Crisis Point

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[The following blog contains mentions of suicide.]

UNC-Chapel Hill cancels classes after police investigate reported suicides (Charlotte News-Observer via Yahoo! News)

Throughout my teaching career, I’ve dealt with students from a very wide range of upbringings and socioeconomic statuses. Trying to pinpoint any single factor as being primarily determinative of students’ success in college, regardless of how “success” is defined (a whole separate argument) is foolhardy, but if you forced me to pick one thing to focus on when it comes to helping incoming college students get the most out of their college experience, I would try to help students develop internal motivation. While internal motivation can’t overcome every single difficulty that students face in college, it can provide the fuel to help students fight the other battles they need to win in order to make their college experience worthwhile for themselves.

One of the most problematic aspects of American schooling is how the development of this internal motivation is largely allowed only for the well-to-do. From the overstressed teachers in high-poverty areas being unable to provide their students with the same opportunities as their peers in wealthier neighbourhoods, to behavioural regimes (especially in charter schools) designed to make young people permanently enslaved to the authority figures in their lives, too many young people (and as far as I’m concerned, one young person is one too many) are trained to only be responsive to external motivation — the whims of those who have more power than them. These kind of discrepancies can even happen inside the same school, and I should probably write a book about that at some point.

Helping students develop internal motivation has always been a primary focus of my teaching practice. Not only does this help students get more out of college, but it gets them through the hard work they need to perform in order to pass my classes; in other words, in addition to helping students with their broader lives, there’s also more than a little self-interest involved in this approach, since working with motivated students is a lot easier than working with students who either lack motivation entirely, or are so used to the external motivation of teachers telling them every little thing to do that they invariably feel lost amidst the relative freedom of being a college student. I wouldn’t dare claim that I’m great at helping students develop that internal motivation, but I think it’s fair to say that I’m probably better than most instructors at doing so, primarily because I’ve focused on that aspect of my pedagogy for so long.

Last year, of course, everyone’s expectations had to change. Even as we went through a lot of the same motions of instructor and student on Zoom calls, even if the fundamental changes to education necessitated by the pandemic weren’t all that big in the grand scheme of things, we were still teaching and learning in a world that had been turned upside down. The sheer scope of the COVID-19 death count was enough to chill even those who had yet to know someone directly affected by the virus itself, and the way it changed almost all the everyday routines we’d gotten used to throughout our lives cast a pall over every bit of “business as usual” that we tried to accomplish. Putting a voice to the changes and how they affected us — even for those of us who weren’t as profoundly affected by the pandemic as some of our friends were — did a little to assuage the tremendous weight of what we were going through, but we all had to shoulder a lot of that weight, and anyone who claimed otherwise was either not paying attention or deliberately turning a blind eye to the chaos and calamity that was enveloping all of us.

With the return to in-person learning at so many schools and colleges this summer, I think there was an expectation that whatever the “new normal” of education wound up being, it would at least be more tolerable than what we’d endured in the eighteen months that preceded it. Many of us were eager to get back into our classrooms, to see each other’s faces as more than postage stamp-sized windows on our monitors and tablets, and to work hard to make the 2021-2022 school year turn out as well as we possibly could. Especially for those of us who have strong internal motivation, whether we’re instructors or students or administrators, we were going to make the most of this new opportunity, even as we might have continued pining for the relative simplicity of a pre-pandemic world.

As this school year has gone on, though, and as more stories like the ones from UNC-Chapel Hill have caught people’s attention, I can’t help but feel like maybe we made a serious miscalculation about how ready all of us were — administrators, instructors, and students alike — to cope with the demands of college life in this moment. Even ignoring the fact that the pandemic is still very much raging, and the increased transmissibility of new COVID-19 variations continues changing the calculus of our daily interactions, the sheer mental work of processing these past two years — to say nothing of the non-pandemic horrors that a lot of us were dealing with before the spring of 2020 — may have been unfinished work for too many, and as we reach the midpoint of the first term of this academic year, and we all deal with the additional stress of midterms, the mental scaffolding we’ve spent the past several months building may be collapsing under our feet.

I know that I’ve done what I can to remind my students that I’m here to assist them, not just with English stuff but other things as well, to the point where I can see some of them working hard to avoid open displays of annoyance at me whenever I bring that up. There might be other things I could do, and I’ve been spending a lot of brainpower when I’m not teaching just trying to figure out what those things could be. As one person, though, there’s only so much I can do, and given the widening scope of the mental health issues being reported at college campuses across the country, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a systemic problem that can only be solved through collective action to help everyone deal with the mental and emotional stresses brought about by the ongoing pandemic.

Teaching has always brought me solace when my own little world has been shaken up by tragedy, so I have no plans to quit doing what I’ve been doing these past six weeks, to say nothing of the sixteen years that preceded them. That’s the right choice for me, but it’s definitely not the right choice for everyone, and I can’t ignore the tragic consequences of young people making the wrong choice for themselves at a time like this. What I’m doing right now as an individual may be working for me, but what we are doing now as a nation is showing more and more signs of not working, and unless we want yet another rising death toll weighing on our consciences, we need to solve these problems as quickly as we possibly can.

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