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Supporting Students in Distressing Times

Nine faculty members share their stories on how they have responded to the crises of the 2014-15 academic year. The intention of this collection is to make visible and learn from the wide varieties of ways in which instructors have supported individual students, nurtured a sense of classroom community, and fostered departmental learning. The stories also help us understand some of the challenges and barriers to acknowledging or responding to distressing events in the context of the classroom.  If you have a story to tell, please email us at trc-uva@virginia.edu.

For excellent suggestions on how to support students in distressing times see Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPs) guide “How Faculty Can Help.

From Rip Verkerke, Professor of Law

I always try to connect with students about matters that might concern them. That effort often involves offhand comments about current events or about the performance of prominent sports teams or the behavior public figures. But we didn’t spend any class time on the Rolling Stone controversy, and I wasn’t teaching in the fall semester when the Hannah Graham tragedy unfolded.

I’ve had conversations with individuals and small groups of students about the apparent pattern of overly aggressive behavior by ABC agents in Charlottesville. I also made a few jokes in class this spring about the fact that University alcohol policies have largely shut down a longstanding Thursday Afternoon Social at the Law School that included a keg. But again these comments and efforts to connect with student concerns don’t really rise to the level of a concerted effort to address students’ distress.

My decision not to raise these issues more systematically in class probably rests on a largely unconscious judgment that, in order to warrant class time, events should be either directly relevant to the subject of the class or so intrusive as to demand immediate attention (active protests, physical or emotional disruption of students’ attention to the class, or a national tragedy unfolding during class time). Finally, I think law students here feel at least somewhat insulated from some of the issues that arise among undergraduates on Central Grounds. I know that they care deeply about the issues addressed in the aftermath of the Rolling Stone article. But those concerns are far less likely to be a part of students’ conversations immediately before and after class than they undoubtedly were in the College. It is often those informal comments that prompt me to engage students in further discussion.

 From China Scherz, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology

I’m sure that many professors have different strategies but the things that worked best for me this time around were:

  • sending an email prior to class letting people know that we’d be talking about the incident
  • being willing to take a position on the incident. Many of my African American students were concerned that other professors had tried to create such an open discussion that they inadvertently supported the opinions of a minority of white students that the beating was not the result of racial bias.
  • opening by asking them to tell me what was going on, what had happened at the rally the night before, and what they thought faculty could do to support them
  • putting a small package of tissues in my bag before I left for class. No one cried, but I felt less afraid of possible tears knowing that no one would be blowing their nose into a post-it note.
  • spending some time reading the available media on the incident.

I was actually terrified walking into the classroom that day, but the tremendous response from the students, many of whom sought me out after class and in office hours to thank me for devoting class time to the issue, made it clear that it was well worth the effort.

 From Marva Barnett, Founding Director, Teaching Resource Center and Professor, Department of Drama

Before class a few days after The Rolling Stone article appeared, one of my fourth-year students, a guy, quietly said to me, “It would be great if we could talk about The Rolling Stone article, especially since so many of the issues connected to it are central to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables” (the course topic).

He was right, and I appreciated how he had immediately connected the novel’s real-life relevance to our world. It was also worth noting, I thought, that this student was someone who didn’t speak up very much in class, thoughtful as his written work showed him to be.

I welcomed his suggestion but wasn’t ready to tackle the issue of sexual assault and its emotion without thinking about it. Fifteen minutes on the phone with UVA Counseling Center’s Andrea Iglesias helped me launch and manage such a conversation with 40 students. The connection to the course’s subject matter helped, but it would have been fine to have the conversation simply as a recognition of the stress and emotional roller-coaster rides that students have survived throughout this year’s events.

Andrea’s suggestions helped me frame the conversation:

  • I told students at the beginning of the next class that one of them had proposed the conversation, and that I thought it was a great idea.
  • That we would save the last 30 minutes of class to talk about it.
  • That anyone could leave at any time, with no effect on grades.
  • That the discussion might provoke unexpected feelings or reactions, and that anyone was free to take a break, get a drink of water, walk outside, write about how you’re feeling, and come back or leave at any time.
  • I wrote the CAPS 24/7 phone number (434-972-7004) on the board.

And I used these pedagogical practices:

  • I gave the students individual thought time and posed a specific question: “Take 3-4 minutes to think about the themes and issues Hugo presents in his novel and what connections you see with any of the issues raised by the Rolling Stone article.”
  • I reminded them of the respectful attitude and tone we had taken throughout the semester, based on our co-created aspirations for the great discussions.
  • I noted that it might feel different to talk about issues right here in community, events and ideas that touch us closely.
  • I reminded them that they were free to interact with the discussion as much as they liked and could take a break or leave at any time.
  • Before we all spoke together, I asked them to compare their ideas with those of one or two people around them and decide what they’d like to share respectfully with the class.
  • The students had so often worked in small groups that this activity likely increased their comfort level.
  • Finally, I asked them help let everyone who wanted to speak by waiting before speaking a second time to see whether anyone who hadn’t yet spoken wanted to contribute.

