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On handling student emotions

The Chronicle of Higher Education had an informative article dealing with how faculty should consider students who cry when meeting with professors. While I have not faced this yet, I did find the article revealing both about how I should handle such a situation and what this says about both today’s students and the pressures of college. Having faced the ups and downs of graduate school, I am secure enough in my masculinity to admit shedding some tears, mainly due to holding in my emotion for much of the day to maintain a strong front, only to collapse once in the privacy of my home or with family who cared deeply about me. I feel emotional reactions are not a bad thing, when such displays are proper.

What would be examples of proper displays of emotion on the part of students? Well, if a student is being unduly threatened or abused by a faculty member that can put their success in jeopardy for no good reason, that student crying in front of a professor would not be out of place. We wrap so much of our success in life around our careers and today’s market requires a college education for most positions, meaning that many students’ futures depend on earning that degree. Some face uphill battles in this, which creates a great deal of emotional turmoil.

I reflect on a period during my senior year of high school when I had a brief period of uncertainty. I had my heart set on a military career with the Air Force, but was denied due to poor eyesight. This left me with a feeling of now what do I do with my life. I decided that I needed to go to college to get ahead, and here I am going on eight years later.

The article cited examples of students crying over their grades, specifically one young man who, despite help from the author, would be unable to pass the class and broke down. The student in question needed the class to graduate. The professor noticed that the young man’s crying was similar to his own young child, which caused him to reevaluate his outlook on crying from students. He reflected on how he would want his son’s teacher to treat his child and found that faculty can and should display compassion,  and that this can be done without a reduction of standards.

The issue with student crying in front of professors takes a more negative turn for many teachers when the student is crying over a fractional difference in a grade. The article addressed the concept of “grade-grubbers”, students who must receive a certain grade, regardless of the effort put into the course by the student. Such displays make me think of examples of people crying to get out of a ticket when they were clearly violating a traffic law. In this case, it does not work for me, as if you make clear the expectations of a course, there should be little questioning when it comes to a grade received.

College life is stressful beyond classes. We are taking (not counting non-traditional students) kids 17-19 years old, who have likely never been away from their home and parents, and trying to prepare them for the increased expectations of the adult world. These young people are trying to find their place in the world and who they are as individuals. While they should rely on parents and family as much as possible, we should be there to guide students as well. Colleges used to have policies of in loco parentis (in place of parents), which resulted in very restrictive environments. Those days have largely passed, but the idea of being in place of a student’s parents, at least partially, is a good way for faculty to approach students. We should play a role in guiding students, as we interact with them in early professional ventures. We are going to be their first professional references and will influence their professional adult lives. Guiding them, as parents guide children, is a small, but I believe, important part of being a college professor. Sometimes emotions take over and students will cry when upset and we should evaluate each situation individually and consider how we might want our children to be treated when faced with pressures and having emotional meltdowns. We have all been young once and should remember what it was like when dealing with today’s young people.

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, and I’ll see you in 2010. Have a Happy New Year.

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