Welcome back to Ought Experiment! A professor has written in with a question about navigating a set of incredibly vague, but incredibly important, boundaries. When students trust you, they sometimes come to you with their problems. But we can’t always help. And sometimes we shouldn’t even try…
On occasion students come to my office and confess various problems. They’re often really complicated problems, and students cry as they share them. I don’t just want to tell them to go to the counseling center, that seems cold, and for some reason they feel they can trust and talk to me so I want to be open and responsive to that. But at the same time, I’m not a mental health professional and have zero training, so I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m terrified I’m going to inadvertently cause harm.
I’ve Got Tissues
Dear I’ve Got Tissues,
Worrying about screwing up your advice in delicate situations is a tough one. Or at least, I gather that it must be. Personally I’m always right, so, you know, bullet dodged there.
Okay. As you might expect from someone who runs an advice column but has formal training in whether tables exist, I’m awfully sympathetic to your dilemma. But I’m going to caution more hesitance than you might have expected from me. I’m not as worried about qualifications as you are, because caring is something basic to our humanity, and it doesn’t come with a lot of prerequisites. But I am worried about roles, and about fairness. So I’ll explain why I think professors should generally limit the emotional help they’re willing to offer, and then I’ll close by saying what I think we can do.
First, everything I’m about to say depends on your role and the institutional context. Are we talking about undergrads or grad students? Are you at a residential or small liberal arts college? Are there any unique norms or policies that govern student interactions there? Are you the student’s advisor? Are they a former student, or are they currently enrolled for credit in one of your courses? Do you have a formal role in your department, like DGS or DUS, or are you a rogue empathy vigilante? Are the student’s problems primarily academic or personal?
These variables matter a great deal, but they don’t create the brightest of lines, because sometimes the job of being a professor also includes being a mentor. Sometimes we’re better at our jobs when we work with the Whole Person, not just a narrow slice of them during a brief window of time. Sometimes it’s appropriate, and perhaps even necessary, to emotionally invest in our students, and to try and reach them wherever they’re at instead of treating them like anonymous brains in vats awaiting exegesis downloads. In fact, it actually drives me a little batty when professors wholly abstain from the ‘messy stuff’, and respond to the reported struggles of students with academic platitudes about working hard and time management. People are more than papers, and we can’t guide budding careers or train future scholars by ignoring the very real, very human obstacles that so often get in the way.
But the more we stray into informal mentorship roles, the harder it is to mind appropriate boundaries. We might think of ourselves as mentors making a difference, but thinking that doesn’t cancel our institutional power over students, or redefine our preexisting responsibilities. Topics that might be totally natural and safe for close mentors to discuss can be wildly off limits for professors. So when you’re both, which norms are supposed to govern the conversation? The more permissive, more personal norms of mentorship, or the more restrictive, more impersonal norms of student/teacher dynamics?
Here’s a simple thought experiment. Say a student breaks down in your office because his boyfriend or girlfriend just left him. A friend, a confidant, a coach, or a long-term mentor can all safely respond: “Trust me, you’re a wonderful person, and someday you’ll find somebody that actually deserves you.” Now imagine a professor saying that to an undergrad, before switching topics to discuss the upcoming midterm. If you’re like me, your skin just started crawling so hard that it left the room and hailed a taxi – even if the professor meant the sentence exactly as innocently as the mentor would have meant it.
Now, you might object at this point, and note that if the student came to you for comfort, then they’re obviously open to being comforted by you. But that doesn’t follow. The student might just be latching on to the nearest person, in a moment of pain. Or in their pain, they may not be thinking all that clearly about what they want to hear. Or maybe they do want your help in particular, but will still feel legitimately uncomfortable when someone that used to only talk about early modern thought from a distance of thirty feet starts discussing relationship prospects from a few feet away. And even if they are comfortable with the conversation in the moment, any number of factors can cause the institutional context to reassert itself later on, and suddenly the student is left to reconcile a number of very personal comments from their professor, and second-guess the kindnesses they’ve been shown. Earnest attempts to help can harm.
I’m obviously not saying that any kind of emotional intimacy is automatically creepy. I’m basically a teddy bear with a podium. But even seeing yourself as the student’s friend can create ethical quandaries. The combination of your institutional power, the student’s emotional vulnerability when they’re breaking down in your office, and especially the fact that there are two wildly distinct sets of norms governing the situation… all of that points toward caution. When roles are murky and power is in play, it’s generally advisable to default to the most restrictive and official set of norms that apply.
