academic reorganization · reflection · role models · slow academy

Anxious August: What is worrying students?

It is mid-August. Never mind that summer seems to have arrived in Halifax (ie. we have had three days of sun in a row), I’ve got my head firmly–if reluctantly– turned towards September. As Heather wrote in our inaugural post, September is something of a fetish for us here at Hook and Eye. Sure, the work shifts into crazy-busy gear, but you must admit there is something thrilling that comes with those first early weeks of fall. Is it hope? (This year I’ll finish my book! This year there will be more jobs to apply for!) Is it possibility? (What will my students be like? Will they be excited? Recalcitrant?) Is it blind optimism? (See parenthetical statement number one) For me, that je ne sais quoi of September in the Academy it is always twinged with anxiety, but I find myself wondering: what are the students feeling?

When I first arrived on a university campus it was 1997 and I was in America. I had done my high school degree in a small town in North Carolina where my parents and I had moved five years previous. I was paying in-state tuition, which at the time was roughly $4,500 (plus books, room and board, and miscellaneous expenses). The price has gone up.

Sure, I’d been saving money in my bank account since I was a wee lass. Indeed, I have a very fond memory of my dad taking me to the bank to deposit the innards of my piggy bank (mostly pennies and nickles) which I had dutifully rolled into those paper tubes. I worked every summer, I worked throughout university, and I was very lucky in that my parents were able–and willing–to help me. Nonetheless, money was–and is–a huge source of stress.

My major, however, wasn’t. I was optimistic about my major (English), excited about my minor (Creative Writing) and absolutely certain that I would get a job when I graduated. My certitude didn’t come from a sense of entitlement so much as what my cousin and I refer to as our Protestant work ethic. Hard work wins out, at least that’s what I’d been taught.

But as I sit here watching the slow trickle of students return to the city I wonder: what are they anxious about? How have their anxieties remained the same as mine, and how have they become profoundly different? Do they feel disenfranchised? Do they worry that the world has no place for them in it when they finish their degree (that is, if they can even afford to begin)? Are they as apathetic as some media outlets would have us believe?

I know some answers to some of these questions because I have the very good fortune of knowing some of my students quite well. I want to get to know them better. I am trying to make space in my classroom and on my syllabus for the discussion of their issues through the literature we read together. I wonder how else I might productively address their anxieties…without taking on or creating more of my own?

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*An especial thanks to TMacD, RM, and my other Internet pals for this post.

4 thoughts on “Anxious August: What is worrying students?

  1. I'm about to start my PhD and I am deeply anxious about my future job prospects. I also feel that I'm already behind. Before starting my MA, I took ten years off school. Many of my colleagues in the MA program were in their early to mid 20s. Do they look “better” because they're younger? And do my at-home responsibilities, as the full-time caregiver to an adult with disabilities, make me look even less attractive to potential employers?

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  2. I can fully confirm that there is at least one student worrying if there is a place in the world for me when I finish my degree, the end of which is getting closer and closer… Awakening more and more to the rather terrifying idea that hard work does not always win out. This blog, as well as many (mostly younger) academics I have encountered have been brutally honest about how difficult it is to make it in the academic world. I am nothing but grateful for this, as it gives me the chance to make informed choices about where I want to be heading.

    But most of my anxieties are more minor ones: will I REALLY read all of those books on those reading lists? Will I balance school, work, extra curricular, and still maintain a healthy social life? Will I ever read a book for fun again? Will I get along well with my roommates? Will the new seasons of Community and Mad Men live up to expectations?

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  3. @ Anna: Thanks for getting the ball rolling on this one. I think that these issues of anxiety–which are so deeply intertwined with institutional and subjective realities–are really difficult to articulate, much less articulate in public. I find myself wondering what the next step (after articulation) is here–once a clear set of common issues are established, how do we being to move forward in a positive and productive manner?

    @ Kaarina: I think both you and Anna have pin-pointed a common theme. Youth–be it literal or youthfulness as in a new degree/career/set of responsibilities–seem to be the most hard hit by these anxieties. Or perhaps just the most vocal?

    Indeed–the small back-to-school anxieties also add up. Getting along with one's roommates, having a social life, reading for fun (!)…all of these are real, if more manageable concerns. Re: Mad Men: I've been watching that final episode of season four over and over again for the amazing exchange between Joan and Peggy…

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  4. Oh God. I am a champion worrier. When I was an undergrad I used to worry a lot about my residence assignment: what kind of room, what kind of suitemates, etc. Then, would all my stuff fit in the car to come down. Then, would I find all my classes. Then, would I have any friends. Then, would I have any money (I had no meal plan and was on a self-funded 'allowance'). Then, did I get into the photography studio course. I didn't worry about books and tuition and res fees because my parents (bless them) paid for that.

    I actually remember being in a near constant state of more or less acute anxiety for all of my undergrad. All of it. Then all of my MA, because it was so short. I got calmer in my PhD, mid-stream, then panicky-er near the end.

    Wow. My heart rate is actually increasing right now, just thinking about it.

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