The professor as part-time "therapist"

Updated: Apr 17, 2019

This is the time of year when I keep a steady supply of chocolate and tissues in my office, because student meetings often turn into some kind of "therapy session". Of course, I'm not a therapist, and I don't pretend to be, but it turns out that having just a few extra life experiences under my belt means that our conversations often shift from content questions about the assignment to more general—and sometimes emotional—discussions about stress and work-life balance. There are, of course, a lot of potential issues that this raises: What qualifications do I have talking to students about what may be serious mental health concerns? How do I navigate potentially awkward discussions? Women in academia disproportionately take on additional unpaid service and mentorship, so am I allowing myself to be taken advantage of by fostering this environment in my office hours? I was hired to teach linguistics, not navigate life problems, so do I even have a responsibility to do so? I don't have comprehensive solutions to these and other related issues, but here are some of my personal thoughts on these questions.


Students who may be struggling with mental health issues shouldn't be getting their mental health advice from their linguistics professor. I am very cognizant of this, and I do my best to make sure that I'm not a stand in for a therapist. My take on this is that I remind students that there are resources on campus, and that I'm happy to help them navigate finding those resources if necessary, but I also try not to explicitly suggest to students that they go to therapy. Often, it's the last thing that someone wants to hear, particularly if they haven't been. I know this, because before I started therapy, the mere suggestion of it made me close off even more.

Instead, I'm open about how therapy has helped me. I don't go into personal details, but I might say something like the following to a student who feels like they are under a lot of stress: "I can't speak to your situation, but when I was under a lot of stress during the last semester of my dissertation, I found that there were a few things that I did that helped me a lot. I started exercising more regularly, I started seeing a therapist for the first time in my life, and I gave up coffee. Therapy was particularly helpful because it helped me identify patterns of thinking that weren't conducive to either success or happiness, and gave me a lot of useful tools to use through periods of high stress that I continue to use today." I don't know if this is helpful, but I think speaking of therapy in the same natural way as one might suggest a great cookbook or useful website is at least one way to destigmatize it, and hopefully plant a seed in the student's mind that they could also benefit from therapy. Navigating potentially awkward discussions

Most students don't want to have an awkward discussion with you any more than you want to have one with them. So if I find myself in a potentially awkward situation, that generally means that they trust me enough to broach that subject, and/or have no one else to talk to, and probably don't quite know how to express themselves without getting into details. Perhaps the most common version of this comes up when students are trying to justify their stress, and feel like if they don't give me all the gory details, I won't believe that they need help. As the grown-up in the room, it's my responsibility to help them pull away from potentially awkward details (that, in all honestly, they probably don't want to share with me) and into the realm of things that I can help them with.

How? For all I try to be a good listener, sometimes it's important to interrupt and say something like, "We don't need to go into the details, but what I'm hearing from you is that you're struggling with <main issue>". Or, "This sounds like a complicated issue, and I don't know that I've personally got the resources to help you with the specifics, but I can see that it's a legitimately stressful situation that's causing you to lose sleep". In other words, it's important that I legitimize their stress and show them that they're heard and seen without making them "prove" it to me. This is almost always sufficient, and redirects the conversation.

Unpaid labour and being a woman in academia

This is the trickiest one to navigate for me (shocking, right?). On the one hand, there's a large part of me that feels like I should say "No" more often, to protect myself and my time. I mean, based on my current paycheque, anything that I do beyond teaching my classes is unpaid labour. But let's imagine the world where I get to be a professional, full-time academic linguist when I grow up. What then?

Is it fair for me to spend twice as much time as my colleagues meeting with undergrads because I'm approachable and they feel comfortable confiding in me? Obviously, the answer is "no", and I can only hope that this unpaid labour does not go unappreciated as I continue to navigate academia. If I figure out how to make this work for me, then I'll let you all know.

But honestly? I'll do it anyway. I guess I should probably play my cards closer to the chest, but I can't be bothered to. Connecting with my students is my favourite part of the job. And I think I'm good at it. Being in academia can often feel a bit useless—who's going to read that dissertation on /v/ anyway?—but spending that extra time talking to my students adds meaning to my work that I don't want to deprive myself of.

There are also pedagogical benefits. By working to build relationships and trust with my students, they do better work. They become more invested in my class, and they do better as a result. Because I showed understanding when they came in the middle of their stress, they are less hesitant to ask for help when they need to understand difficult concepts. I think that trust is important for learning. In some situations, it seems obvious, like when we teach controversial/sensitive topics, or if the students are very young. But I think that even in a 100-series large lecture class, building trust with students helps their learning. I don't know if there's literature showing this at the university level (and if you know of any, please let me know!), but it's something I'm interested in looking into.

On the responsibility of addressing student issues

What about those who do not feel comfortable addressing these issues? If you were hired to teach students Calculus or Kant, then do you have a responsibility to play part-time "therapist", particularly if you don't actually like these kinds of discussions? I mean, I explicitly stated that I enjoy talking to my students and find that these connections give meaning to my job, but what if you don't feel the way I do?

The short answer is "yes", but I think that there's room for variability in how we approach these situations. If you don't feel comfortable or enjoy these kinds of conversations, then certainly there's no need to put yourself through a 20 minute discussion with a student who's coming to you with problems. But I think in this situation, listening for a few minutes, acknowledging and validating their situation, and then taking the reins of conversation to direct the student's attention to where you feel most comfortable and most able to help is the most appropriate response. For example, you might say something like, "Look, it sounds like you're under a lot of stress. I don't know how to help you with that specific situation, but I can help you figure out a plan to get you back on track in my class. Let's focus on what I'm good at, but if you'd like, I can suggest some people who are good at this kind of thing, and they will be much more useful than I can be." The important part is to approach the situation, the student, and your own comfort level honestly and with compassion. "Everyone here is smart, distinguish yourself by being kind." -- Found here, and originally on Twitter here, attributed to Charles Gordon, head of Sociology & Anthropology at Carleton University.

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