University students are afraid of everything

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 Atlanticran 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.

Comfort Addiction

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.

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19 comments

  1. “I know how it feels to have a death in family when there is an important assignment. […] This is life.”

    This is ridiculous. Organisations and obviously professors like you treat people like machines, maybe because you had been treated like this too. Luckily this is a trend that changes.

    Agreed that certain rules and offers at American Universities seem obscure. But this seems like a first try.

    1. If course it’s life. That’s the point, the world around you doesn’t stop when there is a death in the family, or some other tramatic event.

      There is a very simple concept that the natural laws of the universe, and of life, run on: Only the strongest survive. Its this process that over millions of years has brought you to exist now today through natural selection and competition with other species, both present and extinct.

      We may not be literal machines, but you and most people seem to forget a very universal truth: you are what you can produce and nothing more. Scary fact, and I doubt many can accept it. Most reject it.

      I’m sorry, it may be cold and unfeeling, but college isn’t there to cater to sensibilities. It’s there to teach and train, and those who can’t handle need to either buckle down and try harder, or choose a different path.

      That’s natural selection at work.

      I’m all for having the basic helplines and councilors to point the students in the right direction… But the hand holding needs to end. It doesn’t train adults to be self sufficient, but instead trains them to be helplessly dependant on others. If society were to break down today, they would be the first to go, unless they found the strength in themselves.

      Trauma and stress happens. It’s why we help those who suffered to move past it… Not cater to it

  2. Bernd Alt · · Reply

    Have you considered that your students are more stressed by what you call “life” because they are in a sense “autistic”, having been detached from the real world all their life? They were guided by rules and constant supervision. They grew up with computers and the internet, (seemingly) with information at their fingertips. The real world is not like that. It does not do instant gratification, it does not have a single interface to everything. One might be inclined to think that universities as institutions of science would fall over themselves to provide information on everything they do and require, and make that information as easily available as possible. But students find the opposite: They have to constantly talk to real people to figure out what’s actually going on. And that’s where the problem becomes self-sustaining: If you have to do what you haven’t learned, in order to learn what you need to do, you’re cut off from the world. What looks like a minor obstacle to you is a frightening, overwhelming environment for the “internet generation”. Their reaction is to vigorously object to any perceived hostility and inconsistency.

    1. Richard · · Reply

      This comment is spot-on as the likely source of the problem. That may be all true, making it all the more necessary for students to become educated as to the way of the world in a hurry! No matter how uncomfortable this may be, it is not trauma.

    2. Bernd, I have not considered this. It’s a very interesting idea. I don’t know of anyone who researching this, though it’s not my area. I suppose your proposal would also make a prediction that you’d see the same kind of effect a (i.e a “minor obstacle to you is a frightening, overwhelming environment”) but in the other direction among people who never use the internet. In that case, obtaining information via web search or smart phone might seem frightening…I do think you’re on to something though..My experience (and the experience of my of my peers) is that students are more stressed compared to 5-10 years ago. And this is despite all the attempts by the university to offer more and more stress relief…we may be addressing the wrong problem.

    3. This former university student managed to pass his exams without mollycoddling despite actually being autistic. If you can’t do the work you don’t deserve the qualification because, guess what, any real world job is also going to involve stress and being unable to cope with that makes you unsuitable for the job.

  3. Posting my reply to a friend’s post when he shared it on his Facebook:

    I think overall this is an interesting read, though at the end of the day I think I have to disagree with the majority of his points. I’ll touch on them in order of appearance.

    The first point is likely the only one I agree with. I feel like there’s a lot of things people get offended about that they shouldn’t need to – the examples in the article are fairly self-explanatory. I’ve grown up most of my life not giving a shit, and sometimes it seems to me that there are people out there who try to take everything in the world as a personal attack. I think that’s wrong. The world doesn’t give enough of a shit about you to actively undermine you.

