Friday, April 20, 2007

Sad Questions (long)

This week was sad, busy, and stressful. For the first few days of the week, the students were subdued. I don't know that any single action could have prevented the tragedy at Virginia Tech. I do know that letting the students bear arms in the classroom is not a solution. My arguments?

  • I have students show up to class drunk.
  • I have students who use calculators to multiply by 1.

One of the biggest problems facing higher education today is dealing with students with mental health issues. Do we expect instructors, who are untrained in this matter, to pinpoint problems? Differentiate between the blues and clinical depression? I have no answers, but anecdotes:

  • I wrote an essay in high school that my English instructor praised highly, but also let me know that I should feel free to talk to her about anything and everything. It was a much appreciated offer, but I didn't take her up on it. I am eternally grateful she did not contact my parents, nor do I think the content warranted such attention. Nowadays? At least parental contact, I'm sure, and that would have made matters much worse for me. The catharsis of writing was what I needed.
  • Two very important men in my life, Greg and Aaron, would have been detained. Kirsten and I would have been single. Splatterpunk, anyone?
  • I had a student once who, quite frankly, gave me the creeps upon our first meeting. My gut told me he had issues, but my Ph.D. in physics doesn't make me qualified to make such diagnoses. I had to treat him just like any other student. I started to notice strange behavior in class on his part, particularly towards young women. Then he even appeared to follow a girl when she finished her lab. I made eye contact with another student, who said to me, "Did you see what I just did?" I went into the hallway and called him back in. For a few classes after, I would distract him with discussion while the last girls left the classroom, because his, um, interest in them was overt. I went to the chair of my department, who is amazing, and he said that he'd have a word with this student with security present. The student didn't show up that day, though, and never showed up to my class again. The chair still contacted his family, who said that the young man had been hospitalized and had problems that were controllable with medication. The next year, he showed up in somebody else's astronomy class at our satellite campus. He made one girl so uncomfortable that she told the instructor, who contacted me. Once again, the chair and I started the mandated steps - first warning, then removal if behavior continues. However, this did not go smoothly. The dean who showed up to monitor this class and make the warning told the instructor after class, "You just don't understand this student's culture." Um, does his cultural background explain why he followed the instructor out to his car yelling threats immediately following the warning? We eventually succeeded in having him removed, but not fast enough. He actually touched the leg of that female student in class, and she withdrew before we finished all of the steps to get him removed. I still have regrets that the system didn't work fast enough, and my chair and I fought to at least have the young woman's registration fees refunded for that class.
  • Many students have voluntarily revealed to me that they are on medications - depression, social anxiety, bipolar disorder. I would hazard a guess that as many as 50% of my students in some semesters have been under mental health treatment. Is it my duty to ask them if they are taking their meds? Is it the college's responsibility to monitor this? Force them to take the meds?

So many questions, so few much sadness.

Jamie Bishop was dear to friends of mine. The Jamie Bishop and Jocelyne Couture-Nowak Scholarships will be awarded annually to German and French majors at Virginia Tech. Donations may be made payable to the Virginia Tech Foundation for the Jamie Bishop Scholarship (for German Majors) or the Jocelyne Couture-Nowak Scholarship (for French majors):

Virginia Tech Foundation
University Development
902 Prices Fork Road
Blacksburg, VA 24061


Radin said...

The real problem starts when some people as well as some doctors think medication is a cure. But as a matter of experience (in my own case of Bipolar disorder) medication and its doses should be just a helping hand for us to help ourselves. Even in cases like Bipolar where a life time medication is recommended, parallel to that the person must be helped to deal with his/her problem and bring down the medication to its lowest dosage as possible. Medication may pin the person down for sometime but it is not the cure. When you use a drug for your depression too long or in high dosage you will sure experience deeper depression next time. It will be like what drug addicts face.
It is most appreciated how deeply you are concerned about your students problems as a teacher but sticking to your establishment rules is a s far as you can go and dealing with their problems as individuals is better done with the help of a professional.

Dr. Lisa said...

Thank you for sharing your experience. Your thoughts are much appreciated.

Some said...

Anecdote: while in an intro anthropolgy class, UCLA, I failed my midterm. As in, there was an F on the test which counted for about 35% of my final grade. I was one of two students who failed, out of a class of oh, 500.

I decided that I should start going to my discussion section instead of skipping it. The TA was surprised to see me. I said my mom was remarrying, I was gone for something or other, blah blah blah; all were just excuses to explain away my own laziness and ego into thinking I could ace the class simply because my friend Brent, sitting next to me in lecture, knew all the answers.

Anyway, the TA handed out these flyers for Student Health/Psych services, said if there was any issues, to go talk to someone. This was in a discussion class of like, five people. He didn't mention names, but I know I was the one he meant it for. I didn't go, of course, but instead studied my ass off for the final. I really, really thought I aced it, but ended up with a B- (or a C+, maybe?) in the class. Point of it was that I appreciated the TA's gesture in hindsight, but at the time, I was thoroughly embarrassed that he took my sad excuse seriously.

That doesn't help you at all, does it?

Maybe handing out the student psych brochures to the whole class just before/after a midterm as a habit? It sort of invites anyone who thinks they need to say something to say something, or at least reminds the students that help is available.

And not leave the flyers at the door, I mean, hand them out.