The ensuing whole-class discussion only once looked as though it might turn emotional or confrontational. But the students turned the conversation back to listening and responding respectfully. Several students thanked me for making room for this conversation, and one took the time to email not only her thanks but ideas that she was still thinking about hours later.

From Bonnie Gordon, Associate Professor & Director Graduate Programs, McIntire Department of Music

In the music department we have been thinking hard about sexual misconduct, student mental health, and the effects of community issues on pedagogy. Music departments tend to function both curricularly and extracurricularly. In addition to small seminars and performance situations, our performance faculty teach students in individual lessons once a week. Moreover, music is an intensely personal experience so our classes often encourage students to think about their personal experiences. Beyond the classroom many of us supervise students in performance ensembles or perform with our students. This means that as a department we necessarily interact with our students outside of class and often also notice very quickly when our students are in distress.

We began working aggressively on the connected issues of safety, sexual misconduct and student life when second year student Hannah Graham disappeared. This was a wake up call for us. We have hundreds of students in our building until late each night: rehearsing with ensembles, using the music library, and using practice rooms. Our students also frequently play musical gigs or attend concerts and other events off Grounds as part of ethnographic projects.

After Hannah Graham disappeared we realized that in addition to working with individual students, we needed to think hard about how to work with our students as a collective. We formed a committee comprised of a tenured professor music historian, assistant professor of ethnomusicology Nomi Dave, non-track performance faculty Ayn Balija, graduate student Rachel Trapp, and fourth year undergraduate Olivia Bona, to assess our needs and take quick action. By the time the Rolling Stone story came out we had already been working hard on these issues and had created a mechanism to address issues raised by the article. Below are the actions we took at the end of fall semester 2014 and during spring semester 2015. We were able to work effectively because we delegated tasks, asked committee members to work with their peers, and were lucky to have complete structural and budgetary support from our chair Richard Will.

The effect of all of this action was that many of our classes at every level addressed the issues surrounding rape and racial violence that the Rolling Stone article and the Martese Johnson incident brought up. Soft surveys indicated that for many students the music department was the only setting in which these issues were discussed in class. We also had five people complete various levels of Green dot training and have worked hard to make sure that our colleagues understand the implications of the changing landscape around title IX and that our colleagues are aware of issues that students are facing. The specific actions we took are listed below.

 

  1. Music Department Teach In on Sexual Misconduct
  2. Music Department Syllabus Statement
  3. Gigging Musicians Guide to Getting Home Safely
  4. Faculty and Grad Student Suicide Prevention Workshop
  5. Faculty and Grad Student Survivor Support Network Training
  6. Encouraged faculty and graduate students to participate in Green dot.
  7. Green Dot presentations to Faculty and Performance faculty and Very High Green Dot participation
  8. Self Defense Workshop held in March 2015
  9. Walk Home Safely Program
  10. High participation in various dialogues on community, race, and sexual violence.
  11. New Fight Song Competition
  12. Coordinated lists of places on the Lawn where increased lighting would benefit everyone.

 

From David Leblang, Chair, Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics

I teach an undergraduate seminar that meets Wednesdays from 1:00-3:30.  We took a break around 2:15 and when I returned to the classroom to find all my students looking at a youtube video. I asked what happened and we started discussing the events.  That discussion turned into a larger conversation about violence on campus, the Rolling Stone article and subsequent retraction, and the general mood of students on grounds over what has been a tumultuous academic year.  I referenced that we would spend the balance of class talking about this—not just because it would be impossible to return to the class material, but because the students said that none of their professors had engaged in a discussion of Rolling Stone, Hannah Graham, etc.  So we talked.  I found it cathartic and I know the students did as well.

After that seminar I thought hard about sending an email to politics students in my capacity as chair.  I struggled and struggled with what to say.  And, as you can guess, the longer I put it off, the more I struggled to find the “perfect” thing to say.  I mentioned this to Bonnie when I saw her on Sunday, March 22.  She convinced me that saying anything, even something imperfect, was better than nothing.  So I wrote the following:

*****

Dear Politics Students,

The events last week on the corner and the response authorities left most of us stunned, surprised, angry, and hurt.  It left me speechless and searching for answers which, I admit, is not something I am used to.  I had thought about sending an email letting you know about student services and encouraging you to seek support from CAPS or your Association Dean.  But that felt trite and a little condescending.

