Recently I have found myself in several meetings where our university leaders have made pleas to the faculty: Students are going through a lot right now. Be patient. Be understanding. Be flexible. Be generous.
Even though these statements can ring a bit hollow coming from people who aren’t in the classroom regularly, I appreciate the directness. The past two years have been incredibly stressful and chaotic for our students as we’ve dealt with the COVID pandemic, its surges and variants, and all the abrupt adjustments to learning that have come in tow. Students are under a tremendous amount of pressure, not only to keep trudging on with their degree programs (not to mention if they’re “undecided” about their majors) but also to pivot and keep up with the changes they are presented with as this time bleeds on into an uncertain future.
Before the pandemic, there were already multiple stressors at work on students: uncertain job markets, economic fluctuations, environmental disasters, and crushing student debt most obviously. A 2018 study found that from 2007 through 2017, mental health services utilized on college campuses increased by 15 percent. By fall 2019, more and more campus leaders were prioritizing mental health as a subject of concern and investment.
COVID triggered domino effects of isolation, heightened risk calculation, and constantly shifting safety measures that further disoriented students. Meanwhile, new if suddenly normalized digital media forms metastasized and promised more connection and consistency than ever before imaginable. The tension between these two vectors—less real community, more virtual connectivity—can be felt palpably in the classroom (remote and in-person) of late.
My new book is called Pedagogy of the Depressed—but I’m not sure anyone really needs to read it. Instead, I probably could have just made T-shirts with the title emblazoned on it. Most who have been in the classroom in recent years will know what I’m talking about.
I asked a staff member at my university’s student counseling center about what particular pressures and stresses our students are dealing with, and they shared with me some aggregated anecdotes and trends that many of the clinicians had observed over the past several months.
One of the more illuminating findings is almost too obvious, yet easy to overlook: Students who transitioned from high school to college during the first two years of the pandemic missed out on key developmental milestones and therefore have struggled with understanding (or being mentored through) the expectations that come with a baseline different modality of learning that college entails. In many cases, students haven’t been taught the skills that are cultivated during the final years of high school or in part-time or summer jobs during that time—personal responsibility, punctuality, social cohesion in a professional setting. If they have, the lessons might not have had the reinforcement necessary to sink in. For instance, for students who have not been “in” a classroom in two years or haven’t had to “go” to a job (to show up on time and perform specific tasks like opening a counter or cash register), these sorts of basic experiences might have been missed out on.
I asked the director of my university’s student success center about this phenomenon, and the findings were corroborated: What are called “executive functioning” and self-accountability skills appear to have plummeted among first- and second-year students, likely due to the recent gap in personal experiences in the world, as it were. So when it feels like students are overwhelmingly lacking skill sets that should be ingrained (or at least initiated) by the time they get to college, the lacuna of the pandemic years has most likely been a contributing factor. There is good reason to be patient with these students, then, because they are literally making up for lost time in their personal development.
But problems of misidentifications can crop up here: Often what first appears as a simple time management issue or an academic challenge can end up being part of a deeper mental health concern. For example, an instance of a student not communicating with an instructor might be due to a lack of training or fluency with a school’s messaging software, or to not understanding basic etiquette. But it could also be due to anxiety from cumulative time not communicating (or communicating in endlessly permutating ways) with others. Such cases can be incredibly difficult for both students and instructors to navigate, much less redress in real time.
