“I’m so glad you’re talking about this in class, because none of my other classes do this.”
“You told us we could come talk to you, and I don’t know who else to go do.”
“I can’t believe I’m in fourth year and no one ever explained [something basic and important] to me before! Thank you so much for taking the time.”
“I really appreciate you letting me take more time with this. I’m just so frazzled with my job and all my other courses.”
These are some comments of a type I tend to get from students. They’re flattering, in a way: they mark me as someone special, someone particularly empathetic, or practical, or accommodating. Students like me, they are grateful to me. They come into my office and I read their drafts, explain tricky concepts, go over punctuation rules, give them contact info for counselling services, let them cry, share a joke.
But you know what? I’m not feeling super special, or empathetic, or practical, or accommodating. I’m feeling–can I be honest?–resentful and burnt out.
Read the comments again: what students are describing is not a situation in which I particularly shine, but rather, a situation in which I have seem to have wound up in the front of the line because many, many other people took at least one giant step back. “No one” else is talking about the campus suicide in any of their four other classes? I’m the “only one” of five profs students feel comfortable talking to? My fourth year students don’t know how to name the difference between humanities and social science research methods, or incorporate a quotation into flowing prose? No other profs grant extensions or workarounds to meet compelling student need? Really?
I’m doing the care work of five professors, by this kind of calculation, and it’s killing me.
There are two paths we can move down now, to resolve this dilemma. We might say: Aimée, you’re taking on too much, you can’t baby them, you need limits and boundaries, if they can’t manage work and classes that’s not your problem. That is, we can encourage me to be more like the other four professors: go to class, frame myself as a researcher and content expert, teach the stuff, grade the stuff, enforce the deadlines, let them sink or swim according to their own ‘merits.’
This has its appeal, believe me: it would way, way easier than what I do now. However, in my 13 years of professoring here, I’ve come to see my students as human beings and learners who need me to really teach them, and who also, importantly, need me to accommodate their humanity. This is matter of social justice and equity for me. And here’s the thing: my students really, really thrive under this kind of teaching. This is what they tell me in my office, this is what I see in how their last papers are better than their first, in their exams, in their confidence, in their happiness. I derive satisfaction from this, of course, but if I didn’t do it I would feel it as a dereliction of duty.
I’m proposing another path, then. MAYBE THE OTHER FOUR PROFESSORS NEED TO STEP UP. I’m truly beginning to feel that while some people are just kind of clueless, others are pretty deliberately designing courses and personas that say: this course is hard, life is hard, deal with it. Not my problem. That say: I’m too busy and important and I do not want you to talk to me about your problems. Not my problem. That say: the only thing that matters is what happens in the 180 minutes you’re in my classroom per week. Everything else is … not my problem.
Maybe what those professors are doing is not “not making more work for themselves” but actually and in reality simply transferring that very real and necessary work onto me. I don’t think students get through a degree without some exentions, without crying in someone’s office sometimes, without needing something explained in great detail, on on one, without mentoring and advising, without meaningful interpersonal contact. And if that’s true, then someone is always doing that labour. And I can say for certain that it’s not everyone and I have deep suspicions that the there is a strong gender and disciplinary factor in who actually is doing this work.
I can do this work, and I want to. But I can’t do it if my colleagues across the institution do not share the load with me. I cannot sustainably always be “the only professor” who does X or Y or Z. This results in me coming home from work and crying, sleeping for hours on my nominal research days, grading on the weekend and booking weekly office check-ins with at-risk students. I know many of my colleagues do this work to, and to a one we are burnt out and emotionally exhausted, giving up all our slack to accommodate our students’ real needs. Our own health suffers, our research suffers, we get really, really tired.
How can we change the culture of the university so that this care work is recognized and shared? How can we make people do it, how can it become part of the acknolwedged core work of teaching and professing? I see a vast need from students, reasonable and developmentally appropriate, and I don’t see enough people working to support them. And I see myself, daily, getting closer and closer to burning out and giving up and it’s just not sustainable.