    The second one I think is simply a complaint – and an invalid one at that. As a society, we’ve grown ourselves upon slowly accommodating and providing more for those we originally thought were less fortunate or disadvantaged. First that was black people. Then it was women. Then it was physical and mental disabilities. Now, it’s entering regions like sexuality and gender. At the end of the day, this feels simply like the “I’m a regular guy who didn’t need any extra help – why does anyone else?” which is even stranger to me, because as a cognitive psychologists, he should know better than anyone how frequent and how severe temporary mental illnesses like depression and anxiety can affect an individual. Making the assumption that a student is simply gaming the system with accommodations is sad, and frankly, somewhat disrespectful – it is purposeful that the professor is shielded from the exact ailment of a student, because after all, that’s none of his business. I think this point really illustrates how (for the lack of a better word) unfortunate this article is.

    This next point is literally a complaint, and provides his arguments no merits. What’s the issue with letting people write exams in whatever clothing they want? None of the exams simulate real-life situations anyway, so what need is there for the rest of the exam-time behaviour to emulate that?

    I think the last paragraph truly embodies the disconnect between this author and the real world, likely because he’s ignoring the job market portion of life. Undergrad academia has become increasingly cut-throat – acceptance rates plummet as schools become more prestigious, material gets more complex as time goes on, all the while entry-level jobs are more and more difficult to find. He has never lived in a time where it has been almost mandatory for any career to require a university education and in that, has missed out on the most fundamental point – that university has become an institution where if you don’t succeed, your entire life has the possibility of collapsing.

    This article, is interesting, at the end of the day, but it’s unfortunate that the author’s views are stuck in a society that has long moved past him.

    1. Eliot, thank you for posting a thoughtful commentary on my post…I was trying to connect the points made in the two articles I read in the Atlantic with my own observations… I should really point out that I do not disagree with providing accommodations to students at all, and I have no evidence that students are being dishonest. I do not think they are…I want my own students to mater the content…I do worry that when we (as faculty or admins) slightly pathologize normal reactions to university stress we make light of more serious concerns. Maybe another way of saying this is that I’ve observed that the strong desire to create stress free comfort zones and to enact over zealous campus speech codes tends to come from four year, highly selective, private schools (Oberlin, Wesleyan, etc.). No doubt the stress is very high there, but one could also make the argument that in the parlance of our times, it’s somewhat of a (white) privilege to want to receive 4 year, university education during which you will not be offended and will be afforded many accommodations. In the end, I worry that the whole system is becoming unwieldy.

      1. Thanks for the reply. I do very much agree with you that there should be absolutely no reason to change the contents of a course simply because people feel offended about the course material – they made the choice to come to university, and attempting to have the university tailor the course to your wants (not needs!) is really unacceptable. The truths are the truths, no matter how uncomfortable they can be.

        I’m glad that you want your students to master the content – I’m a third year at the University of Waterloo – Computer Engineering. Over the years, I’ve become used to having courses that cover hundreds upon hundreds of pages of highly technical material, and often subpar teaching methods, and though that in and of itself is a shame, I am at least glad that none of my material has changed due to the whims of others’ feelings.

        That being said, the whole experience has dealt quite a toll on both myself and my peers – with large amounts of pressure, whether societal, cultural, or familial, to succeed in intense and rigorous programs. It has brought us huge amounts of stress – about whether our lack of academic success will lead to lack of job opportunities, whether we’ll be able to handle courses later on, or even whether we’re going to be forced to withdraw from the program.

        Perhaps it’s different at Western, but one of my peers put it quite well – that the university and the schooling environment constantly stresses reminds you of the horrors to come if you encounter failure, and the entire thing, is to put it lightly, quite stressful, and reading articles or hearing stories about students who have jumped from the roof of buildings to escape it is immensely saddening.

        And as such, that’s why I have to disagree with you about accommodations in relation to stress – anything that alleviates is, I think, is greatly beneficial for the student population.

