When Not to Help a Student (Ought Experiment)

When Not to Help a Student (Ought Experiment)


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…

Dear Louie,

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.

Best,
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

Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! You can also follow Louie on Facebook. And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.

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I
I
5 years ago

I am student and I am watching my friend go through a similar interaction with our professor. What started off as kind and helpful advice has escalated, and I don’t know what to do. My friend is in a vulnerable situation and has come to view this student-professor relationship pretty intensely. My friend tells me they discuss topics of a non academic personal nature which the student is struggling with. I have tried talking to my friend about student-professor boundaries and tried to convince them to go get further help ( they reject this option). I have even tried to get my friend to talk to me more about the same issues but it hasn’t seemed to work. I am happy my friend has found someone to confide in yet I am worried that (as Louie advises) this may end badly and end up having a negative impact. It might be none of my business but I am worried both for my friend and for my professor, who I know is a genuinely kind person who just wants to help and bring out the best in students. What should I do? I’m unsure if the professor is aware of how intensely my friend feels about them. Should I to the professor? Someone in our department? Do Nothing?
Report

Sara L. Uckelman
5 years ago

A couple of thoughts — first, make sure you know your university’s guidelines as to what can and cannot be kept confidential. If you have a troubled student in your office telling you things, they may be things that you are required to let someone else know about.

Second, if you are unsure whether you’re qualified/capable of giving the type of advice that they seem to be seeking, don’t just point them to the counseling center, tell them why you are doing so. They came to you because they think you care (at least in most cases); hearing “I think you should go talk to X because I am not able to help you in this matter to the extent that I would like to and thus the best way I can help you is by referring you to X” is a lot different from just “I think you should go talk to X instead”.

Third, unless you need to, don’t ask questions. It is not your place to know the details, it is your place to offer what support you can. I have had a few students alude to some serious non-academic difficulties in their lives. I couldn’t tell you what they were even if confidentiality didn’t play a role, because I don’t know what they are. I need to know that they exist, and hence may impinge on their ability to get homework/thesis drafts/etc. done, but I do not need to know the details. Likewise, they need to know that I don’t need to know the details in order to be able to support them, so that they can feel comfortable saying “Hey, there’s this thing I’ve got, and it’s taking up a lot of time and head space,” knowing that they won’t be faced with prying questions.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
Reply to  Sara L. Uckelman
5 years ago

Judging from some of the other comments, I feel I should clarify a bit: My recommendation for referring the student on is for contexts where a professional is needed — for example, someone who is clearly having significant mental difficulties. I am not a mental health professional, and I do not have the skills to diagnose or properly help people who are having serious issues. This is more than just the “it’s okay, everyone has a bad semester, you can do it” sort of situation, but where you’re seriously worried about the health and well-being of the student. If you don’t think the university counseling services will do any better, don’t refer them there, refer them to whoever you think can best help them. But the point was — don’t just fob them off with a “you should talk to a counselor instead”, tell them why you’d like them to see someone else — because you care and are worried about their well-being and they are at a point where you are not the best person to help them, and hopefully someone else will do better.Report

grad student
grad student
5 years ago

Okay, so I’m broadly sympathetic. That said, I urge caution in leaning too heavily on the counseling services center. Many times, these centers are under-staffed, over-booked, and sometimes not equipped to handle serious problems. For example, the center at my undergraduate institution was okay if your problem was mild stress/ anxiety/ i Just broke up with my girlfriend, but pretty bad for a lot of other issues. For many people–especially, in many experience, people from “rougher” backgrounds with problems on the more serious sides of things– University-provided mental health care is not a magical solution, or any solution, or doesn’t work well, or makes things worse.

I don’t know–the “please go to the center because I am ill-equipped to handle your problems” has always struck me as a pretty lazy line, even when it is in the student’s best interest to go to counseling services. I recognize that we (well at least some of us, grad students and adjuncts esp.) don’t get paid enough and that we don’t really have training in mental help, but it also doesn’t take a genius to know what to say to a lot of students’ confessions, esp. when they are on the order of “I feel bad I failed a class” or whatever. It’s not like an underpaid therapist in a counseling center is going to say something much better (TRUST ME) and the cold, clinical setting of these centers (and the fact that some of them, over-booked as they are, don’t really have time for their patience) doesn’t help. So again, I’m broadly sympathetic to everything in the post–not over-stepping the line in terms of the student/teacher relationship, not over-reaching in terms of one’s own wisdom–but just recognize that often “go to counseling services” might not get the student something all that much better than what you can give them, esp. if they just need someone to say “We’ve all been there.”Report

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
5 years ago

I too am skeptical of referring them to the counseling centers. Foucault rings a bell here; students going there are subjected to a different kind dynamic, namely the doctor/patient dynamic rather than the role model or mentor/young adult dynamic. I think the doctor/patient dynamic within the given context can be rather detrimental for a number of reasons. It certainly isn’t good for self-esteem for one to think of themselves as somehow mentally broken or defective.

