Wednesday, September 13
Until today, I'd never had someone cry in my office. I guess, technically, I've cried in my office, but this post is about undergraduate students, not the torment of grad school or the stress of being an assistant professor.

Today, though, my kleenex box got a little lighter and my heart a little heavier.

What the hell am I doing to these students? Most of the people who came in to talk about their papers were upbeat. They came in confused, but with my guidance left realizing where they'd slipped up and, most importantly, with a better understanding of the concepts to carry with them from this day forward. One was a little angry, and left even angrier, but somehow I can deal with that psychologically. Maybe I'm used to that. The last student, disguised as a member of the upbeat club, soon showed her true colors. Her chin started to quiver and tears formed in her eyes. Despite all the jokes I made to my male counterparts in grad school about those crocodile tears just being a game girls played to toy with them, I wanted to cry too. Her emotion seemed so raw, and genuine, and I remembered moments in my own undergraduate career where I wanted to cry (I couldn't remember if I had or not).

Maybe it's a game. Maybe it's the stress of being at a competitive school. Maybe it's being a freshman. Maybe it wasn't about me, or the paper, maybe it was something else. But regardless of what it is, I'm going to have to work on my game face.


Dandelion said...

I've cried in my advisor's office during underad as well as grad school, and may well do so again today, in fact...
In my case, it's a result of feeling cripplingly inadequate and angry at myself for letting my advisor down/making them think I was an idiot etc. Hating myself for being pathetic enough to cry doesn't help, either.
Both times I've felt horrible about making my advisor deal with my patheticness, too, but I don't have any advice for dealing with it from the other side.

Sienna said...

How interesting that it makes you want to cry, too. Other people's tears always activate my... now I'm at a loss for words. Maybe it's a maternal instinct, but that doesn't seem right. I get an involuntary self-calming response that always seems like it's intended to prepare me for some kind of action. I never think I actually do respond properly, but my brain slows down and at least gives me the chance to get it right. I've also learned that tissues, gum cough drops and the like can clear the head and give them a minute to collect themselves. Being a female faculty member, you'll find that papers and grades are the easy part. It's the rapes and other life crises that that really put a dent in your supply of tissues. Joy joy! Do we get extra pay for this?

fraud, in denim said...

I'm sure I've cried more than once in a professor's office, Dandelion, but the only time that I could remember was this past year, choking back the tears in my department chair's office, as we talked about options after I discovered I wasn't the first choice for a job I'd been hoping for. I think that's what was so hard about today. The student wasn't really crying at first, she was trying desperately not to cry.

The reach for the kleenex box and acknowledging the emotion was like a slow-motion sort of golden moment, Sienna. Maybe it is instinct, or imagining my own child struggling like that (not that I think she's really struggling). I don't know. I'm not looking forward to more of these moments. I'm just entirely socially awkward for these tearful meetings.

Thank you both for chiming in, and I hope you're having a better day, Dandelion.

Turquoise Stuff said...

Yeah, this is tough. I've done my share of crying in the past. For the most part I hate it when I break down that way. But I have always had a hard time controlling it.

Interestingly, however, I have not been affected by students in the way you describe. Granted, I haven't had too many crying in my office. In fact, th eonly such occasions (or maybe just one) I can think of would be one where it was clearly an act (no, you really can tell in some situations). Maybe I'm just a heartless prof. But it's never gotten to me.

Of course, if a student were to come to me with some real life crisis (like the ones you mention Sienna), that would be pretty freaky!

fraud, in denim said...

I've definitely seen evidence of the act before, TS, so I believe it exists. This just didn't seem like it.

This student specifically said it wasn't me or my comments or her grade or the assignment that we were going over, and I guess it seems like if she was trying to get something out of me she would have said that she'd slaved away on hours over this or something. Maybe not, though, maybe she thinks pity spreads.

I really think it's the pressure of this competitive school. To make matters worse, half my students are freshamn who are used to being the top of the class. Not everyone can be the top now.

Turquoise Stuff said...

Fraud, I didn't mean to imply that this particular student was acting. I think your descriptions were pretty clear that that wasn't the case. I was just trying to say that in my case this has not happened (yet) and the only experiences I have didn't seem genuine at all. Of course, that made those experiences easier. I'm not sure how I'd react in your case, that's why I said it's tough. You can't afford to spend too much time on the situation, you probably don't have the training to really deal with her crisis, yet you do want to be there for her to some extent. It's hard.

By the way, good post title!