What does “be positive” mean to you?

Some folks may innocently say “be positive” as a general synonym for “do beneficial things.” But in Western culture, “be positive” has come to have specific implications, including:

  • fake it until you make it
  • look confident at all times, even if this means never trying to learn anything new
  • don’t be angry/unhappy because it might put someone off
  • your inability to consistently visualize a positive outcome might prevent it from happening
  • you deserve unhappiness if you aren’t able to think it away
  • and so on.

I’ve come think that “be positive” is actually a code word for something quite ugly, when you look at what it is doing to young people these days. Everyone has negative feelings and negative experiences. Pressure to pretend that this isn’t true (i.e., that we can have it all if we play the part well enough) is only making people extremely fragile and intolerant.

Truly “being positive” begins with allowing yourself to feel negatively, without needing to hide it or beat yourself up for it. And allowing others in your life to do the same.

Unsent replies to student emails

Under pressure

re: “I can’t come to class because I have to go home early…”  I am so sorry to hear that you are being forced against your will to miss class and extend your Thanksgiving vacation by several days. I know all too well how hard it is when external pressures limit our freedom and ability to make choices. You can do this — stay strong.

 But I care about what’s important

re: “I hope I’m not going to miss anything important…”  Nah, out of consideration for you and the other students who will be missing today’s class I’ve decided to make it a pointless waste of time for the suckers who didn’t just take off for Thanksgiving several days early.

re: “Please tell me if I’m missing anything important…” Important? Nothing so important that I couldn’t just it type up and send it to you in a quick email instead.

re:I assume it is just a regular class and nothing important…” Who knows, this could be the most important class session of your life. But who am I to decide for you what is important and what is not?

re:Will I miss anything important?”  To be honest, I’ve just been telling myself that what I teach is important in order to maintain my motivation to do all the hard work that teaching requires. But now that you ask, I have to admit that it is all useless and I’m just going to go back to bed.

And sucking up is always important, right?

re: “I hope you’ll accept my [extremely overdue] paper because I really enjoyed listening to Pearl Jam while I wrote it and I thought you’d appreciate that!!!”  I’m glad you enjoyed it, but no. And ewwww.

The punishing truth about campus mental health policies

Recently I have seen several articles critical of Northern Michigan University, where last year students received emails warning them that talking about their struggles with mental illness could result in removal from the college  (see link below). I’ve been following this story with quite a bit of interest, because as a college student I was profoundly affected by campus mental health policies, and as a faculty member I’ve served on the committee charged with creating such policies.

What I think is missing from discussion of this news story is recognition that students who want to stay in school while suffering from mental illness are ostensibly punished for suicidal ideation, nonsuicidal self-injury, and other aspects of their disorders (such as eating disorder symptoms) in colleges everywhere. In fact, the only thing really striking about the NMU case is that the school’s punitive policies had been expressed to the students directly, transparently, and in writing, rather than in the usual stealth ways.

At the college where I work, for example, students aren’t explicitly prohibited from expressing self-destructive feelings, but there is a policy that justifies a mandated (involuntary) leave of absence for students with mental illness if they 1) place their own health and safety at risk, or 2) cause others ‘substantial distress’ above a ‘normal, everyday’ level, or 3) are returning from a psychiatric hospitalization. While #1 is well-intended, it isn’t objectively defined, and students find it unfair that some forms of self-destructive behavior (such as nonsuicidal self-injury or eating disorder) result in much more harsh consequences than forms of self-destructive behavior with less mental illness stigma (such as consuming dangerous amounts of alcohol). What #2 means to a student with mental illness is that if your roommate worries enough about you, you might have to leave school, whether or not you want to. And #3 means that if you seek help at an emergency room or elsewhere in order to get through a tough time, you might not be welcome back on campus when you feel the danger has passed.

The language of our policy really troubles me (and I’m sorry that my need for anonymity makes me unable to directly quote it for you). For example, I wonder whose standards get to determine what constitutes a ‘normal, everyday’ level of distress, since it certainly isn’t going to be the level of distress that students suffering from mental illness live with every day. Is the college really requiring students who are disadvantaged by extraordinarily difficult lives to put on a pretty face about it for the sake of their luckier peers?

But perhaps what is most disturbing is how easily a school that considers itself modern and inclusive can get away with legitimatizing bias against people with mental illness. At this college, students with mental illness who have violated no conduct codes nor fallen out of good academic standing can nevertheless be banished from the college just because others find their presence upsetting. The campus community would strongly object to a policy like this if it were directed against students on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, physical disability, etc. It would even oppose applying this policy to students who persistently cause others significant distress by expressing abhorrent ideas. By adopting this policy specifically for students with mental illness, the college is telling these students that they cannot count on same basic rights as anyone else. And though the broader community doesn’t seem to care or notice, the targeted students really do take this message to heart.