Generally speaking, I think there’s something to be said for professors (as older and presumably more life-experienced) offering some sort of perspective. Maybe “advice” isn’t the right thing necessarily, but perhaps offering a perspective that frames things in a more constructive way. I think that’s better than what a counselor would say to them, and I think that perhaps philosophers are better suited to talk with a student about their problems than a counselor. Report

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
Reply to  Henri Perron
5 years ago

Before I eat a few of these words, let me say that I may be a little over-critical of counselors. I forget that I wear a tinfoil hat and view them in the context of a big pharma conspiracy theory. Report

MG
MG
Reply to  Henri Perron
5 years ago

No, as someone who’s had an absolutely awful experience with a university counsellor, I agree. The person seemed willing to hand out SSRIs like candy, but listening was not her forte. If you’re someone who knows how to listen and offer perspective, you could make a world of difference to someone by actually doing so.

If someone needs more than that, I’d recommend seeing a professional in a private practice if at all possible. Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

On every campus I’ve taught at the students know *all about* the counseling services offered; nowadays that’s where a big chunk of the money that used to go toward, say, tenure lines is now going. When a student breaks down in front of you it is usually because something specific about the interaction sparked their anxiety, or because they trust or feel close to you.

If you don’t want to have the former type of interaction, keep all communication, especially about grades, electronic if you can.

If you want to avoid the second kind of case, find a mentor on campus and study them: while it is gendered, some professors *never* encounter the oversharing student. There are several aspects of this kind of boundary creation, but it is something that is best learned by close observation and imitation.

Despite the fact that I’m a curmudgeon who dislikes most people, students seem to find me very approachable when it comes to this sort of thing, so I get it all the time. I’m mostly happy to play the part of philosotherapist; I don’t give advice so much as empathize in the way LG describes above. Warning: if you say something like, “that must be hard” with some empathy it causes a large percentage of undergraduates to immediately break down in tears. Have tissues handy. Since I’m not friends with my students, I never share anything personal about myself; if I wouldn’t share it with my seatmate on a short domestic flight, I wouldn’t share it with my undergrad. I am also aware that many students harbor crushes on their professors, and I look for signs of that and distance myself as appropriate. As far as fairness goes, it doesn’t strike me as a huge problem for me; I haven’t found myself raising the grades of the oversharers, and the goal of complete objectivity is not one I’m especially concerned to meet. If, uncharacteristically, I found myself with extra warm feelings for a particular student, I would grade blind.

While I think it is fine to avoid these kinds of interactions with students if you want (many women and people of color are overburdened along this dimension), we do lose something important in the professor/student relationship if we always aim to keep things “professional”. Education is becoming increasingly corporate, and the norms and values of middle managers are now embraced, wholesale, by many professors. Yes, having these interactions with students can make things messy, but if education is about turning souls, then the messiness is inevitably part of the process. Report

DocF
DocF
5 years ago

The number of qualifications and hedges in this answer are astounding. Leads to the conclusion, on my part, “I am not listening to the response since it is all over-qualified so as to protect the answerer.

As to the issue: Hey, you are a trusted figure and just give your honest response. If you agree or disagree, just tell the truth or whatever is your best and personal response. What else can anyone ask?Report

Louis'sUnofficialWingperson
Louis'sUnofficialWingperson
5 years ago

As a student, I was told to go to counseling by my grad department after a series of pretty uncool things happened to me. With a few years into the program, that felt more than a little bit cold (in fact, it took me several years just to get over it).

As an instructor, just last semester I had a student break down in tears over a grade. After consulting with a friend or two about what to do, I ended up calling counseling services myself to get their opinion. Since the student hadn’t made any threats of self harm or harm to others, the person I spoke with told me to recommend services (a more severe case would have called for something else I guess).

Anyway, that’s what I did. But I was sure to let the student know that I cared about their wellbeing and that I trusted their ability to figure out what was best for them. I guess the moral of the story is, I think we can let students know that we care about and respect them as human beings without violating any professional boundaries. Sometimes all it takes is a sentence like, “I can totally understand why you’re feeling this way. If you think it would be useful for you, we do have counseling services. Here’s a link to their website. Let me know if there is any other way I can help.” That’s much better than getting inappropriately caught up in some kid’s life, or just dismissively telling them that they need to go to counseling.

You’re welcome. Report