If not you, then who?

“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.

2 thoughts on “If not you, then who?

  1. This is an excellent post, one that I have wanted to write for a long time, but was always more concerned that it would be offensive to my colleagues. I am not completely certain why mentoring is gone out of stye. I do know that spending extra time working with students will not get you tenure. That is one thing.

    But I know too that from my own academic career, I have been given breaks. I accumulated a whopping 0.7 GPA during my first go round at college. 15 years later, and having dealt with my substance abuse issues, I came back and maintained a 4.0 through PhD. I got lots of help along the way. I have always felt the need and desire to give back.

    Just in the past month, I have had one student who received a paid internship (and offer of two others) at the Smithsonian say – “had you not encouraged me, I would not have even applied.” An exceptionally bright young woman who had been thinking of dropping out of her MA program because of the lack of support in her dept. She seems very empowered now.

    – – – another student just got a 12k scholarship on top of their GA position who has told me on multiple occasions she would not be in a PhD program had I not encouraged her over the years. A student from Latin America, she had not been given any support to pursue from her other North American colleagues.

    The best I can tell these folks is that 20 years from now when they are in my shoes as the professor, to remember what it was like to be that student who just needed someone to offer them support and mentoring, and do likewise.

    And then, there are those students who feel perpetually entitled and just suck you dry.

    I retired this past year. I am pleased to be free of all the academic bullshit responsibilities of committees, reports, and the “business” of higher education. I continue to teach some, carry out “research” that I want and not what the dept wants, and most importantly mentor students.

    I enjoy getting the notes from students I had over 20 years ago, keeping me up-to-date with their adventures – to know that the time spent had meaning to them.

    In my experience over the past 10 years in particular, as a general statement, professors in higher education have abandoned mentoring students, except to occasionally create clones of themselves. As Donald Duck says “Sad, so sad.”


  2. It is fantastic that your students come to you for help and support and whether they are PhD students or freshmen they will always need help in order to better themselves, it’s a part of being human that most people don’t recognize or acknowledge. In fact you seem to be apologizing, in a round about way, for being totally honest in expressing your expectation that other professors should stop leaving their students to your care… If you want to teach any student to care for themselves, and I certainly do not understand why a PhD student is asking for help with grammar but it has been quite a few years since I was in school, and others, you must show them that you care for yourself at a level equal to the care that you provide them. It will not only be an example of the importance of self-preservation, it will also be a giant lesson in mutual respect. Something that is clearly gone in education today and for about the last decade.

    Because mutual respect, or just plain ol’ respect, has been replaced by parents handing children cell phones in restaurants once children reach the ripe old age of grasping, then children never learn how to respect or interact with anyone else even in the most social and laid back situations and parents learn that it is ok to replace conversation and communication and interaction with their children with a cellular device from about six months of age and on through adulthood, unless that child has done something horribly wrong,

    Children learn very early these days that no one is paying attention to them, anyway, so why try. And that lack of attention and respect, because it really is respect that is lacking in education and most of the world today, is continued on through early childhood and primary education and on into secondary and post graduate work. Children learn that the less attention they require or earn from people with a position of authority in their lives they better they will be perceived by those people who have a position of authority in their lives. This is not a good thing, but it is certainly easier than the time and care you are showering very needy students with. And that is why students flock to you. But you have to take care of yourself, also.

    Have you ever considered creating a graduate curriculum in parenting? Primary education these days is a joke. It teaches children things like “Google Hacks” and STEM, which is a rather useless education if you can’t write a sentence or complete a thought in a manner which allows anyone else to understand your thought. Primary education has eliminated art, the most important part of early education for brain development because hands are the key to actual brain development. It teach Money Madness from MSNBC’s Jim Cramer. It teaches… well primary education teaches students how to defeat a teacher and how to skip class and how to listen to every Taylor Swift song and how to dress when you’re not in uniform and how to get a date by age 14 and how to drive a car, even if you don’t have a license, and how to play football and how to play golf… but there are no parenting classes.

    Parents aren’t really teaching their children much of anything with great importance except how to play games on a cell phone rather than communicating with the people in the world around them. Children are taught that the less trouble they are, the more time mommy can spend hunting down her high school friends on facebook who she probably hated, anyway, but at least she can show the world she’s “Connected” while using her iPhone. Children learn that facetime is the best place to watch assault, murder and torture and that some guy named “The Zuck” makes a fortune selling advertising on facetime.

    But no one is raising our kids, today. Cellphones can’t really raise children, modern parents just wish they could. Parents aren’t teaching children to have respect and make time for their own children, because that might be time from lost looking for the next great iPhone8. “So we can all be connected”.

    Th students you are dealing with today are students who have no real self respect because no one has ever respected them. They know respect is a seven letter word that appears on CNN and Fox News a lot, but it has no physical properties which they can tie into their own lives or personal experiences. Most have grown up with with technology as baby sitters but only when Ritalin didn’t work. And therein lies another problem with students, today. Instead of learning self control and discipline and creativity in dealing with themselves and the world around them, students were taught that prescription drugs are the number one, preferred coping mechanism for energetic, independent thinking children, if you ask teachers and parents and doctors for the last forty years. And I’m still trying to figure out why opioid abuse is such a mystery in the one county on the planet that invented ADD and ADHD and Ritalin. Escapism has been a trillion dollar industry in America and since about 1973, children have been its’ victims.

    You can’t fix the people you work with, stop banging your head against the wall and hoping that they will finally figure out why caring is important. You can work to create a better “next generation” by coming up with a parenting curriculum at any level of education because the new parents of today only have their own childhood as an example of how to be a parent and, most likely, their childhood was not a very good one even if they don’t yet realize it.

    Saving the next generation is the only way to fix the problem that you describe your students as having. But leading by example, and showing that you have respect for yourself, is going to be the best first step in reeducation students who certainly have the skill set to battle technology, they just have no idea that it’s important, or even how, to talk to their own kids.

    Pauli Coffey
    Author: Pictures for my Dad
    Single Mother of 2 Children who were never allowed to bring a video game into our home. They did spend a heck of a lot of time building forts with our furniture and inventing games in the backyard out of laundry baskets and rakes. And it really was “Our” home and “Our” furniture.


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