      2. Western is probably similar in general, though Waterloo computer engineering is a such a high profile, competitive program that there are not many good comparisons. You’re in a bigger league. Many commenters (here, on FB and elsewhere) have made great points about how the accommodations can help to ease the stress just a bit. I am glad for that and glad that so many students are pointing out how they have benefitted.

  4. Paul Dulaney · · Reply

    Excellent article, Mr Minda.

    Here’s my take. These are not fragile, sensitive students struggling to survive in this harsh American social landscape — they are disingenuous, manipulative, left-wing con-men who are working the system and wearing their victimhood like a badge of honor.

    Perhaps the answer is a couple of years of mandatory military service to convince these young people that the world does not revolve around their imagined neuroses.

  5. I don’t presume to know the root cause of the infantile / entitlement behaviors that present in modern, American, university student populations more so than of other generations.

    Whether for better or worse: I do believe, however, that this group of people will soon be out-performed by graduates of other nations’ universities, graduates that are not as consumed with a need for the world to accommodate their beliefs.

    The infants that attend our universities may be shocked as their demands that the world accommodate their private definitions of “personal social justice” are ignored, and tougher, more self-contained graduates from other nations achieve the success that the infants “deserve”.

    Complaints, indignation, and angry rebuttal will be the only recourse available as these infants are surpassed in nearly every measure of success by those more focused upon achievement rather than entitlement.

  6. Paul, thank you for a thought-provoking article. I agree with you on many points, but I think you are conflating two different issues. Trigger warnings and much ado about microaggressions isn’t about comfort, it’s about making a political statement. Accommodations will not make these students happier. They will just find new ways to preform victimhood because that is a part of their identity. This is popular in part because of the immense pressure on college students to be special and make a difference, etc. They may not be going to medical school, but they are a victim of a terrible [something], and they’ve done [something] about it. It’s a romantic narrative, and one that most people can internalize. The puppies on campus thing is coming from a different place. It’s popular with the students, but it’s driven by the universities. Who are covering their asses. Because pressure on students is high, suicide rates for young adults have gone up, and at the end of the day it’s bad press. And there are no easy answers, so colleges invest in counselling centers, because what else are they supposed to do?

    Maybe we disagree on this point, but I do believe there is more stress on younger generations. Some of it is “real” (bad job market, very little economic security, parent’s generation having a high divorce rate) but I think more of it is existential. It used to be typical to graduate college, marry, find a job, and that was considered a successful life. Now college students are incredibly focused on their careers. To the point where people have hundreds of thousands in student loans and are freezing their eggs. People chalk this up to financial pressure, and it is partly, but it’s also the pressure to be successful, and the disconnect between identity and desired role in the success theater. College students don’t kill themselves because they are scared of the world after being coddled at school, or because they consider education too traumatic. When things like change this (big things, like suicide and fertility rates), it is something more than the young generations being soft.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Rachel. I really could have done a better job trying to connect some of these issues.

      Also, I actually agree very much with your sentiment that your generation faces many stressors that mine never did. I sometimes think we (faculty, admin, both) are making things worse in an attempt to make it better. I worry that we’re not letting you (as students) fail form time to time and that may defer the anxiety. That was an idea covered in the original “Atlantic” article that got me thinking.