I spent the weekend thinking about what to say to you.  It finally dawned on me that not having an answer is not a problem.  A University is a place where we come together to ask questions and to seek answers even if those answers are not obtainable.  Usually our questions and answers are confined to scholarly pursuits.  The events of this academic year vividly illustrate, however, that real life often gets in the way.  It has been a challenging year as a faculty member so I can only imagine how difficult it has been to be a student on grounds.

We have always been concerned with providing the best education possible.  But know that the faculty, staff and students here in Politics—as well as across grounds—are engaged in an ongoing discussion about how to ensure that teaching and learning occur within a safe environment. Politics faculty are available if you want to talk.

Best wishes,

David Leblang

Chair, Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics

******

The response I received was amazing.  I kept three:

“Thank you for sending this out.  My name is Matthew Kincaid and I am a fourth year in the Politics DMP program.  Tonight, after sending in the first drafts of our full work to Prof. Furia, several of us gathered for dinner to celebrate and inevitably started talking about the events of last week.  It was exactly what we needed after all that has happened this year.

I wanted to quickly write to thank you for encouraging discussion that includes asking tough questions.  This discussion is happening and prevalent among the politics majors I’ve encountered and I’m very heartened by both those discussions and your words here tonight.  “

And

“Dear Professor Leblang,

Thank you.  For once, we are receiving an e-mail regarding this event that shows a heartfelt response.”

—————————————-

Dear Professor Leblang,

I wanted to thank you for your sincere, non generic note. It was refreshing. It was striking how the students responded to what I felt to be a poor expression of sentiment by me.  It really demonstrates that they crave engagement.

I hope that this is helpful with your program. I do apologize that I cannot be there.  Do let me know if I can be of additional help.

Best,

David

From Elizabeth Friberg, Associate Professor, School of Nursing

I teach a 3-hour population and public health nursing course on Tuesdays for our RN-BSN students. These part-time students are adult learners from all over the Commonwealth working toward the baccalaureate degree following completion of an associate degree and entry-level licensure as a registered nurse. Some have several years of experience as a registered nurses, full time jobs, family and lives. The majority of students are newly licensed and often adjusting to their first full time position as a registered nurse, juggling jobs, school and families. The class of 36 is composed of 22% male students and 78% female students and racially mixed (under 15%). The students come to grounds for an intense one day a week with doubled up class sessions to accommodate their lives. Faculty makes every effort to integrate them into the life of the university.

I came to class the first Tuesday after the events on The Corner. It had already been a tough academic year. As a faculty, we discussed our willingness to create a space for dialogue for our students. I took the opportunity to open a discussion on violence on and around UVA grounds not quite sure what the students were aware of or how engaged they were with the events. Violence is a relevant topic for this population health focused course. The students were aware of recent events and we folded in a broad discussion on violence, the deaths of students on and off grounds, the ABC student assault on The Corner and the Rolling Stone article. Several students related personal experiences from their own lives, including an encounter with ABC officers. Other students spoke about being law enforcement families and wanting their loved-ones to come at night. The students expanded the conversation to discuss recent media events related to black deaths at the hands of police enforcement and subsequent demonstrations resulting in further violence. The students were willing to explore the many faces of violence and the lived experiences of victims of violence as well as the challenges we face as a society to take a critical stance on these issues. The conversation went on uninterrupted for 45 minutes with the majority of students actively engaged in the dialogue. It came to a natural end and students took a ten minute break before class resumed. I had no idea how this opportunity would be embraced by this unique cohort of students but I can say, I was very pleased with the outcome. Creating a space, is key.

I subsequently participated in an open forum organized by faculty for all levels of students but especially the traditional undergraduates. The open forum filled a large classroom to overflowing. The Dean and Director of Inclusion, Diversity and Excellence facilitated the session. The students expressed deep emotions and articulated what they wanted from the SON faculty during these tough times and many tears were shed. Being present to the pain in the room was a privilege. Faculty and students have moved ahead with a commitment to respond and support both students and faculty when adverse events shake us to the core. There are lessons to learn.

From a head TA in science

Unfortunately my story is one of lack of acknowledgement about the difficult and challenging events that our students have struggled with this past year.   I have been the head TA for the [science] labs for the past four years and will be the instructor for the course next year. Each semester we have ~1400 students enrolled in the course, and over 30 TAs who are the instructors and directly interact with students on a weekly basis.

My role is to train the TAs and to circulate around the labs every few hours to check on TAs and observe students. I desire to discuss events that are impacting our students, but I am challenged by how to do so given the number of students we have and the lack of interaction I have with them. If I tried to meet with each student in the course for 10 minutes to try and get to know them in some capacity, I would spend 233 hours in meetings each semester.   This is quite overwhelming!

The majority of students enrolled in the [ . . .] labs are first-year students, and each semester I receive multiple emails about students who are struggling with illness and depression, and I am notified of students who have left the university. I know our students are struggling, and I want to help them. I want them to know that despite their limited interaction with me as the instructor that I care and want to help them succeed at UVA.