I struggled with mental illness for my entire time in college. And one tearful night mid-semester in my third year, when my residence hall leader asked if I had any suicidal thoughts, I answered honestly. As a result I was faced with eviction, which unsurprisingly did wonders for my mental state, and I “voluntarily” withdrew from school because I had few other options. I still have a lot of questions about what happened back then. Did my undergraduate institution genuinely act in the interest of its students when it required me to decide between denying my suicidal thoughts or being forced to leave? When I admitted feeling suicidal that night, was I asking to be removed from college and placed in the mental health system for my own good? Or did I just make a stupid mistake that dramatically changed years of my life in a largely unwelcome way? Decades later I’m still not sure.

There are sometimes very good reasons to require students to take a leave, to protect those who aren’t able to freely choose protection. Indeed, my own sad story might have been even worse if I hadn’t been forced to withdraw when I did (we will never really know). Regardless of the intent of mandated mental health leave policies, though, the students faced with them quite reasonably feel disenfranchised; and the fact that these students realistically fear being punished if the college knew the extent of their suffering prevents them from getting help. I don’t know what the answer to this problem is, but the problem is far more complicated and widespread than either the administrators or the students closest to these policies are going to be willing to admit.

Reference: http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/09/a-school-is-threatening-to-punish-its-suicidal-students.html?

How not to promote diversity on campus

The college that I work for is starting to describe its mission in terms of something like preparing future leaders for a diverse and fast-changing world. I understand that this statement is primarily designed to appeal to tuition-paying parents who might like to imagine their kid as a future leader, and that it won’t necessarily change what it is actually like to be a professor or a student at the college. Nevertheless, this advertising campaign troubles me in ways that I wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing with anyone at work.

My students are human beings with a wide range of strengths, which may or may not include the desire or potential to be a leader. Do we no longer think it is valuable, as an institution or as a society, for those without traditional leadership qualities to also obtain a college education consistent with the paths they wish to take in their lives? While it is great that my institution is highlighting diversity in its talking points, the message I hear is that all kinds of people will be welcomed on campus as long as they all have the same dominant, top-of-the-corporate-ladder personality. We don’t all have to be privileged, but we all have to successfully act the part.

I am not a “leader,” and I don’t apologize for that.  The world wouldn’t work if everyone needed to be a leader. (Please don’t tell me that maybe I’m a “quiet leader,” or any similarly patronizing title for non-leaders that the more powerful folks let us use when it is convenient for them to let us pass.) Traditional leadership qualities were never a requirement of the job I was hired to do, and they shouldn’t become a requirement just to make classes more appealing to students who value power and charisma over all else. Leadership qualities also shouldn’t become a requirement for students in most classes. Many people are quiet, modest, and/or anxious for one reason or another, and we have plenty to contribute to a diverse and fast-changing world, if that world will include us.

It is really sad that many young people feel they have to live like stars or politicians, in the heat of a social media spotlight and striving to be so bubbly that they’re about to pop. But let’s not pretend that this phenomenon is anything other than a larger-scale, higher-tech, expression of old-fashioned adolescent peer pressure, that strengthens the people on top of the social hierarchy at the expense of those who look or think or behave differently from the mainstream ideal. That some educators and parents are buying into and encouraging this cruel youth popularity contest — because they want to appeal to young people and are desperate not to have the kids think they look ‘uncool’ —  is both pathetic and disgraceful. College should help students envision meaningful lives that suit their own personalities, not provide more buzzwords to justify senseless competition and conformity.

Focus on doing things, not on whether you feel or look confident doing them.

I was recently asked what advice I would give new college students, and it is this: Focus on doing things, not on whether you feel or look confident doing them.

Contrary to popular belief, confidence is NOT the essential first step to being successful or happy. (Confidence may be correlated with success and happiness but that doesn’t mean it causes them.) Moreover, feeling a need to make everything look easy is probably the biggest thing holding today’s college students back!  Struggle IS real. Anyone pretending to have accomplished everything without struggling is not real.

Instead of trying to project confidence, keep challenging yourself to learn to do difficult things, ask for assistance when needed, and persevere with struggling until it gets better. The experiences and skills you’ll get in the process will make you feel more confident eventually — and they’ll be worth so much more than a fake smile.