  7. Savanah Wille · · Reply

    Anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses are not a product of exams, but rather a product of who we are (whether we were made this way by nature or nurture). We cannot simply change who we are in order to fit into this controlled and mandatory examination system. He says that students who have mental illnesses who need exam accommodations are just seeking comfort like children do (and they are addicted to this comfort). He says that they aren’t growing up and being “fully functional adults”. I guess he feels like people with mental illnesses should just get over them? Just like a broken foot? Or cancer? Mmmkay…
    He writes “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.” No, university is not a war zone. However, most people with mental illnesses, such as panic attack disorder, GAD, and PTSD are often triggered by a spectrum of trauma. Anxiety is often caused by traumatic incidents in one’s life, which include: sexual, physical, and mental abuse, domestic and family violence, serious injuries, natural disasters, moving to a new location, abandonment, witnessing abuse, and defamation of character.
    The trauma can be so severe is changes the neurological wiring of one’s brain. It causes extreme stress of the mind and the body. Excessive worrying and fear over basic life events cause reoccurring trauma every time this person exposes themselves to those basic events. There are two ways that people protect themselves: they fight or they flight. The brain has something called the amygdala, which controls stress levels and the “fight or flight”. When a trauma occurs, it leaves the amygdala in a very high stress state even after the trauma and corresponding stress has left. Because of that, we feel like we are constantly in panic or crisis mode. When we feel this fear when we are about to do something that we find scary, our amygdala completely goes crazy, and puts our body and mind back into that fear mode. Even though we know that there is nothing wrong, and there is nothing to be afraid of, our brain is telling us to run away. So then we run, and we re-affirm to our brain that we survived because we fled. And often, if we don’t flee, our body would go into panic mode, by forcing our body to have a panic attack, or experience other somatic forms of physical pain, such as stomach pain, chest pains, fainting, and heart palpitations.
    I’ve had to deal with this for a year. I would go to class, you know like everyone else, and every time I approached the door, I would have a panic attack. I would walk to meetings for work, and have a panic attack. I would be so scared, I would run to the bathroom and stay there for 20 minutes, just waiting for the attack to subside. I would stay home because I felt like my life wasn’t worth living anymore, because I wasn’t being a “fully functional human being”. Then when exams came around in 2B, I was forced to stay in a room with hundreds of people for two and a half hours to write an exam. What was the result? I had panic attacks, horrible stomach pains, chest pains, and more. I went to the hospital twice during my exams last year. This is REAL. The pain is real. The psychological distress from it is real.
    And while my exams did not start my anxiety and panic attack disorder, feeling uncomfortable in an examination makes it much worse. By having accommodations, not only does it help subside the feelings of stress and other panic attack triggers, it does not reoccur my trauma. This helps with going into my subsequent exams, because it makes me feel safe and comfortable. It helps me study in peace, because I’m not worried about the exam… For once, I’m just studying.
    To the professor that wrote this article, by saying that somehow I don’t deserve to have my illness taken seriously, because it does a disservice to people who actually have mental illness, shame on you. Surprisingly, people who attend university do have mental illnesses and it’s a disservice to them to not be treated with care and accommodations. It is very real, very severe, and at times life threatening.
    I appreciate all that the universities in this new world of acceptance of mental illness that accommodates for these issues.

    1. Thanks for your very thoughtful comments, Savanah. I’m glad you took the time to reply. I know from my experience as a professor (and my personal experience as well) that panic attacks are very serious. But beyond that, your comments are very enlightening to me, because you’ve made it very clear how something as straightforward as exam accommodations can help someone succeed. You write very convincingly.

      As a professor, I approve accommodations and I’m primarily interested in making sure that the students in my classes master the content. In your case, if you were in my class I would absolutely suggest looking into an accommodated exam setting, because I’d hope that that it would help you master the content more effectively.

      I do worry that we (faculty and admin) have gone too far sometimes, and pathologize things that might just be a regular part if university/college life. Are we making things worse by trying to provide so much help? I don’t really know, but I’m just thinking it though from this angle…

  8. Maybe they could drop the services and only charge 2/3 of the tuition and let the market rule.

  9. Eric Finlay · · Reply

    I’m shocked by how many comments disagree with you. University is quickly becoming extended high school (I graduated UBC in 2012). There’s a reason a Bachelors isn’t worth much and junior positions require 2 years experience: fresh grads haven’t grown up yet.

    I for one support what you’re saying in this post. Draw the line somewhere, show compassion when it’s due, be a hardass when it’s due. Challenges lead to growth.

    1. Eric, thanks for your comments I’m not shocked by comments that disagree. Although I do hold by my points, I think the examples I selected (calling out “puppy rooms”, taking issue with accommodations” might not have been all the best way to make my point. I think that in our desire to help students have the best experience and to keep them enrolled that we’re not always providing a challenging academic environments.

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