I started my classes for this winter term by talking not about my own syllabus, but about something I had read on a friend’s.
At one point in his class, Sam Wineburg, Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University, warns on his program he will talk about his struggles with mental health.
I had asked to see the materials for his graduate course on writing because I’m hungry for recommendations. Sam has exquisite taste, which is to say, it closely mirrors mine. He is a source of teaching wisdom, and I often grill him on practices that I can steal and use in my own classes.
The care with which he developed his program did not surprise me at all. But I gasped when I read the following: “Trigger warning: I am a mental health advocate. At some point during each trimester, I talk about my own struggles with depression and the coping strategies I’ve developed to maintain sanity.
I watched the video link provided by Sam where he talks about his first bout of depression in college and how the “black dog” followed him throughout his life. He mentions the strategies he used to deal with it: medication and therapy.
Here is a white professor in his 60s with an endowed chair at an elite university, vulnerable in a way that I have to admit shocked me a bit.
When I asked him how the students had reacted, he replied, “I give a lecture every term on this subject. Last time was BP (pre-pandemic), and people were hanging out in the hallways and sitting on the floor. Mobbed afterwards by pairs of tear-stained eyes thanking me for normalizing what they hide in the closet.
Over the past two years, I have heard many faculty members talk about their stress levels. Still, I suspect most of us maintain a professional, aloof personality in the classroom. We do our job and do our best to support students. Some of us share snippets of our struggles in relation to our profession. I’ve always talked about the difficulty of writing, the fact that I never feel satisfied with what I’ve done, the fact that each time I give a reading of a published book, I have to modify passage because I am embarrassed by the drivel I have allowed to appear in the press.
I talk about the challenges that come with the territory of being a working writer and the importance of being able to meet deadlines and deliver clean copy. But it had never occurred to me that tidbits of more personal information might be useful in class.
When I told the students about Sam’s trigger warning, they leaned in, nodding in gratitude. These days, students often come forward with their diagnoses. This generation tends not to feel stigmatized by mental health issues, which they are used to hearing about from their peers and, increasingly, from celebrities like Simone Biles and Prince Harry.
But still, I think it’s natural for them not to see their teachers as, well, fully human.
Sam is, as he says, a mental health advocate and someone who wants to serve as a resource for students. Whatever else I am or want to be, I am not. Instead, I thought about what I might want students to know about me, something real and vulnerable, that would be relevant to my teaching.
It didn’t take long to remember that one of the things students have commented on about my teaching and thesis supervision is that I’m, well, critical. I’ve never mastered the art of the compliment sandwich. When I think something is good, I’m quick to say it. I’ve even been known to gush. But I tend to focus on the problems.
It’s because – and it comes – I was raised by a hypercritical father. My English teacher Pop and I were only in contact when he was reading my angsty teenage poems with a red pen in his hand. He poured ink over my cautious words and fragile feelings. For me, the gift of mindfulness is wrapped up in a bundle of all the ways I’m deficient.
My father probably would have expressed it differently. He said all he wanted was for me to succeed, to perform to the best of my abilities.
Any child of a struggling Tiger mother or Jewish father can recognize this syndrome. What this means to me is that one word of criticism rings louder than a thousand words of praise. Criticism is the way I feel love.
When I work with publishers, I tell them to bring it. Don’t piss me off by pointing out what you think I’m doing well; just protect me from myself, from the fiery, never-good-enough teenager who ended a sentence with a word that didn’t resonate, who fell back into cliches, who didn’t think enough.
After years of teaching, reading Sam’s trigger warning made me think about how I present myself in class. When giving feedback, I told winter term students, I tend to focus on how they can improve. What I do know is that at best I look intense. It doesn’t help that I have sharp facial features and am characterologically direct. When I first started working in eastern Washington, a colleague told me that people weren’t used to my “New York ways.”
This term, I shared with students some of the childhood insecurities that have clung to me like dog hair my whole life. I opened up to them.
They responded by offering pieces of their own lives as we discussed the damage done to Perry Smith by his family in In cold blood or how Alison Bechdel struggled to understand her father in fun house and turn that into art. Our conversations seemed intimate. Although the group of students included a fan of Joe Rogan, a man who writes about his transition and a number who identify as neurodivergent, it was clear that we all know what it is like to grow up in a family. .
We’ve talked about how the best writers bring pain to the page with compassion, not anger. They read in Vivian Gornick’s book The situation and the story how much more interesting it is to see “the cunning of the innocent and the loneliness of the monster” than to write a my dear mother screed.
Many students at my regional comprehensive university have been told that they are not good at school. They don’t see themselves represented in most of the work they read in their literature class. Some of their teachers come across as imposing and imperious. I know my own intensity can be off-putting, and I’m not sure it’s better or worse when my face is masked. What I wanted them to hear is that, like them, I’m damaged goods, I’m doing my best to get out of it.
If expressing my nagging feeling that nothing I do is ever enough—that I’m not enough—helps even a student, it’s worth the chilling revelation. That is, after all, why we read literature: to feel less alone, less like the little monsters we all fear we are.