Being unfuckwithable

Last year I was bullied by several students who thought they could pressure me into giving them higher/easier grades. They tried everything they could, including manipulation, lying, disrespectful behavior, turning their classmates against me, and complaining about me to other faculty. In the end, all my students received the grades they had earned based on my syllabus and grading rubrics, so the bullies did not succeed. But the bullies did manage to make me feel so awful that I stopped bringing my class the level of enthusiasm and finesse that my non-bullying students deserved. Now that I am preparing for the Fall 2016 semester, I find that planning the course material is the easy part. What I am most worried about is preparing for how I’d handle it if a student tries to bully me, so that it doesn’t take so much of a toll on me and my work.

I’ve come to realize that while student bullies can be a challenge for any professor, I have a particularly hard time with them because after being mistreated early in life by my father, my more popular classmates, and others, I spent too many years believing I didn’t deserve any better. For instance, among the people I considered my closest friends as a teenager, several openly excluded me from many things because I wasn’t ‘cool’ enough, another threatened to hit me, and a third offered my boyfriend a secret sexual relationship on the side. How did I respond to my so-called friends when they behaved like this? I made efforts to please them by trying to accommodate the new terms they were setting for our friendship, and even gave them elaborate, hand-made gifts! Similarly, even after relationship partners repeatedly cheated on me or engaged in other manipulative behaviors, I stayed with them until they decided to break my heart by moving on.

I think this history helps explain why when someone treats me with disrespect (or worse), my first reactions are to freeze and to doubt myself, thinking that I must have done something to deserve it. But such reactions are particularly problematic in the classroom, because when my students begin to perceive cracks in my authority, their bullying attempts quickly escalate. As a result, even students who aren’t bullies have complained that I seem to lack the personality of someone able to stay in control of the class.

Armed with the realization that my students’ behavior is triggering painful memories, my plan is to try to focus on the ways the current bullying situations differ from the earlier ones being brought to mind. I do not care if my students like me; I do not need them to like me. I completely reject the idea that only naturally dominant, extraverted people can be effective college professors worthy of respect. Regardless of whether any student perceives me as authoritative-looking, I actually HAVE authority over my class, in that no amount of bullying will stop me from grading each student according to my own standards. I am hoping that reminding myself of these facts will help me feel less flustered and self-blaming the next time students try to pressure me, and in turn, help me come across as more authoritative over time.

I’m not a robot

People say that lecturing as a style of teaching is outdated, and that college professors today have to be more responsible for promoting interaction and engagement in the classroom. For this newer approach to really work, however, the change in responsibilities cannot remain completely one-sided, and students are also going to need to have a new understanding of their own responsibilities with respect to classroom behavior. I’ve been surprised by just how disruptive college students will be in class, and dealing with this is probably the most stressful part of my job.

Many of the college student behaviors that professors find most obnoxious might be understood as holdovers from the old days of lectures.  When the professor was at a far-away podium just talking at the students, the presence of students who were unprepared, asleep, or quietly doing something else, didn’t disrupt the delivery of the lecture to others who wanted to listen. A recorded lecture played over the internet is even more impervious and a good alternative for students who have trouble with the expectations of a live class. But in a contemporary real-life classroom, student behaviors that may have once been victimless individual choices are now often seriously problematic because they interfere with everyone’s experience.

Today, while professors are still supposed to provide clearly well-planned and rehearsed material, they’re also supposed to be flexible, spontaneous, and interactive. They’re supposed to be entertaining. They’re supposed to know the students’ names and include their perspectives. They’re supposed to be willing to take risks on encouraging difficult discussions and exploratory activities while being empathetic and open and fully in control. In today’s classroom, students who are physically present but not respectfully attentive get in the way of the lesson plan and classroom climate. The ones on social media, sleeping, or walking in and out of the room; the ones who won’t do the reading but nevertheless insist on “participating” in discussions of it with irrelevant opinions; the ones who don’t cooperate with instructions to break up in to small groups or to work on a specific problem, and so on. Above and beyond slowing down the procedural flow of the class, these students are treating their professors as if they were lecturing robots or wind-up toys, when the professors are trying their hardest to engage with the students as real human beings —  they are essentially saying “F-you” to their professor right there in public. Moreover, they are doing it in a situation where the professor will be considered “unprofessional” (or worse) if he/she were to be visibly annoyed, flustered, or demoralized by the way he/she is being treated on the job.

Perhaps some students do not realize that it is rude to be texting while their professor is talking to them. Becoming informed about this perspective is likely to be helpful for them in navigating the adult world, but that isn’t even the point of why professors shouldn’t be expected to tolerate such behavior. Students are increasingly insisting on being treated with respect for who they are as individuals, and calling others out for things that make them feel publicly humiliated even when there was no malicious intent. Perhaps professors need to start doing the same.