Friday, October 27, 2006

On boundaries

Compared to some of the curmudgeons who have been the Graduate Director before me, I'm as warm and cuddly and approachable as a puppy. But that's not saying much, because some of those guys just loved playing the part of austere authority gazing down on the students' puniness. It's easy to seem approachable compared to that. I also think part of my approachability is illusion; students assume it because I'm young(ish) -- and look younger still -- and female. And also, when students come to my office, at first my back is to them -- vulnerable, an easy mark -- and then I turn to them, welcome them in, and offer them a seat that's practically in my lap, all because I have an office that's 7' x 7' (I'm not kidding). The old guys have big offices where they can sit behind their desks, which serve as a visible sign of the social boundary between them and the students. And the one guy who takes the middle ground -- a desk perpendicular to the door so that he can turn face-to-face with the visiting student with no physical barrier between them -- has a voice so booming, no matter how conversational, that he couldn't avoid being intimidating if he wanted. Heck, even his "soft voice" is a stage whisper that could carry across an unamplified theater.

So, in contrast, students find me approachable. I've been told this, but even if I hadn't, I'd know because I seem to get an inordinate amount of student unloading their troubles on me. This happens with the undergrads, too, but it is especially true of the graduate students. This is a good thing for many reasons, not least of which is they give me a heads up about problems and conflicts before they get too far out of control and nothing can be done about them. And they ask me questions, rather than floundering or getting bad advice from their peers. All good. But then they start coming to me with personal life stuff and sometimes, "just to talk." When it stays on the level of things like time management or dealing with family members who think that they have Friday "free" because they don't teach or have classes, then I'm fine, because it's all about professional advice. But when I start hearing the stories of addiction, abusive relationships, or things like that, I have to admit, I get a little uncomfortable. And a lot of them feel like they can talk about their spiritual lives with me, because I can do the Jesus talk, it's true, and I'm probably the single most sympathetic liberal atheist they'll ever meet. But still it makes me uncomfortable.

It's not that I'm a cold and unfeeling person. It's not that I think that students should be brains-on-a-stick with no personal lives. And it's not that I have some abstract principle of distant professionalism in mind. It's because it makes me, Dr. V., uncomfortable. Why? Well, because I have them in classes, and I administer exams, and I sign off on petitions for exceptions and course substitutions, and sometimes I have to give them grades and responses they don't like. And then they feel betrayed and I feel like shit. It's not personal and it's not a judgment of them, but they read it that way. And it seems like the only way to prevent it from getting to that point it to be cold and distant and unapproachable, which I don't really think I can be. When they come to me in tears because their partner of five years has suddenly moved out or because their father is dying or because they've just lost it trying to juggle their overburdened lives, I am sympathetic, and I give them kleenex and comfort (no hugs, though -- I'm not huggy by nature and that gets into sticky legal territory, anyway). And shit, although I never cried to a professor, I did cry a helluva a lot in graduate school, mostly from loneliness, sometimes from stress, and so I know what it can be like. (Though when it starts to get into addiction and abuse type seriousness, that's when I pull out the numbers for student psych counseling, because I am not a professional mental health counselor and that's beyond my ken.) So I can't help but be sympathetic.

And yet I know where it might lead -- to that feeling of betrayal -- and so I remain uncomfortable and completely torn. Should I steer it back to concrete academic issues? Should I say, "How can I help you?" whenever it gets too personal and just refuse to let them keep talking about things I have no control over? Or should I let them talk because that's probably what they need?

What do you do in situations like this (with undergrads or grads)? Do you have boundaries? Where do you draw them?


Bardiac said...

That's a great question. I wish I had a good answer. I draw different boundaries at different times, I suppose.

One of my weirdest encounters came when I was teaching a Chaucer course, and one of the female students came in to ask me about Christianity, because since we talked a bit about religious background, she thought I'd know.

What did she want to ask? Evidently her "Christian" "boyfriend" was insisting that the Bible gave him the right to tell her what to do (in every way imaginable) and to "punish" her for disobedience. She wanted to know if the Bible really said that.

