On college campuses across America, students are voicing serious concerns about sexual assault, racial bias and mental health. Those concerns often surface -- with great emotion -- as part of classroom discussions. And when students feel that faculty members, staff members or administrators lack compassion in their response, outrage or protest might follow. As we have seen, this form of student reaction often makes headlines.
I have heard many attribute such protests to the combativeness of our nation’s politics, to the belligerence of an earlier generation’s culture wars or to the extreme sensitivity of a generation of so-called snowflakes. But that doesn’t ring true for those of us who live or work in academe. We know from our years of experience -- and recent research supports this -- that the undergraduate years are a time when most college students come to appreciate the views of those on the other side of the political spectrum.
There is a simpler explanation for their behavior: they’re human. And humans are complex beings endowed with both emotion and intellect.
Those elements of humanity interact and coexist everywhere in life, including in the classroom. The best college teaching has always included both rational argument and emotional insight. That combination -- especially the emphasis on the emotional insight -- is more crucial than ever in college classrooms today.
The Irrationality of the Rational Alone
Early in my college career, I enrolled in a beginning drawing course. I was instructed to draw a live model, and I found myself stuck drawing and redrawing the model’s curly hair, unable to progress further. My professor looked at me and, instead of commenting on the quality of my art, simply asked, “Are you scared?” Which, of course, I was. His acknowledgment of my fear -- of my feelings -- cleared the path for learning. I never developed great skill in figure drawing, but I learned the techniques and concepts, all of which were beyond reach when I was blocked by fear.
Over the course of the semester, I observed how this professor used emotional insight to help students learn and progress. I never forgot that lesson, and I have tried in my own teaching and now as a college president to do the same.
Our culture is much more open than it was when I was an undergraduate student. Today’s students are much more likely to offer up their emotions. They publicly fret over finances and tribulations with friends. They talk openly about suicide and depression. And with emoji across an abundance of social media platforms, they share just about every feeling they have with audiences in ways I couldn’t have imagined at their age.
It can be challenging for faculty, staff and administrators to respond -- and to respond well -- to their expressions of emotion. Some of us are reluctant to engage, bewildered by this generation’s extreme openness and concerned about saying the wrong thing. Or we fall back on intellectual debate, treating an emotional claim as a reasoned position.
Consider the conversation around trigger warnings. A student discloses an intense reaction to a particular work of literature because it reminds the student of past trauma. In doing so, the student wonders whether it would have been better to know about this disturbing content ahead of time. For the faculty member or the student to treat it solely as a question of policy misses the opportunity for both of them to find common ground in trusting the intentions of another.
As the post-millennial generation begins its higher education journey, we must refine what has worked and what hasn’t worked to connect with and educate our students. Knowing that we must balance intellect and emotions gives us a starting point to reach them and meet their educational needs. Otherwise, we will face additional years of mismatched communications and expectations.
Whether as part of college teaching or part of the campus experience, we cannot avoid the emotions present in students or ourselves. Sometimes we idealize the academic environment as one where only rational thought takes place. But to expect that human interaction on deeply meaningful topics -- race, mental health, assault, or other sensitive issues -- can rely solely on rational argument is irrational.
Even when the topic is not high stakes, emotion is often in play in the classroom and on the campus. When I became a professor of mathematics at a residential college, I quickly learned that sometimes half of the work of teaching calculus to my students was reducing their anxiety. Acknowledging it, and working to increase their confidence, was relational, emotional work, distant from derivatives and integrals. It made a difference, and it was part of how my students learned to learn.
That sort of careful pedagogy, and close relationships between faculty members and students, has been the promise of the residential college. Because faculty and staff are committed to that promise, I know that we can rise to the occasion. What we need to do now is engage in the increased sharing of emotion and understand how to work with it.
Emotional intelligence is one piece of the puzzle, as are techniques for calming a combative discussion. The art of facilitating discussions, whether in class or in office hours or off campus, is something all of us can learn to do better.
I learned this when I taught a seminar-style, interdisciplinary humanities course combining history, literature, philosophy and religion. We had to build trust in the group and set guidelines for how to respond to each other, as the discussion of religious texts can easily go awry. Before reading the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament or the Quran, I encouraged members of the class to discuss their religious background and their investment in a particular faith tradition and text. We were then able to express and acknowledge emotion but respond to it respectfully and effectively -- and learn about the religious texts at the same time.
If we take the time to listen closely to what our students express and to carefully reflect the concerns they voice -- acknowledging the difficulty someone has experienced in disclosing something personal -- we are one step closer to clearing the path for them to truly understand and be able to grapple with the content.
And we may find our campuses less fractured places to boot.