Friday, December 18, 2009

Creativity or Disaster

There's a stereotype among professors about students whose grandparents seem to get seriously ill or die at key moments in the term, preventing the students from attending, taking midterms, turning in key assignments, and so forth.

I've had very few ill or dying grandparents in my teaching career. Either my students are more creative, or they have real problems.

The big one seems to be depression. I spent part of the other day talking to a student who'd decided to go back on hir depression meds after pretty much near failing the term. I'm glad ze's going back on the medicines, since I've known the student for a couple terms, and ze's generally a good student, and so I have hopes that things will work out better.

I spent another part of another day talking to a student who may be depressed (or not, because Shakespeare really doesn't qualify me to say). I tried to talk hir into seeing a doctor or counselor to get checked out and get some help, but ze resisted because ze doesn't want to become dependent. Our culture has this fantasy that if we try hard and just pull on our bootstraps, we can do anything, and that anything includes dealing with chemical problems. Well, some chemical problems. I've never heard anyone talk about diabetics being "dependent" on insulin in a bad way, for example. Nor do any of the folks who can avoid bad migraines seem to feel morally inadequate because they've found better living through chemistry. But depression seems to be one of the areas we most have that fantasy about.

I've wondered if I've been depressed at different times in my life. But, being full of the cultural fantasy, and scared of the potential truth, I've never really sought to find out. And, even at its worst, my lows were way less difficult than the lows some of my students seem to experience. So I at least somewhat understand the reluctance to subject oneself to medicalization or whatever. And while I can talk the talk about not being biased about depression or medicine or whatever, it's sort of like racism: I know I've been raised to be a racist, so I fight it. I also know I've been raised to believe our cultural fantasy about bootstraps, but do I fight that as conscientiously?

I wonder what the real rates of depression are for college students in the US? And I wonder if it's worse up here with so little daylight during the winter?

But depression's not the only thing. This semester, I've had students sick with flu (to be expected), deal with family/friends' suicides, cancer diagnoses, unemployment, displacement, and so forth. I wish I thought my students were being creative rather than having real problems.

Even having real problems, though, isn't always a full excuse. One of my students has a time-limited documentation of a problem. Ze came to the final, having missed almost every class during the semester and having turned in no assigments. (Ze did fail one quiz and take the midterm with an okay grade.) Ze stopped at the desk after turning in the final to tell me that Ze had emailed me all hir work for the semester. Having checked my email for something else just moments earlier, I told Ze I hadn't received the email. And then I asked ze why I should accept the work that hadn't been turned in before the time-limited problem, how that would be fair to the students who'd turned in their work on time. Ze looked at me. I said that it was a real question, that I really needed to understand why ze thought that would be appropriate or fair. Ze said it wouldn't. (Yeah, I'm sort of expecting to hear from a deanling about this.)

Let's hope for a less disastrous new year, with classes full of students who don't get sick, who don't have friends commit suicide, and whose parents are employed.


  1. I've wondered if I've been depressed at different times in my life. But, being full of the cultural fantasy, and scared of the potential truth, I've never really sought to find out.

    You say that as if there's some sort of litmus test that a trained psychiatrist could administer to confirm that you definitely had depression. But I'm convinced that shrinks are groping through the vast darkness of the human brain just as clumsily as the rest of us; they just have a vocabulary for describing the shapes they encounter there. And many of the psychiatrists I've known are some of the craziest people I've ever met. So my resistance to the very idea of counseling has less to do with masochistic cultural fantasy than with deep skepticism about the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry...

  2. counseling is not the same as getting a diagnosis and maybe some pills. a lot of people grapple with really difficult situations in their lives, and counseling might give them a chance to talk those through, reach a place where they can better cope with and integrate the problems in their own lives.

  3. Why would you hear from a dean about this? Ze admitted it wouldn't be fair.

    I was giving this whole issue of how difficult life is some thought after talking to a Very Conservative Person at a party recently. Her thinking was exactly as you describe -- bootstraps, with no help for legitimately difficult to impossible problems. Her parents were immigrants and she worked hard to get where she is so by God it can be done and leveling the playing field is not necessary. I can intellectually see this mindset, it's one of black and white, but I sure can't understand it with any part of my heart.

    Your students are lucky to have you as a professor, someone who cares and tries to understand, but who does call them to account when they need it.

  4. Let's hope for a less disastrous new year, with classes full of students who don't get sick, who don't have friends commit suicide, and whose parents are employed.

    *lifts glass*

    I can drink to that.

    Several times, in fact.

  5. I've had a new wrinkle -- the home in foreclosure... My CC students are generally leading complicated lives, but their own job loss/housing insecurity is a new wrinkle -- they have plenty of time to go to school, but their lives are falling apart, so they need to move their kids & spouse back in with a set of parents etc..

  6. I've had two students this year struggling with depression or some other mental illness--it's so hard, to be far from home and with such limited clinic support. My still-feels-new-U is a residential college (Old U was a commuter campus) and I'm still adjusting to the issues the different student bodies present. These residential students are much more economically stable, but the psychological burdens far from home seem particularly difficult.

  7. I suffered depression all through childhood and a large part of adulthood. It only got better with menopause and subsequently ten years on Paxil. I was a University Fellow in English at Penn and in such bad shape I couldn't function at all. Did I go for help? No - this was 1967. I dropped out instead.

    There is an enormous difference between being sad and being depressed. I'm not sure anyone who has not had clinical depression can understand what it feels like. It is a real life-waster, though.

    Good for you to feel responsible enough to help your students get help. They trust you enough to confide in you; that's a huge compliment.

  8. Anonymous10:37 PM

    My students have real problems, too. Yes, there is the real problem of not wanting to study or learn, and finding creative ways of justifying that (my class was too visual, too auditory, too tactile, whatever, for the one learning style that works for them). But mostly their problem is the 40-80 work weeks and the child care. The reason they missed the midterm is that the baby had a fever and therefore was not allowed into daycare. The reason they are going to miss class today is that their boss is on the phone saying they are needed to replace someone with H1N1 and no, he will not respect their course schedule in this case. They need these jobs more than they do good grades, so they miss class.

    Very many of them are on antidepressants and have been for years but I think some R&R would do them better. I really understand people not wanting to be medicalized because once you step into the mental health jungle, you're a playground for different MSWs and GPs to try their very partial knowledge on. It's not necessarily safer than going out to the parking lot and buying illegal drugs. A lot of my students have already learned this and try to stay away from hawkers of Ritalin, Prozac, and so on.

  9. Anonymous10:44 PM

    P.S. And on counseling: once again, it really depends. These MSWs and student health center PhDs are not necessarily very sensitive or very skilled, and they often have a single one size fits all paradigm they want to shove onto the students.
    So I understand when people don't want to go.

    I strongly suspect these students got a lot more good done for themselves by just talking to you, Bardiac.

  10. Very thoughtful post.