Guest post by the fabulous Sydney Tran!
Last year, I was at a conference where many of us lamented the state of the world in presentations, roundtables, and those deeply honest late night conversations that feed your soul. It was a conference with lots of scholars who work in the humanities, and so we theorized about problems and solutions with overuse of words like “neoliberalism” and “utopia” and spoke a language so many other people wouldn’t understand. We did a lot of talking.
There was one session, though, that wasn’t about talking and more about doing. We were offered a workshop about how to handle sexual violence on campus, led by a Facilitator who works with survivors and those who have done harm within university communities. We covered the nuances of consent, how to handle disclosure of harm, and how to think through policies of sexual violence. No one said the word “neoliberal” or the word “utopia”, but also very few people showed up. And one year later, I’m still trying to work out why.
There’s no question that thinking and theorizing and talking are hard work. But what does it really mean to “show up”? When I was teaching and researching as a graduate student, I thought about my role as a curator of new ideas. The beauty of a university, for me, was the new knowledge students received and created in a classroom—knowledge about the state of a world that often blows their minds. The hope for so many of us, of course, is that a post-secondary education is not just informative, but transformative; we want to shift a social consciousness by sharing the gorgeous, complex, and mystifying structures of cultures. We want help students think through that darker underbelly of a society to in turn, make it better.
In my own undergraduate education, I took my first cultural studies class in the winter semester of my second year. At the end of the term, I sat in my professor’s office asking “So now that you’ve exploded my idea of the world, am I just supposed to go home for the summer like everything is fine?” He looked at me shrugging and said, “Sydney, I’m not your therapist.” I continue to hear echoes of this all the time: faculty members reminding each other and other university staff that they aren’t trained to do care work. And they’re right, most faculty aren’t trained that way—but when offered a training session on how to care for a student in an acute situation (like disclosure of sexual violence), these are often the faculty members who don’t show up. And even when we do carve out a minute to attend, we are as distracted by devices as our students are—emails that can’t wait, projects that have deadlines—we “multi-task.” In other words, academics are choosing not to be trained with these skills, instead choosing to do something else (another conference session, a grant proposal, etc…). The critical act of “showing up” is not simply in being present though, it is making the choice to go in the first place.
Naturally it’s more complicated than I’m making it out to be. With competing demands on time and energy in academia, no one can do it all. But then I have to wonder whose responsibility it is to take care of students who are suffering, specifically students whose suffering is often connected to their studies or related to campus culture? University counselling services are buckling under the volume of students requesting support, disability services offices are chronically understaffed, and campus sexual violence centres are increasingly trying to function beyond their capacity. The faculty I see engaging in any type of student support are often those who are already over-committed to service work and are desperately exhausted. To be frank, I’m exhausted from watching the disproportionately high number of women and queer folks do the majority of the care work in the university—and still be asked to do more (but that’s for another blog post).
Instead of simply thinking about epidemics of anxiety and having looping conversations about trigger warnings, I wonder what we can start doing to create a stronger community of support for our students. As we see increasing numbers of students who enter university suffering with mental health, and others who experience the first onset of a mental health condition while enrolled, we might try showing up in a different way than we have in the past. We may consider that there could be value in learning what we don’t know, or gaining skills we haven’t already mastered, to create a stronger network for our students—and each other.
Sydney Tran is a learning and transition specialist, with a current focus on accessible, post-secondary education. She manages a variety of initiatives, projects, and programs for students and faculty. She spent many of her own school days in the hallway rather than the classroom, after teachers removed her from their class because her talking was disruptive: Sydney is someone who likes to “talk to think.” Collaborative by nature, she finds herself on wonderful teams of people supporting individuals that require nuanced forms of care. In her few solitary moments, she continues to work toward a Ph.D. in English Literature studying feminism, theatre, and asking why the world is the way it is.