Thanks for Listening

October 19, 2015

Image: Spellbound, 1945
I estimate that someone cries in my office at least once every three weeks.

I’m not a therapist, a counselor, a social worker, a minister, or a psychologist. I’m not even a department chair. I’m a female professor at a research university, where faculty members and students — especially graduate students — regularly show up at my office, often after sending me a vague email asking if I have time to talk. And then they tell me things. Things that lead to tears.

Their aunt is dying of breast cancer. Their child is depressed, nearly suicidal, or hospitalized. Their adviser told them they shouldn’t get pregnant, or their adviser won’t take them seriously because they are pregnant. They’re having a hard time deciding whether to get pregnant. They told a racist joke in a meeting and now feel horrible and want to fix it. They are having an affair with a married member of the department. They were forced to drive a faculty member to the airport, at that professor’s insistence. A colleague made a sexist joke at their expense, or tore apart their paper with ad hominem attacks. A student is stalking them. They came out to their parents. And so on.

Invariably, these conversations all begin and/or end with the same phrase: "This is confidential, right?"

These conversations are different from gossip. In academe, there’s a traffic in gossip. It gathers behind closed doors before meetings and runs through the hallways afterward. Academic gossip happens within groups and across them. Gossip is often about who said what, who liked which job candidate, who got an award or didn’t, who blocked some initiative that others wanted, or who said something negative about someone else. Gossip is not as private as the conversations I’m talking about here.

The kinds of conversations I’m talking about are also different from general advising of students and junior faculty members about the content of academic work, career strategies, socialization into the academy, and such. The conversations I’m talking about, however, are the underbelly of that work. They can affect peoples’ careers and shape decisions about them.

Finally, these conversations are also different from friendship. I’m friendly with the colleagues and students who are approaching me to have a confidential conversation, but they are not people I spend time with outside the office nor people whom I would talk to if I needed help with a problem. The difference is also marked by the fact that these conversations occur in my office, at work, often with an appointment. They are work. They are invisible care-work.

How to Help Anguished Students

As a campus professional, you may wonder what your colleagues or you can do when you think a student needs assistance.

That’s why we’ve printed a booklet, downloadable below, that’s designed to be shared. In it, we examine the forces behind the growing wave of students with mental-health struggles, and what innovative campuses are doing about it. We look at effective approaches the leading community colleges and graduate programs are taking. And we offer a guide to online resources.

Downloading is simple: Click here.

When I mention the frequency of these types of conversations in my office or point to the tissue box I keep on my desk, a few women colleagues nod their heads knowingly, but many professors act baffled: Why would someone cry in your office? Men in particular say that. But many women colleagues do as well — as in "I just won’t tolerate it. People know not to cry with me. I’m just not warm and fuzzy."

Such comments leave me feeling exasperated. I want to shout, "I’m not inviting it, either!" I don’t ask students (or faculty) about their personal lives. The extent of the invitation I give to people who come to my office is: "Hi, how are you?" (And not: "How arrre you?") Yet I admit that I sometimes feel like a magnet for these conversations.

A small group of academics — primarily women — end up taking on this kind of care-work at colleges and universities. We know that women in academe are expected to do more service work, and women and faculty of color often do more advising and mentoring than white male professors do. That is especially true of what my colleague calls "warm and fuzzy" or "nice" women, and I’d add to that list women who are what Susan Cain describes as "quiet" listeners. Such women, however they came to be perceived that way, are understood as empathic helpers, sounding boards, caretakers. They do a lot of the institution’s care-work.

The problem is: Listening, empathizing, problem solving, and resource finding take an enormous amount of time and energy. And there’s no place for any of that on a CV or in an end-of-the-year report because "it’s confidential, right?"

Just how much time and energy care-work involves varies. Sometimes these situations resolve themselves, and all the person needs is someone to listen. That was the case with a student who was struggling with whether or not to have a baby in graduate school. She had heard from another admired faculty member that it meant career death and was treated to stories of the professor’s own difficult career path, but the student felt she couldn’t wait for a child. I told her I didn’t agree with the hyperbole of "career death." I listened to her fears. I offered examples of several students who had had children as graduate students and were successful, and I suggested she talk with them. She did just that, later had a baby, and has now successfully started her career.

Often, however, this kind of care-work turns into a lot more than just one conversation. After the person tells the story, cries, and we talk through the issue, there can be much follow-up work to do: Find resources; talk to the department chair, consult counseling services, or visit another administrator or campus office; have a second meeting (or third) to follow up and provide new information; perhaps attend a meeting with an administrator or campus office with the person or on his/her behalf.

I typically feel responsible for checking in on how the problem is being handled, how the colleague or the student is feeling, or what they might need a week or month later. It seems wrong and awkward not to, and sometimes, as is the case in a cancer diagnosis or a family member who threatened suicide, there’s nothing to do but check in. Just listening is the best you can do.

With student mental-health issues on the rise and faculty stress running high, there is more and more care-work to do. While it would be nice if colleges and universities could find a way to recognize this as service work, the personal, confidential nature of these conversations makes that unlikely.

In the end, for those of us who end up carrying the load, an informal expression of gratitude is probably the best we can hope for.

So thanks for listening.

Myra Green is the pseudonym of a professor at a large research university in the Midwest.