania and Aurora are hardly unique. In The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon writes that depression is the leading cause of disability in the world’s population over age 5. Up to 19 million Americans (3 percent of the total population) suffer from depression, while manic depression affects 2.3 million people and is the second leading killer of young women, the third of young men. “Worldwide, including the developing world,” Sullivan writes, “depression accounts for more of the disease burden, as calculated by premature death plus healthy life years lost to disability, than anything else but heart disease.”
College students are particularly vulnerable, and rates of depression are on the rise. College creates an environment of high expectations, constant evaluation and deadlines that can heighten stress and anxiety. A 2008 study from Columbia University found that up to 50 percent of college students experience psychiatric disorders, although fewer than 25 percent seek treatment. Students suffering from psychiatric illness are less likely to attend class, complete assignments and graduate from college. They are more prone to engage in substance abuse. Suicide rates among college students have nearly doubled since the 1950s.
An elite residential university like mine is especially likely to produce or exacerbate depression. Students are especially susceptible when they are living away from home for the first time, often with less experiences and resources for coping with adversity than older adults. A rising senior at my university blogged recently that my university is “a place of unimaginable wealth, privilege, cruelty, pressure and stress…. Depression is normal, but here, it’s the norm.”
I know some of my colleagues see the rising incidence of disability among their students as evidence of the medicalization of our culture. The problem is not that more students are experiencing learning, mood and behavior disorders, they tell me, but that we live in a society that is too quick to diagnose and medicate conditions that, in the past, would be considered ordinary human behavior. So too, they argue, privileged students often use diagnoses as an excuse to get accommodations that give them an unfair advantage over their peers.
Given the stigma surrounding disability, there is little incentive for students to claim disability for the purposes of personal gain. It is far more likely for students to avoid getting treatment than to deliberately pursue a diagnosis to get a competitive edge. Indeed, research shows that less than 25 percent of students suffering from psychiatric illness seek treatment.
Depression is a real disability that needs to be accommodated, in the same way we accommodate students who use wheelchairs or have vision impairments. Beyond the minimum requirements stipulated by the Americans With Disabilities Act, colleges and universities need to do all they can to help students with disabilities by providing adequate counseling and accommodations.
But we also need to face the unfortunate fact that sometimes college, especially a highly competitive, residential college like the one where I teach, is an unhealthy environment for students with more severe forms of depression. Maybe depression is one disability I’m not able to accommodate. And maybe my students, in vanishing from class, are making that decision for themselves.
Rachel Adams is a professor of English and American studies at Columbia University, where she also directs the Center for the Study of Social Difference. Her most recent books are Raising Henry: A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability and Discovery and Keywords for Disability Studies.
His name was Bobby. He sat in the front row. He paid attention and asked smart questions; he engaged his classmates in debate. He wrote his first paper about pistol-whipping another 20-something in his trailer park over a drug deal. Bobby had so many stories. He wrote about rescuing a woman after she had been raped by a neighbor. He wrote about being homeless after he left gang life. He rode a beat-up bicycle five miles one way to the college in all types of Minnesota weather, then sat wet and shivering in the front row, his hoodie pulled over his head. In late November his girlfriend gave birth, and all we had left to remind us of Bobby was that empty front-row seat.
Next came TJ. He dressed like Eminem and sported white sneakers, floppy and unlaced. He smelled funny, an overpowering bodily odor that I would learn to recognize as meth recovery. His classmates avoided being put into groups with him; they gave him space around the table. Between classes, he chain-smoked in the courtyard. When he visited me during office hours, his hands shook from nicotine.
TJ wrote about dropping out of school to join a circus. He had worked as a carnie and developed a nasty addiction. TJ wrote intoxicatingly about his past; he wrote convincingly about his new, sober life. He had no license, so his grandmother drove him to and from campus. But she was afraid to drive in snow or sleet, so TJ missed a lot of class.
TJ brought me an early draft of his essay to read. He also brought along his notebook from last semester’s remedial writing course, in which he had taken copious notes. He referred to those notes as he explained what he knew about paragraph structure, thesis placement, and the use of examples. We discussed voice shifts, tense shifts, and where to break up paragraphs. I encouraged him to visit the writing center, which I direct, and a tutor discussed his second draft with him.
