When we think of “Department Politics” we often dwell on who got the better office or their preferred teaching schedule. However, this time of year the term can take on a different meaning in relation to national political issues. Recent flare ups at Liberty University and Georgetown have brought this issue into focus. Chico State is a public institution so our free speech rights are more robust than they would be at private colleges and universities. However, not all questions are legal ones. How do you feel about discussions of Presidential proposals for health care in a nursing class? About your officemate with the Marco Rubio bumper sticker on the door? Or your colleague who also volunteers for Bernie Sanders going door-to-door?
A situation at St. John’s earlier this month led to a threat of violence over social media. This was not the fault of the faculty member, but it does highlight the volatility and passion that are sometimes a part of election season. As faculty we need to recognize that the activities of our students and our peers are constitutionally protected. We also need to realize that we have a responsibility to create learning environments for all of our students, not just the ones we agree with.
This time of the semester it is easy to think our experiences at work are unique to us. Nod in silence if you have said or overheard a colleague recently say
“I am so busy.”
“There is so much grading.”
“I don’t think (person X) understands how much work I have.”
“Why do I get so many annoying emails from CELT?”
These things might all be true, but it is important to remember they are true for everyone. Your colleagues are stressed and busy, students are scrambling to finish projects and study for exams, your chair and dean are grappling with their own issues, and the administrative assistant you work with all the time is probably getting the worst of it from all sides. Ask yourself how you would treat people if everyone were as busy as you are, and then do that, because they probably are.
Related to this piece of advice, here are a few more for the end of the semester.
- You would probably advise your students to abstain from ranting about their employers or coworkers on social media so take your own advice and do the same. What is posted on twitter lives forever in the memory of the internet. Think about how the student you are venting about would feel if you read your facebook post aloud in front of them.
- Yes it is the end of the term and ridiculous excuses are a part of our lives, but they can also be true. People do get sick during finals week and people we care about do go to the hospital. The fact that students may have been untruthful before does not mean the student who is emailing you asking for an extension is lying.
- Do something nice for someone. Bring your class donuts or ask your administrative support person how his/her day is without immediately cutting them off to ask for a rush order copy job. Sometimes simple kindness gets us through the most challenging times.
- Looking for some help and a quiet place to grade during finals week? Check out the Faculty Grading Oasis in MLIB 458. We are open 8-5 with hot coffee, snacks, and student support to help alphabetize exams and data entry (as long as it is FERPA compliant). There may even be spontaneous “Hotline Bling” inspired dance-offs, you just never know.
My academic training is in communication. I am reminded of all the things I do not know every time I have a conversation with my father-in-law who is an engineer or my friend who works as a recreational therapist with physically challenged youth. I like to think of myself as well rounded, but the most important life/academic lesson I have learned is when to ask for help.
This lesson is most important when dealing with students in crisis. We are teachers, mentors, and field area experts, but rarely possess the training or experience to properly assist a student in a time of deep psychological distress. There are as many different profiles of students in distress as there are students. The young man who is away from home for the first time and feels crushed by responsibility, the student who was been the victim of sexual assault, the young women poised to be the first family member to graduate, but riddled with anxiety about what happens next, the high achieving student who appears confident but is actually struggling through a family crisis, and an infinite number of other variations and combinations. The one thing these hypotheticals have in common is that we as faculty members are only a part of the puzzle in supporting the student, not the whole picture.
There are so many places where students and faculty can find support when dealing with these difficult scenarios. The Counseling Center is the resource we most often think of, but in many situations Student Judicial Affairs, The Health Center, University Police, or an Associated Students organization like the Gender and Sexuality Equity Center may also be able to offer help.
The first move often falls to you as the faculty member, you need to pick up the phone and ask for help. Even if you call the wrong unit, you can be directed to the right one. When students confide in us or seek guidance about an issue putting them in crisis. What we have to realize is that most often they are doing so because they need some help, and while we may not be the ones to provide it, we can help them get it.
For most of my time at Chico I have taught a course in Freedom of Speech. For the last few years I incorporated a mini-unit on the Innocence of Muslims trailer/movie that inspired worldwide riots in 2012. I would usually let my students know in advance we would be watching the movie since it was the source of such outrage and controversy. In addition, to start each semester I would let students know the topics in the class were controversial by definition and even assigned a rating of “NC-17” to the course in order to give students fair warning. While I was not familiar with the concept to start, I was providing my students with a trigger warning.
Providing the trigger warning was a mistake.
The mistake was not the warning itself, it was making an uninformed decision about whether the warning was appropriate. There are good reasons for warning students in advance about topics which might compel distress. There are also good reasons why mandated warnings are a threat to academic freedom and the intellectual development of students.
I am not going to tell you about your obligation to protect your students from controversy, or expose them to unpopular ideas. I am not going to tell you about how you are ruining the academy by giving your students advance warning about material that might recreate trauma from assault or war, nor am I am going to tell you about your complicity in violence by failing to do so.
I am going to pass on the same advice you likely give your students. Do some research and make an informed decision about trigger warnings rather than simply trusting that what you are doing is right.
For some further reading check out these pieces.
Huffington Post blog on balancing warnings with good content.
Washington Post piece on trigger warnings and guest speakers on campuses.
New Republic essay or trigger warnings and mental health.
US News Debate Club on trigger warnings.