A particularly disturbing pattern appears around more first-year students with histories of suicidality as well as recent attempts, possibly attributable to long periods of time cut off from positive social contexts. And if it is not their own precarity, there are many cases where students are caring for friends or relatives who are on suicide watch. This can make certain humanities classes dicey. Reading poems about death, or learning about a particularly grisly period of history, or studying existentialism—these can turn from academic topics to triggering devices in an instant. There are entire novels and theoretical texts that I feel wary of teaching these days. For example, I used to regularly teach Gertrude Stein’s strange book Three Lives as an example of modernist experimentation with linguistic play, perspective, and cubistic representation. However, Stein’s characters deal bluntly and uncomfortably with matters of race, ethnicity, mixed identity, oppression, abuse, and painful death—issues that can’t be easily bracketed in order to talk about formal aesthetics or historical context. The most subtle texts can be the most troubling: When we have to carefully distinguish between tone, style, and argument, a single offensive word or passage can trip us up and derail the lesson. I don’t feel great about filtering my own syllabi in order to avoid potential emotional minefields. But I am realistic about the current conditions that many of my students are living through. Now I feel myself shying away from teaching the more complex, ambiguous texts that drew me into a life of critical inquiry in the first place. I just don’t want to add unnecessary stress, at the moment.
If much of the anxiety and insecurity that students feel can be traced to not being connected to their peers, and from an inability to build or feel community during lockdowns and quarantines, the tools for “connection” can contradictorily exacerbate the problems. As students have come to depend more on social media platforms for connections to their peers, a host of ill effects slip through these as-if straightforward interfaces. My university’s counseling center has noted a rise in body image issues and disordered eating; these may stem from the unrealistic and unhealthy expectations that proliferate across social media, including wellness trends of so-called self-optimization.
A thorny consequence of this pernicious media dynamic is that, as institutions respond by amplifying their own digital presence, students may develop an adverse or abject relationship to the very “tools” that are intended to help them. For instance, when social media and learning management software operate in formally similar ways on students’ personal smartphones, it may be no surprise that students may behave erratically toward their educational technologies.
All of this often results in an underlying atmosphere of guilt and shame, and students at my university have expressed feeling overwhelmed, paralyzed, and isolated from what is supposed to be a collective experience. Clinicians at my university noted an increase in perceptions that life was meaningless, as well as senses of disillusionment with institutions and authority figures, and cynicism about what the future holds.
These are extremely intimidating circumstances in which to teach difficult material. College is precisely about intellectual growth and being challenged to think new thoughts—often involving rigorous workloads and finding oneself outside of one’s comfort zone. When college students are already taxed by cultural pressures, personal afflictions, and a general sense of doom, it is not realistic to expect them to leave all this outside of the classroom and simply “learn.”
I will readily admit that I feel less and less equipped to teach these days. I never know what supercharged issues are going to spring up in class, or even before we start. Viral news headlines can be triggering—twice over in the aftermath of school shootings. A tense exchange or act of trolling on a student’s Twitter feed right before class can ripple through the classroom, present if inarticulable.
My colleagues and I often remark how the current demands of teaching exceed our paygrade. We are not trained therapists or counselors, even though our mentoring and advising increasingly bleed into these roles. I have had to stay with a suicidal student for multiple hours until we found them help. I receive emails from worried parents about their children who are my students, and then have to figure out whether or how to reply, and what other professionals on campus to loop in at the right moment. Students share in class or write about past and current traumas, requiring me to respond—even if to gently guide us back onto proper academic ground. But every day, this “ground” seems more like thin ice.
I have resorted to teaching strategies like “ungrading” and open-ended final projects in order to depressurize the classroom and allow my students to relax and enjoy learning. I have attempted to make my classes a pause button on the noise beyond—cultural and digital. I encourage collaboration, to get my students to create and think together.
But the truth is that I feel downtrodden by much of what counts as “teaching” these days. I know I’m not alone in this feeling. And yet, the semesters trundle on.
Support from campus leaders—encouraging flexibility and generosity—is important. But these sentiments can also run into hard realities of curricular requirements and demonstrable knowledge acquisition. It gets complicated in the classroom, and over a whole semester.
There are not clear answers or quick solutions here, but I think we have to start by acknowledging the truly entangled situation that all of us are in. Mental health on campus can’t be addressed through one centralized office, nor can it be dismissed as ancillary to academic learning. It gets into everything. And now it’s part of the topos of teaching, whether instructors are trained for it or not.
State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.