Note: I wrote this as an attempt to think about the deeper issue of universities (students, faculty, and admin) placing an increasing premium on comfort, the "best student experience", and reducing challenges. Normally, very few people read my blog (see my earlier post about that), so I was really excited to see how much action this piece received. I want to be clear that I'm not against providing student accommodations. I used those examples to try to give an overview of the range services provided. I'm suggesting that the overall emphasis on making university comfortable is not ideal.
Just the other day, “The Atlantic” ran a piece that discussed how professional comedians face increasing difficulty in playing colleges and universities because they cannot do offensive jokes on campus. At the annual convention of the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA), comedians worry about how to do 15 minutes without offending anyone and still be funny (it is not easy). Tell a joke with anything that might be deemed offensive to anyone and you won’t get hired…I’ve actually been to a NACA convention once in the early 1990s, even then there was a super-PC vibe.
Trigger warnings and microaggressions
It must be part of a “Back to School” theme: today “The Atlantic” ran a longer, more in depth article about the seemingly unstoppable concern about microaggressions and trigger warnings on campus. Microaggressions are small actions phrases that seem innocent on the surface but have aggressive deeper meanings. As the article says, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to include in a course syllabus about content that that might be offensive or upsetting. Much of the call for trigger warnings is driven by students. For example, the Atlantic article mentions that:
Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress.
Professor Suk’s article is mildly distressing. Students at a law school don’t want to be taught about law with terms that might cause distress? Can we extrapolate an imagine a medical school that does not teach anatomy of the reproductive system because it might cause students distress?
Most (though not all) faculty don’t care for this. But there is a bigger problem here. Students (and universities) seems to have created a soothing, comfortable space in which nothing is upsetting to anyone. One of my colleagues uses the term “comfort addiction”….an apt term.
This is more than just being offended by a comedian or a class about rape. I think there is a process of infantilization at universities (more so in the US than Canada, but it’s here too)…often created by universities to retain students, and then reinforced by students. Students and administrators are addicted to comfort. It often starts with a full week of orientation and non-stop entertainment/DJs/bands and activities reminiscent of a summer camp. Then there are offices to help students with anything that could possibly upset them (I suppose to ensure that they remain enrolled and thus paying fees and tuition). My university, like most, has offices for diversity, indigenous student support, sexual orientation, even a mental health office specifically for international students, etc. As a professor, I am frequently asked to make academic accommodations for every religion and every possible religious holiday that might conflict with assignment. I ensure that every disability is accommodated. Most disabilities that I am asked to accommodate seem to be unspecified and are remedied by providing the students with a separate, quiet location and an extra 30 minutes to take an exam.
“In my day” (I’m old now, my day was the late 80s early 90s), you visited the registrar’s office. A financial aid office. The bursars office. I felt like an adult, making decisions and finding things out for myself… But now there are counsellors for everything. Counsellors. As if the very act of registering for a class is traumatic event for which the student needs counselling. According to some universities, these counsellors provide “customer support”. That’s Ohio State’s term, not mine.
Students sometimes seem like actual babies
Final exam time at many large universities is when this infantilization really comes out. Students will literally walk around in public wearing their sleeping clothes and sweats. They nap in the library or in the hallway of academic buildings during normal work hours. There are midnight breakfasts to help with exam stress. Many universities have “puppy rooms”. That is, students can play with puppies to help with exam stress. Look…I like dogs and I know pets are great therapy, but we’re talking about adult students at a university who seem to need all manner of play, dog, music, and other therapy just to help them deal with taking exams. Exams are not a threat or an traumatic event; they are a matter of basic university life.
An article a few years ago wondered if Harvard was “doing enough” to help with exam stress. It seems that Harvard students, for whom the average grade is A- need more help.
A student-led group called HarvardSmiles tries to keep students in the loop on mental health resources and how to improve their well-being. Every Thursday there’s a “Plaza Pet Therapy Zoo,” where students can mingle with chickens, ducks and the occasional kitten, and Harvard’s Medical School offers therapy dog office hours.
A Harvard official pointed to study break activities in all student housing, a wellness center that hosts a meditation club and the Harvard Bureau of Study Counsel, which hosts workshops throughout the year “to help students manage all aspects of their work.”
Apparently that is not enough…
Education is not trauma
The article in The Atlantic that inspired my blog post/rant suggests that this may ultimately be damaging for education and mental health care. I agree. The university is not a war zone. Education is not trauma. Treating it as such does a disservice to university education and to real trauma, PTSD, sexual assault, and anxiety disorders.
I will confess that I do not have a solution. But I have one suggestion that might help. I think we as professors need to hold the line to what we understand to be the best way to instruct and assess performance. I hate to pull rank, but I am a tenured university professor with over 12 years of experience teaching, research, and writing about cognitive psychology (20 years of training if count my time as a grad student and postdoc). I know what I’m doing. I know the content. I know how to lecture and create exams. I know how to mark the exams. I have compassion for first year students who may be away from home for the first time. I know how it feels to fail…many times. I know how it feels to have a death in family when there is an important assignment. I know how it feels to be overwhelmed from time to time. But this is not trauma. This is life.