This week’s pedagogical discussion focuses on how we as teachers can become more attuned to the ways controversial topics, such as suicide and race, can affect our students. When I was finishing my Master’s degree, I took a course on Caribbean Women’s Literature that unabashedly dealt with uncomfortable social topics, including rape, incest, lynching, and other forms of slave brutality and violence. Many of the individuals in class were women. The two men among us really stood out but we often looked to them to offer opinions because the class seemed polarized in both subject matter and student voice. Both male students understandably remained reserved but one of them stood out more than the other because he was always quiet. The professor never cold-called anyone, especially the nervous male students. One day we were discussing feminist theory and essentialism (and these are the few less heavier topics), one of the male students seemed unusually nervous. His body language conveyed not just nervousness but a feeling of extreme anxiety. He was jittery and had trouble staying still in his seat. So much so that mid-class, he abruptly fell from his desk on to the floor. All of us were surprise and alarmed. The professor was also very concerned. The following week of class (this was a graduate seminar that met once a week for three hours), he was absent. A few days later, we learned that he had committed suicide.
This week’s topic reaches me on many personal and deep levels because of this experience. I wonder, as professors, to what extent our responsibility begins as therapist types and to what extent it ends as uninvested professionals? The abrupt death of a student and classmate leaves everyone with emotions of guilt that makes us question whether we could and should have done more. Not to mention, as Showalter explains in her chapter on “Teaching Dangerous Subjects,” the fact that the literature we were studying heavily explored topics of death, violence, and oppression. Was this student’s choice to take a course on one of the most marginalized groups of people in human history, Caribbean Black women, also a cry for help? Did our discussions provide the fuel that ignited the devastating decision leading to his death? Should we, as a class, have been more attuned to his presence and reactions to the controversial topics we discussed? This are all important questions that I continue to ask myself and that have made me more cognizant of troubled students in class. Here is where I stand: we as teachers have the responsibility to do something. That something can come in forms that are most appropriate to the situation and personality of the class/student. As professors, and occasional mentors, we see these students on a periodic basis and are the few guardian types who can actually help them.
Some students are completely alienated by the college experience. It can be a furiously rough time. This experience has shown me that we don’t need to be our students’ therapist but, if we notice signs, we do need to be a type of guardian in some shape, manner, or form.