The day I handed back these papers, he walked in late and slid into the back row. I walked to the rear of the room, still talking, and handed him a paper with a large blue A- circled at the top. I was already back at my teaching console, showing items on the course website, when TJ approached shyly and stopped me in mid-sentence by holding up his paper.
“Is this my grade?” he asked.
“Yes, TJ, that’s your grade,” I replied.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes, TJ, you earned that grade through hard work and good revision,” I said, loud enough for the class to hear.
We all watched TJ walk, beaming, back down the aisle to his seat. TJ was my model developmental writing student. But three weeks later, he vanished from my class.
I have 60 to 80 developmental writing students in my classes each term; many of them lead precarious lives. They come to me, to college, to the hope of a brighter future, but they are wounded and vulnerable and unprepared. They lack self-confidence in general; they lack academic confidence in particular. And if one thing tips the scale out of balance in their precarious lives, they will disappear.
I lie awake at night, worrying about them. Not them collectively, as one-third are doing fine and another third are squeaking by. It’s the final third, the vulnerable ones, that rob me of sleep.
As a lifelong educator, I used to worry about paper-grading burnout. Now that my teaching load is largely remedial English, I worry more about emotional burnout: the accumulated psychological toll of caring for so many.
Because the more I care about my students, the more they break my heart.
I wish that I knew less about them, that they could simply be students to me. But the best subject matter for fledgling writers is their own lives, and my students love to tell their stories. While my colleagues in other departments are feeding multiple choice bubble sheets into Scantron machines or ticking off points for math equations, I am scribbling comments in the margins of my students’ papers. I am writing things like, “Do you know how to get a restraining order? Please ask me; I will help you” and “Here’s the counseling #. Ask for Robert.”
I am also writing letters and emails, to both these students and their advisers. I am seeking student services and support agencies for them. I am trying to put a finger in every hole in the dikes of their lives so that they can stay in my class, they can learn, they can move on to college level English and the rest of their lives.
I am teaching the disciplinary material which I was trained to teach, but I am also serving as a life coach, student success skills instructor, and amateur therapist, and I have no training in these areas.
Jeff is my latest heartbreak. The last day he came to my class was a much-publicized workshop day, and I was unhappy with him for arriving without his draft. When I asked him to retrieve it from his car, he stood up and nearly keeled over. He told us he felt funny, he felt tired; he slurred his words and the sentences trailed off. His classmates looked frightened. I told him to forget about the writing assignment and go see the school nurse. I wish so badly that I had walked him to the nurse’s office myself. He never went there. But she followed up, on my request, and has since told me that he is “under the care of mental health professionals.”
I will never forget the shock on TJ’s face, followed by intense pleasure, when I confirmed his A-.
Am I the only person to ever recognize TJ’s academic aptitude, to ever tell him that he did a good job? I hope not. But so many of my remedial students hover on the brink of “I can’t do this” that I work mightily to find qualities to praise, to point out aptitudes, even as I tough-love them with sentence structure, journaling, grammar quizzes.
I cannot say that these students disappear from the world; rather, they cease to attend my class. They are still members of my community. I saw Bobby in Walmart last spring, looking as happy-go-lucky as ever, as his friends shoplifted.
TJ may be the man putting my child on a carnival ride at next summer’s county fair. Even if my female student does get that restraining order I mentioned in the margin of her last draft, she could still become a city statistic, another assault victim or death.
I live with my students perpetually on my mind. I worry about the stories that they’re not telling me. Sometimes, teaching them how to write college essays seems trite in comparison with the other challenges of their daily lives. I wish I could pour the knowledge into their brains, test them on it, and go home. I wish I could see them simply as students.
I know the way out of my dilemma. I could go back to teaching courses with names like Writing Poetry and Women’s Perspectives.
I could teach the students who are college-ready, who passed that arbitrary, high-stakes placement test, or who have already schlepped their way through a remedial course like mine.
But then who would encourage John to get tested for dyslexia? Who would ask my Hmong student about her pregnancy, or my Somali student about her father’s heart surgery? Who would watch the 30-year-old veteran’s face for signs of anxiety and reassure him?
When I was a graduate student, teaching freshman comp, I used to walk home each day, asking myself one question: “Did I do a good job?”
At the end of a day teaching remedial English, I still ask myself one question, and it’s always the same one: “Did I do enough?”
Pam Whitfield is an English and equine science instructor and writing coordinator at Rochester Community and Technical College, in Minnesota.