I need help in finding ways to help our students who are taking large-enrollment courses such as the General Chemistry lab. How do I reach out and show students I care? Is an email or a group announcement enough, or would that seem insincere? How can I train my TAs to be mindful and acknowledge these challenges with their students? What is a good balance between one-on-one support, which I cannot do with the number of students I serve, and not acknowledging events outside of the laboratory context, which is not what I want to do moving forward?

From Ira Bashkow, Associate Professor, Anthropology

I always at least mention such events in class, and because I teach Anthropology, there is often a way to tie them into course themes.

One of my Fall courses was “Anthropology of the Corporation” in which we discussed how organizations can (sometimes) change. After the Rolling Stone story, I posed an exam question in which one option (out of three students could choose among) was to write a letter to President Theresa Sullivan, responding to her invitation to community members to suggest ways to reduce the incidence of sexual violence at the University, applying insights from a particular reading and the course more generally. Several students wrote about this, and their responses taught me interesting things about how student life is organized, for example, that new students rarely have occasion to socialize in mixed gender groups apart from class or when in explicitly sexualized contexts like parties or “socials.” I was so impressed by the students’ thinking on this question that the following term, when I was serving on a University Working Group convened by President Sullivan to study strategies for sexual violence prevention, I got in touch with five of the students and invited them to dinner to discuss ideas for preventing sexual misconduct and gender and power-based violence on Grounds. That discussion produced some genuine insights that I wrote (with due thanks to the students!) into the Working Group’s final report.

In both of my Spring courses, my graduate teaching assistants (TAs) led discussions in section of reactions to the beating and arrest of Martese Johnson. This was at the TAs’ initiative, which I supported. In one of the courses, on “The Concept of Culture,” an upcoming assignment was to carefully observe and create a social interaction map of a space where interesting interactions take place, and I encouraged students from the class to choose to do their assignment about the space in front of the Trinity Irish Pub (or another similar establishment) where people were being carded while trying to gain entry. I was surprised that no student took this up. They might have learned something interesting! But possibly it felt like too much of a hot potato or too dangerous or embarrassing. Later, however, I did receive comments from students showing that they got the point that things they learned in the class are applicable to real-world problems that concern them. Just yesterday one student came to see me in office hours to tell me he was using ideas from the class to design a course of his own addressing (among other things) the difference between how white and minority students experience race and perceive discrimination. This student is African American, and he wants there to be more discussion of the way privilege is experienced by many white students as assured or secure, but by many minority students as provisional or fragile — a contrast that is highlighted by Martese Johnson’s violent arrest.

From Judith Reagan, Senior Associate Director, Teaching Resource Center and Associate Professor, Department of Drama

Classroom Consideration of Difficult Matters

This semester I taught Oral Interpretation. Each student had stated his/her learning goals prior to enrolling in the course. To a person they wanted to gain confidence and facility with public expression – to be able to express their ideas orally with clarity and conviction. An interesting feature of this semester’s class is that half of the 12 students are from other countries (Azerbaijan, China, Columbia, Ecuador, Ethiopia). Even the 6 Americans hailed from different areas, Northern Virginia to Long Island.

As we progressed through the semester they seemed to delight in the individual perspectives, experiences, and even accents each brought to the class community.

We use different texts for vocal practice at the start of every session. A faculty listserve had made me aware of “What We Need from UVA Faculty, an open letter (in the form of individual comments) from one class of UVA students in response to the attack on Martese Johnson on the UVA Corner.” I wondered what my students would make of this strongly worded document, and, a bigger question, how they had been processing the several traumatic events of the past year. Not certain how they would respond, I gave “What We Need from UVA Faculty” to my students and invited them to each choose two comments that resonated with them to read aloud as the vocal warm-up at our next class meeting. I told them that if they did not find any comments they were in accord with, they could write their own thoughts on the topic. We all noted that these MANY statements had been generated in just the last 10 minutes of one class – a clear indication of how urgent the need for discussion is, and how ready many students are to embark on it.

Adding to my uncertainty about how my Oral Interp students would react to the very direct, passionate statements, at the opening of the next class we had two unexpected visitors – two high school students who, I think, had been accepted to UVA and were spending some time on Grounds sitting in on classes as a way of helping to decide whether to enroll. Both young men were African American. They needed no context for that opening exercise – they were fully aware of the incident. My students all read at least two statements from the compilation – one added song lyrics that underscored the tone and feel of the thoughts. Each read in a robust, confident manner. All of us – myself, my students and our visitors – were deeply engaged in listening to and absorbing the thoughts expressed by peers in another class. Rising to the demands of this text was a clear indication that the Oral Interp students are indeed reaching their goals – speaking with clarity and conviction on things that matter.



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