Sometimes we’re in an excellent position to help, because our own, past struggles at university mirror what a student is going through now. Sometimes we know exactly what to say, and exactly how to help. I’m not suggesting that we should always refrain from getting involved. But we often should. Once roles get murky, it’s hard to know what’s right, and it’s also hard to extricate ourselves. Even the question of whether you should shut your office door for the sake of the confessing student’s privacy is incredibly fraught. How will you navigate that, and a hundred other factors for which you haven’t prepared, on the fly?
Sometimes telling a student to visit the counseling center isn’t just about taking care of them. Sometimes it’s about taking care of yourself, too. I can’t help a person get through a dark time in their lives, or struggle to overcome a potentially dream-killing problem, without finding myself caring about them and their situation. And how do you grade someone whose plight you’ve grown emotionally invested in? How do you make professional decisions when you have a mentor-like or friend-like insight into what’s at stake for the student, and what they’ve been through to get to this point? How can you be fair when you’re both that person’s professor and that person’s confidant? And before you respond that sometimes we shouldn’t be totally objective, and should instead bend the rules a little to help out someone in need – yeah, true, but what about the students who don’t confide in you, who struggle anonymously in the back of your lecture hall? Does all that in-person compassion translate into an unintended penalty on reticence?
Even if you’re skeptical about the ‘expertise and credentials’ argument, like I am, one of the benefits of referring students to counseling centers is that they, unlike you, have procedures in place to fairly accommodate students. It spares you from having to be a cowboy with the rules, unilaterally breaking and making up standards as you go. And it spares your other students that kind of inconsistency and unpredictability, too. You’re not condemning suffering students when you withhold help – you’re helping them by steering them toward people who can address their suffering without complication or compromise.
The more years I’ve been at this, the more I’ve started shying away from getting involved in the problems of my undergraduates. My compassion hasn’t gone anywhere. I’m not distant or unfeeling. Instead, trial and error (so, so much error) has taught me the wisdom of protecting myself and others from my more human instincts. I’m not as smart, as objective, or as principled as I used to think I am, and that means rules.
Does that mean I think we shouldn’t do anything when students break down in our offices? No. For one thing, I’ve already indicated that I think some roles require a more personal investment, like mentoring a graduate student as they spend the better part of a decade overcoming all manner of stress and discouragement in their crazy quest to become an academic. I’m emotionally invested in my grads, and I think that’s right.
Even with undergrads, though, I think the simple act of listening can often go a long way, and may even be all student really needs from us. Why? Most times I’ve had students bare their souls to me, the confession was part of them trying to reboot their semesters or academic careers, and get back on track after stumbling hard. They felt guilty or embarrassed. They felt like failures. They were convinced I thought they were bad students, and projected all sorts of judgments and attitudes on me in their shame. They magnified their stumbles in their heads as they obsessed and obsessed, and soon paralyzed themselves with the belief that there was no possibility of redemption. So when they finally made it to my office, they didn’t really need me to fix their problems for them. They just needed my permission, my leave, to forgive themselves, so that they could get up and try again. Words as simple as “I understand,” “this happens to everyone,” “hey, sometimes life gets in the way,” “I still believe in you,” “of course I don’t judge you,” and “you’re not a bad student – you’re just having a rough semester” have freed students. The relief washes over them, palpably. Their imagined fears are dispelled, and that’s all they really needed.
In those rare cases when they still need more from me, nowadays I suggest the counseling center. Not in a tone that suggests banishment to “crazytown,” but with the sincere and honest encouragement that needing help is nothing to be ashamed of, and that the last thing they should try to do is reinvent the wheel and deal with everything on their own. Their problems are real, and so are the resources available. The best thing you can do is sell the advantages of getting help, because sometimes students are only in your office because they dread the prospect of going to That Other Office. So familiarize yourself with how your institution’s center works, so that you can speak about it with authority, and ease your students’ concerns.
There’s nothing “cold” about referring students to the counseling center. Dismissing a student’s pain is cold. Taking it seriously enough to acknowledge it, and suggest help? That’s vindicating. That shows understanding. That shows you care.
— Louie Generis