A lot to be said for a stiff upper lip

November 18, 2005

Sharing your troubles with students is unprofessional, says Susan Bassnett

One of the biggest differences between teaching in a university and teaching in a school is the age of the students. In a university, some lecturers are only a year or so older than their students. They are often younger. School pupils sit in class and look at people who are the same age as their parents, but university students see men and women who might be their peers in other situations.

This makes for complex relationships, where boundaries are not as clear as they are in more hierarchical environments such as offices, where juniors are distinct from senior managers. Lecturers themselves may perceive hierarchies in their profession, but the odds are that students can't tell the difference between a professor and part-time tutor giving a lecture.

Why should they, if the lecture is good enough?

The lack of clearly demarcated boundaries between lecturers and students can be enabling; trust can grow, there can be social contact and informal discussion outside the lecture room.

But as I have said before in this column, it is important to remember that under the friendliness there is a clear power demarcation. The lecturer is in the same position of power over the student as the primary-school teacher is over a six-year-old. The lecturer who props up the bar with students is also the person who has to go home and mark essays.

Recently, I was listening to my daughter and her friends talking about lecturers in their universities. The conversation turned to some unfortunate man apparently going through a traumatic divorce. He was having trouble concentrating, and the personal was seeping into the professional arena. Poor man, I said, after a long account of his behaviour, but was cut off by outrage from around the table. Poor man, they said, why? Everybody has problems and he shouldn't be bringing his problems to us. Doesn't he have any friends he can talk to? It's embarrassing having to listen to this stuff. He is a lecturer after all. He should get a grip.

The vehemence of their views took me by surprise, but on reflection it seemed perfectly fair. The lecturer was, after all, supposed to be carrying out professional duties, and if his personal life was so hard to cope with, he should have asked for leave. We all find ourselves at times with personal matters that press so intensely upon us that all other thoughts are driven from our heads. We might find ourselves grief-stricken over a death, coping with the serious illness of a family member or the break-up of a relationship. Or we might find ourselves so in love that all we want to do is talk on the phone to the loved one, or we might find the joys of new parenthood overwhelming. In such situations, concentration is difficult, and since our task is to stimulate intellectual responses in students, it is doubly hard to generate inspirational energy.

The point to remember is that you can't treat students as confidants. Not only is the balance of power in your favour, but they may well see you in a parental role, and there is nothing worse than outpourings of emotion from parents. It might seem like preaching an old-fashioned doctrine of stiff-upper-lipism, but that is the best way to cope with emotional overload, provided you ensure that you get help somewhere. Personally, on days when I have felt myself drowning emotionally, forcing myself to engage with students by setting the internal turmoil aside has been enormously therapeutic, for it shows that there is more to life than the problems we all carry with us.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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