Better Life Lab

Professors Are the New Therapists

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

Jason was an untenured professor at a large public university when two students who had been dating each other began fighting regularly in his class. When he sought advice from university administrators about what to do, they merely passed him around the bureaucracy until, one day, he found himself assisting police, phoning one of the students and pleading with him to come to campus to surrender himself to the authorities after a violent fight with his girlfriend. Jason, who, like most untenured faculty today, prefers not to use his last name when critiquing university administrators, recalled the emotional toll the incident took on him: “I was upset for days. I had no idea what to do.”

Approximately 3 out of 4 workers who teach college students are contingent, also known as adjunct professors, meaning that they do not get the same benefits or protections as their tenure-track colleagues. Contingent instructors teach more courses with higher enrollments than those on the tenure track, and many make ends meet by teaching at multiple institutions, turning them into what one adjunct acquaintance called “self-contained mobile teaching units” who grade papers in their cars or meet with students wherever they can find open space on campus. Increasingly, these same overworked faculty are being asked to comfort and support students in ways that go far beyond the classroom.

The rise of adjuncts coincides today with what has been called the “amenities arms race,” as colleges create ever-more luxurious campuses to attract students, such as a lazy river and beach club at the University of Missouri, or any number of state-of-the-art fitness facilities that make your local gym about as appealing a dust-covered Bowflex in your basement. Declining federal and state support for education has left many institutions scrambling for revenue and cuts that will keep their institutions functioning. While the number of expensive tenured faculty drops, universities have turned their focus to attracting wealthier students (including international students) whose unsubsidized tuition payments and extra fees help fill the coffers.

This has created an atmosphere where students are treated more like customers—“As payers of tuition that colleges need to rope in with sweeter and sweeter deals,” as professor Nate Kreuter at Western Carolina University puts it.*

While students are choosing campuses that trade country club–like facilities for tuition dollars, faculty face increasing pressure to create a warm, nurturing environment and care for students in ways that extend far beyond typical relationships in the classroom. Inside Higher Ed reports that faculty are being asked to volunteer to help students with move-in. Beyond these cases of manual labor, there is a growing demand for instructors to provide unpaid emotional labor to their students.

A former colleague, who preferred to not be named, with no counseling training is now a non-tenure-track faculty member in the education department at a private religious school and described how she has been asked to provide “pastoral support” to the education students she works with. This includes going on “paired walks” with students who need to talk about issues they are having with their teaching or general life problems,  she explains. “In the summer when I teach them in person, I also have lunch with individual students nearly every day and am encouraged to make myself available for conversation and support as much as possible due to the ‘demanding’ nature of the program they are in.”

Mental health centers on campuses around the country are stretched thin—after all, it’s hard to imagine a well-staffed counseling office being more of a sell to prospective students and their check-signing parents than a state-of-the-art climbing facility. As an emergent “solution,” faculty development programs are offering classes on handling students in distress or in mental health crises. Margaret, another former colleague who is tenured at a public university was encouraged (but not required) to attend a suicide prevention training session after she had a student come to her with suicidal thoughts. Many well-intentioned departments are now training instructors in everything from how to respond to students who are unable to afford food to how to handle vets with PTSD. Surely instructors want all students to succeed, but to expect a couple hours of training to sub in for professional student support systems provided by the university is unrealistic and dangerous.

The instructors and college administrators I’ve asked about this issue uniformly agree that all students should have access to a holistic battery of supports. However, the expectation that instructors engage in uncompensated emotional labor by serving as untrained front-line proto-counselors is doing everyone a disservice, especially the students who are receiving this “care.” In a pedagogy course I taught, I asked instructors to name their “worst-case scenario teaching fears.” Without exception, every teacher expressed anxiety about handling unbalanced students. One instructor wasn’t sure what to do when a student had come to office hours to tearfully disclose an eating disorder. Others described fearing unstable students might come to class on the verge of an emotional or physical breakdown. Less-experienced instructors in particular are terrified of how to handle students who are emotionally distraught and potentially a threat to themselves or others.

This expectation for emotional labor falls disproportionately on women, who are overrepresented among contingent faculty and face well-documented bias in student evaluations—the most important, and in many cases singular, measure of their job performance. Research done by my former teaching center colleagues at Ohio State University indicated that when students evaluate instructors, they react most strongly to two things: how much they feel they learned in the course, and how much they feel their instructors cared about them. And what passes as “caring enough” is affected by implicit biases students may hold.

A recent study demonstrated that identical teaching practices were judged differently based on the gender identity of the instructor. While instructors identified as male were judged to be brilliant and effective, women were described as bossy. Therefore, women who abide by feminine norms by being sensitive, kind, and caring get better evaluations. A female non-tenure-track sociology instructor, who did not want to be named, recalled skipping a department meeting to counsel a female student who was dealing with the fallout from a sexual assault. “I was watching the clock,” she recalls, “but I did not want to send her away feeling upset or ignored. But selfishly, I also didn’t want the reputation of being unsupportive toward my students, knowing that my reappointment in this new teaching position was 100 percent contingent on student evaluations.”

Most college instructors care for their students’ overall well-being, but it’s irresponsible for this caring to be exploited by universities who aren’t investing in trained counselors, and offering a few limited workshops instead is not enough. Only a tiny number have any real training and experience in counseling, despite the fact that more than one-third of college students are depressed, that mental illness is on the rise on campuses, that suicide is the second leading cause of death (after accidents) for 20–24 year olds, and that suicide rates peak in this same age range. Startlingly, 1 in 12 college students has made a plan to kill themselves in the last year. Put another way, a non-tenure-track instructor who teaches four sections of 50 students each semester will have over 30 students who are, or have recently been, dangerously suicidal.

We already know that care work is not sufficiently recognized and valued. But if universities insist on a “doing more with less” philosophy when it comes to student’s mental health and well-being, we will likely see many more preventable tragedies on campuses.

This article is part of the Better Life Lab channel, a partnership between Slate and New America, which explores why striking a good balance between work life and family life seems so unattainable for so many people—and what we as individuals, as organizations, and as policy makers can do about it.

*Correction, Oct. 5, 2017: This post originally misidentified Western Carolina University as West Carolina University.