It was horrific. Grad school did NOT prepare me for that. But I hope I helped her get out of the situation.

It's hard to separate out mentoring from evaluative duties, and even harder to help students see the separation, I think.

Dr. Crazy said...

Sometimes of course you'll be in a position where you want to help a student out, but I do think it's important to remember - and to remind them - that you're not really friends. One thing that I think seriously helps me to keep some boundaries in place is that I don't keep kleenex in my office. If you're going to cry, you've got to stop, because I'm just not prepared for you. Now, maybe that's mean, but it's something that one of my best mentors in grad school said she did and suggested that all women teachers do in order to keep some boundaries in place. Putting a box of kleenex on the desk is like putting a "the doctor is in" sign on the door and they will weep and weep and weep. Horrible.

As for when they tell me horrible things, I will ask questions like "Are you ok?" or "Do you have a plan in place to fix this?" - yes/no questions that demonstrate concern but that do not ask for details or offer my shoulder to cry on. Then, I move the conversation to what I can help them with - not by asking them what I can do but by offering some suggestions. Or, if there's nothing I can do for them, I just say, I really wish I could help with that, but there doesn't seem to be anything I can do.

I don't know. I guess in these situations I don't think that questions are always the best thing - I think they get you in deeper than you want to go, and yes, then you feel uncomfortable.

trillwing said...

I don't work with grad students, but in my experiences with undergrads, I've learned that for my own peace of mind, I need to refer students to professional mental health resources, either by giving them a brochure (I used to keep a bunch from the campus counseling center in my desk) or by promising to send them a URL for campus resources.

In all my years of teaching, only two students--both freshmen--responded with "You think I'm CRAZY?!" To which I said, "No, I think you need some outside perspective that I can't provide."

Worked pretty well. And I've had students come back and thank me for directing them to the counseling center.

It's interesting, though--I have fewer students unloading on me now that I teach American studies. When I taught writing and lit, the floodgates opened because writing and lit seemed to bring out the emotional turmoil in ways that, say, material culture theory or architectural history usually don't. I've heard the problem of student unloading is especially bad in women's and gender studies.

As the years pass, I've found it easier to refer students to counseling. I used to want to listen to their stories, to help them in whatever ways I could, to play mentor as well as teacher. But now with a husband and a baby and job search and all the other trappings of academic life, I just don't have the time or the emotional energy.

Dr. Virago said...

Hey, thanks you guys! I'm sorry it took me awhile to respond, but Dr. Crazy and trillwing, you've given me great advice. And omigod, Bardiac, what on earth did you do?!?! I think I would have said, "Not in my reading, no, but you should talk to your priest or minister or other spiritual counselor about it." And then I would have taken "The Clerk's Tale" off the syllabus. OK, maybe not that last bit.

J J Cohen said...

I'm late on this, but it does seem like you've got a good idea of boundaries and how to respect them already, Dr V. GW had a series of student suicides a few years back, and that was a reminder to all of us that a studnet in crisis (or incipient crisis) needs professional counseling, not a PhD in literature with a sympathetic ear.

It is VERY tricky with grad students, since the work of mentoring is so close and since they sometimes get divorced or robbed or lose a loved one during thesis writing. The only thing I can say is that every case is particular and new, every case needs sympathy, but the boundaries need to be fairly evident throughout. Not easy at all!

What Now? said...

All great advice here (well, except that I have to disagree with Dr. Crazy, since I do keep tissues on my desk; 'cause sometimes I cry at school!). How good are the counseling services offered at your school? It's a great idea to keep a stack of their brochures, and I wonder if it's also worth suggesting to them that, if they don't have one already, a grad student support group would be a great idea.

I do like being a person to whom students can talk about their lives as well as their scholarship -- in part because sometimes that makes them work even harder -- but it is important to know where one's boundaries are and be able to enforce them. (which of course is exactly what you've been saying)

David Harmon said...

Sometimes an appropriate referral is the best way for you to help them, and it's perfectly reasonable for you to say so up front. Besides the "official" resources, you should keep cards handy for any peer-counseling groups or other student-run support groups you have on campus, as these may be less threatening to the students.