Helping students with anxiety and managing yours

Twitter had an upset last week when a professor of dubious decency wrote an ill-advised email mocking students’ disability accommodations that were designed to help a student with anxiety during an exam because great professor bro felt like his “exams were intended to cause anxiety.”

There was a lot of shaming this dude, which he deserves, but social media is often not very good at anything past that, and if there were long threads on the issues that I missed, I apologized–I am also sad because I probably could have learned from them. If you have any to share with me, please do.

In planning, it’s very hard to move up the career ladder with social anxiety, so you have to learn to cope or you will be stuck hard; the more you move up the ladder, the more public the job becomes. (Ditto with professoring). We don’t want a field to be nothing but extroverts who love to be the center of attention, talking and performing, though Lord bless them, I have hidden behind many of them. Quiet, shy people have a lot of give if we make space and help them occupy it.

I dealt with my social anxiety over the years as a consultant and teacher by powering through, and it was difficult. And it also leads to me an understanding: you want better answers to helping students learn to function with anxiety than “SUCK IT UP BUTTERCUP” and “Oh, you poor dear thing, you aren’t capable.” The latter is not what student accommodations do, but I do tend to think that some profs, once they see the anxiety in a student, tend to withdraw. It’s messy, and if they don’t push they won’t be guilty of anything, but they won’t be responsible for anything either.

To wit, students with disabilities need mentors just like everybody else does, and just because a teacher has or has not experienced what a student has does not release them from their responsibilities to help raise up other people. There’s far too much of this damn “I can only mentor young white male geniuses or pretty pretty little white girls with pleasing manners” nonsense from white male scholars. Sometimes things get messy, and that means when you have been fortunate to have a life that has allowed to thrive, your duty is to pull others along with you, best you can. (That last rider is important).

This is different from assuming that you as an abled, white or cis-male mentor can meet a students’ needs. Students do need people who understand their struggle, and cis-white people in particular don’t get it and there’s no reason why oppressed students should trust them. I try anyway on all sorts of dimensions; there are things that all people need, regardless, and that I can help anybody with. You need somebody to promote your work? I can do that. You need a little loan to get home to see your people so you don’t go cray? I can help with that. Need a coffee? Broke but craving a princess-y lunch? I love princess-y lunches and am happy for the company. Just because white people can’t understand everything a black student goes through doesn’t mean they are off the hook for supporting and loving in ways that they can.

You don’t walk–buts lotsa dudes do, as evidenced in this bullshit headline: Another Side of #MeToo: Male Managers Fearful of Mentoring Women. I knew this was coming. There’s been a lot fixing that headline to great effect, but my fix is “Some men can’t mentor women unless they hold all the power.” Power between a student and a mentor need not be an all-or-nothing endeavor, and it’s wrong to act that it is.

More pragmatically, mentoring people with *difficult* struggles (not just, hey-hook-polished-me-up-with-your-high-powered-buds) takes time. It takes time from you being the glorious you you can be when you don’t help your brothers and sisters pick up their load. That means two things. Those of us who feel this duty, especially mentors of color helping students cope with oppression, get overloaded. And it means students often get short shrift from the most “famous” faculty mentors because one way you get famous is by investing in yourself constantly rather than investing your time in other people. Striking this balance is a tough one in the academy: you can do more for students externally the more famous you are, so if you *dont‘* take care of that side of things, you will be a well-intentioned support without entry to the elite professional networks students need to get ahead. Go too far that way and you become useless in other ways, cherry-picking easy students who are likely to get where they are going anyway.

This is all by way of saying that I’m really grateful for student accommodations. They give me a place to start with students when, without them, neither the student nor I may know how to best go forward. With learning to live with anxiety or anything else, you take things in small doses, controlling the situation so that you can learn to adapt as you go. With every student, disability or no, good teachers recognize where a student is and work from there.

BONUS Story: David Sloane has been a wonderful mentor to me. Once he asked me to go grab dinner at a new place on campus he liked. I thought I was pretty good at hiding how I lose it when my routine gets disrupted, but we got upstairs to the place and it was Lemonade, which is cafeteria style. OMG I HAVE TO MAKE CHOICES FAST AND IN FRONT OF PEOPLE I WILL PROBABLY DIE. So I am standing there hating myself for being worried about something normal people just get on with doing, and David starts in explaining what is there, what he usually does, and I find myself getting like entirely pissed that he is treating me like a five-year old, like I don’t need help, like I can do this…and then after I get over that rush of anger at him and myself, I felt so cared for. I had been seen when I had spent so many years covering up my problems–these situations were prime moments of emotional abuse in school and in family (because who for chrissakes can explain Maxwell’s electromagnetic field equation when she is 10 but can’t freaking manage a cafeteria?)–and he just made everything all right with simple, loving leadership. No wonder USC makes him do every leadership thing it can.