The school environment often cultivates stress and can actively silence and disempower students, professors should be looking for ways to offer us support.
By Gloria Oladipo
Finals week is not conducive to the periodical chaos that is my life. Universities, specifically Cornell University which I attend, floods students with different erroneous (ableist, classist, etc.) expectations. However, even as we struggle, many professors are apathetic to our realities. We spend a semester swamped in work, receive “break” periods in which we are supposed to do even more work, are awarded a study period to cram for various finals, and then submerged, once again, with a series of exams, projects, and other duties.
If you are a student who doesn’t struggle with finances, doesn’t require disability accommodations, doesn’t navigate the daily violence of racism, sexism, and more, or literally face any issue ever, the expectations of academia are already barely manageable. Imagine experiencing one or more of these oppressions as your everyday reality on top of your finals. Where are our support systems? Who is advocating for our well-being, our thrive?
Finals week, this year has been particularly challenging. I am learning to navigate new professional opportunities that my 20-year-old self could only dream of—a weekly column, freelance opportunities, meetings with significant publishing editors, script reviews, all of the magic. But, while trying to cement milestones in my career, my personal life grows more complicated, delicate, and tragic. I have a complicated mental health profile which means that I have to be proactive about my wellness. I work several jobs to support myself. Being a Black woman is hard, especially on a campus like Cornell that isn’t interested in holding white supremacy and its offshoots accountable. Every day is a balancing act that academia only makes harder, especially during finals period.
While I have had amazing support from some professors during this time, I know that is not the norm. Many of my friends struggle because of the rigidity from our professors and the education system generally. We as students, specifically those who are marginalized, need support, understanding, and a community of care, things that I am still waiting for. Here are 4 things I wished my professor recognized about my life:
1. My life doesn’t revolve around your class
If you have ever interacted with me on campus, you most likely have heard me rant about the narcissism of professors. I’ve heard stories about teachers publicly complaining about students asking them not to provide more reading. They grow angry, disappointed, and accuse of us being lackluster about our learning. As a freshman, when I was hired as a research assistant, I had a teacher abruptly inform me that they would not be in class and asked me to teach their 4000-level senior seminar.
I’ve had teachers assign their own books, ones that are on the periphery of the academic conversation and are extremely expensive (and hard to bootleg). I’ve had professors be unresponsive to emails, reply with “k” to a whole paragraph about the disarray in my life, and generally appear apathetic to mine and others’ struggles. Professors need to understand that even as students who have self-selected to learn, we also have outside obligations that will outweigh our enrollment in their course. My mental health outweighs the class. My deadlines to editors and being present for my on-campus jobs outweigh the class. Supporting my family from afar outweighs the class. In an ideal world, these responsibilities can co-exist, but when the time comes to prioritize certain things, school will be the thing to go first.
2. Real-world events affect our academic performance
A successful class should act as another prism to reflect what students are going through, thinking about, and in conversation with. Oftentimes, professors teach in a vacuum which restricts us from using our everyday experiences as academic evidence. During my freshman year, as more hate crimes were occurring on campus, not a single one of my professors investigated those current events in their classrooms—which felt bizarre considering that I am studying Government and these topics are relevant in the courses for that major. When the verdict of the Amber Guyger case came out or when Brock Turner evaded appriopriate punishment for his rape, my classes remained mum. These current events occupied so much space in my brain and spirit. Rather than ushering these experiences into the classroom for investigation, professors otherize them and stop any discussion on these topics as “not relevant.” It isn’t impossible or a waste of time to give voice to these experiences. Alternatively, a teacher for my English class, Christina, provided us with a whole class to discuss if we should read Junot Diaz as he was on our syllabus right as stories of him committing sexual violence came out. The conversations were sharp, empowering, and needed. Allowing students to voice what we are going through or thinking about doesn’t hurt the classroom environment; it only strengthens the space and students as well.
3. My every day is more complicated than you think
A metaphor that my disability advocate at school used to describe life with a disability is the following: everyone in life starts out their day with 10 spoons. We all use our spoons for different things like getting up in the morning, getting ready for school or work, and generally going about our day. Once the spoons are gone, we have depleted our energy for the day. For people without any disability, getting to class may cost them one spoon or getting dressed in the morning may require two sometimes. However, during a depressive episode, I require at least four spoons to get out of bed. Getting to each class will require two or three spoons each (between four classes on a given day). My OCD obsessions and compulsions can take a spoon or two each morning and throughout my walk to class. I lose so many spoons just as the day is beginning and these are spoons that can’t be replenished as the school day doesn’t allow me any time to do so.
How many of my professors see that? How many of them see the mental health crises we encounter or the family emergencies we navigate from afar? How many know about the multiple jobs we have to balance? My professors don’t see how many white girls bump into me on my way to their classes as if I am invisible or am taking up too much space. They didn’t see the nightmare I had last night about a sexual predator preying on their students. As students, we face so many hidden challenges, many of which aren’t accounted for because it’s hard to explain some of the more interpersonal violence. Professors need to account for those sunken costs that students go through in their teaching methods, leaving space for self-care without penalization.
4. You should give a shit about us
I hate that this even has to be explained, but as a teacher, you need to give a shit about me. As someone in my life, I would hope you care about my well-being; however, it’s even more pertinent given the important position of teachers. You chart my education progress. You are one of the people I interact most with. At a certain level, you are tasked with mentoring me and helping me plan for my future—professional and otherwise. That level of interpersonal responsibility needs to be handled by someone who cares about me. I want to know that you care. When a Black student is jumped on campus, I need you to check-in with me as I come to terms with the lack of safety. If you observe me consistently sleeping in class, I want your first reaction to be one of concern, not anger. I want you to care when I leave class and only come back to pick up my stuff (I was having a panic attack in the bathroom). I want you to ask questions about my passions and interests. Obviously, professors have a myriad of students that fall under their purview; however, in addition to caring for students as individuals, professors can instruct teaching assistants (TA) to take on that same responsibility. For all the empathetic, kind, sensitive TAs that I have had, I have had ones that do nothing to understand my situations and positionality generally. Professors have a responsibility of demonstrating to students that we are a consideration to them at all. They need to show us through their actions and how they guide their TAs that we matter.
The school environment often cultivates stress and can actively silence and disempower students. However, professors in their position of power and weekly interactions with us have a responsibility to build students up and engage us with care and generosity. Our lives are much more complicated than you think; take the time to investigate why and support us when you find out.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a sophomore at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @glorels.