Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Wide-Ass Wolverine from Willamette Weighs in on Responsibility. So, He's No Dead Poets Society Fan.

"We are a little responsible for the young men and women in our classes, and if we don't know how to help, we must turn to someone who can."

No, we're not. No, we mustn't.

Here's what we are responsible for as instructors/teachers/proffies/snowflake wranglers:

  1. Determine concrete instructional objectives for a class.
  2. Assemble appropriate curriculum to help students achieve said objectives.
  3. Present said curriculum to students.
  4. Provide assessment opportunities based upon said curriculum, to ensure that students understand the material and to verify that objectives were met.
  5. Maintain communication with students and administration.
  6. Present final grades to administration.
That's it. Teach. The. Fucking. Class.

We are not mommy or daddy. We are not the big brother or big sister. We are not the bestest buddy in the whole wide world. And we are certainly not their fucking psychologists or counselors. We are the instructor. The line of responsibility for our students ends at the classroom door.

As someone with an arts and humanities teaching skillset, I am no more certified to diagnose mental illness than I am to teach a class on computer programming, chemistry, business, or medicine. And in our hyper-litigious culture, the sheer thought of attempting to diagnose mental illness, much less suggest treatment options (even simply suggesting seeing a therapist) opens up plethora of liabilities.

Sometimes, based on our relative lives, students are just a little "weird," just as we're "weird" to them, based on their own relative norms. No mental illness, just difference. And when we realize that college-aged students can go through periods of spontaneous self reinvention, we also have to consider that their "norms" may also be shifting--especially if those norms are being influenced by other undergrads undergoing their own identity and norm shifts, especially in an age of Youtube-fueled, American Idol-centered, fame chasing Gen Y'ers who all want to be the center of attention.

Having spent my undergrad and graduate periods in arts and humanities circles in the early 90's, I've known more than my fair share of Amandas--students who break norms if only for the attention it gets them. I knew girls who swore they were vampires, and boasted about drinking blood in our writing classes as they showed off their self-inflicted cuts. I knew art majors whose sole fashion agenda was to make others uncomfortable and whose behavior was intentionally designed to evoke response. I knew a student so obsessed with Christopher Walken, she presented a masturbation narrative about him to a graduate gender studies seminar.

...and safe for the one unarmed guy who tried to break into a state capitol building and order a veggie pizza for himself and jelly donuts for the police officers who would ultimately arrest him, as he suggested cutting a rap record in space as a means to ease the state's budget crisis, none of them had mental issues. And in the case of the friend who stomed the capitol, all the interventions in the world couldn't save him, as we spent the week leading up to his break in trying to get him help.

If a students wants a collision course with disaster, they'll get it. We cannot be metaphorical Holden Caulfields, trying to catch them before they plummet into the abyss. I understand that empathy may incline some of us to try and offer help to the Amandas in our classrooms, but unless we're trained psychotherapists--accredited and licensed--we have one job and duty to provide to our students: teach the fucking class.