Student mental health part 2

Following on from my last post about student mental health, here’s a post from the other side of teaching about making space for “quiet students”. There are some really interesting ideas there and it’s made me reflect on my own teaching practice.

When I was an undergraduate, one of the people I was taught by seemed to have an air of desperation and mute appeal whenever we scrutinised the floor rather than meet his eyes. I found it unbearable; it would make the seminars drag on (dull – I wanted to get to the interesting stuff!) and honestly, I felt kind of sorry for him. So I talked a lot (which I disliked, and disliked myself for not shutting up) but furthermore, I felt I was being forced into the position of the talkative student who risked looking daft just so that the tutor at least had something to build on. I wasn’t a quiet student, but I resented not being given the chance to be one.

When I started teaching, I was determined not to reproduce that dynamic but at the same time, didn’t want to pick on people. I think there’s room for silence as a pedagogical tool but it wasn’t something that I wanted to use on a regular basis. In addition, I knew what access requirements my students had requested; some of these requirements concerned seminar room dynamics.

Instead I got my students to talk in pairs, trios or small groups while I visited each group in turn, listening to what they had to say, encouraging them and making sure they would have something to offer. I then brought the whole seminar group together and elicited something out of each group. I don’t know how obvious it was to my students but everyone got the chance to speak in the seminar and usually did so.

Obviously this tactic wouldn’t work everywhere and in every type of seminar which is why I liked Sarah’s post so much. I also think that strategies for helping quiet students create a better environment for everyone – everyone gets a chance to participate, no one feels vaguely resentful like I did as an undergraduate, and these strategies help make a seminar a supportive environment where students can try out ideas.

Something I didn’t discuss was mental health as specific to PhD students; this isn’t due to me not caring but, rather, it being a bit too personal. Jessica has recently been writing about this – there’s more in the series, but I particularly liked PhD blues: mental health and the PhD student and Having “the chat” with your supervisor: what I talk about when I talk about depression.

I also like this post about the experience of doing a PhD while disabled or chronically ill and the sheer stubbornness it takes: disabled PhD students of the world unite, unite and take over

And yet our inability to show up has no significant bearing on our ability to contribute beautiful original things to the world. We have the experience of working successfully according to our own strategies: we must do, for how else could we be here, now? We have strategies to get around these walls in our world. We need only your support, your belief, and your acknowledgement that the stories here speak to a state of affairs whose days should be numbered.

In other words: we know how to do this. All we need is the right support, the right conditions. In this respect we are no different from any other PhD student, or any student, or any individual embarking on a project of any kind.

Every single PhD student has worked hard to be where they are. Every single disabled PhD student has had to do this work within a context where things may be harder than they are for your average bear. They are not the only ones. Nonetheless, their experiences represent a distinct category of experiences among many. As with so many things it is only by bringing these experiences before the eyes of the world that we can hope that things will ever improve.

Student mental health

I recently read a Time To Change blog post on starting university with a mental health problem and it made me wonder what advice I’d give to a student in that position.

I was an LGBT welfare officer at Nottingham and I considered it part of my role to know as much as possible about structures for student welfare and advice – everything from housing issues to sexual health – all of which stood me in good stead when I began teaching. If a student came to me with a problem, chances were that I’d know where to find information to help them – or at least know where to start looking.

Student mental health is one of the things I care a lot about and it both frustrates and terrifies me that information about student mental health can be so difficult to find on university websites. So with that in mind, here are three things that I’d especially like students to know.

Identify formal sources of support

You’ll probably be assigned a personal tutor who’ll be your first point of contact if you have any problems or issues. If you don’t click with them you can usually swap to someone with whom you’ll get on better. Some departments may have mentorship schemes where you can ask to be matched with a postgraduate researcher and have regular meetings with them.

In my experience, there is support for mental health issues in universities but these aren’t necessarily well signposted. For example, in my university, people who can help with mental health issues include department disability liaison officers (DLOs), the counselling service, the disability advisor based in the student union, the postgraduate disability advisor, the Disabled Students Network, a mental wealth group, HealthyU and a mental health advisor in Occupational Health. Because it’s a university, no one talks to each other and it seems to come as a genuine surprise to some of these that others exist.

I know, it sucks that you have to negotiate this and learn more about the arcane systems of a university than any of your peers, but on the other hand you will gain an unparalleled education in “organisational structures” and will be able to negotiate the shit out of any workplace or organisation you may end up dealing with in the future. Sorry, that’s not really much consolation.

I’d recommend talking to different people, groups and services and working out which of them are useful to you and which are not. If you don’t find a service useful or find that it actively upsets you, then don’t feel compelled to stay with it. Some people find peer support useful; others find counselling useful; others just want to check in with the DLO every so often. Whatever works for you.

Work out what you need to do to be formally recognised as disabled

Unfortunately, this is one of the things that differs between universities. You’ll probably have to contact your university’s disability office or student services to find out about this – in my experience, different departments range from incredibly clued up, helpful and supportive (like my current one) to them going “errr, you what now?” if you try asking (some others I could mention).

In the University of Nottingham, you generally start by disclosing a disability or Specific Learning Difficulty/dyslexia or a long-term medical condition. You’ll probably meet someone to discuss what reasonable adjustments you require to support your studies. Reasonable adjustments include things like getting work to you (for example, providing handouts and slides in advance of the lecture/seminar or in a different format), recording lectures, arrangements about group work, scheduling seminars, and arrangements for assessments and exams. You’ll then end up with a Disability Referral Form, which briefly outlines the nature of the condition and what sort of support you need – these then go to your department and, in turn, your tutors.

It’s a good idea to get one of these even if your mental health is well managed – the last thing you want in the middle of a crisis is someone turning around and saying “sorry, we can’t give you an extension because you’re not on record as having a disability”. Even if you don’t end up requesting different arrangements, they’re useful because they let your department know you exist – and if you ever do need additional support, it’s like a fasttrack ticket to help.

You won’t be alone in having a referral form either; both undergraduates and postgraduates have them, including postgraduates who teach. Your seminar tutor or lecturer could be among them.

Talk to us

Having taught students with mental health issues, nothing worries me like one of them seemingly disappearing off the face of the earth. I’d much rather they let me know they were alright but too anxious to attend seminars, or they’d switched medication and it was making them sleep through their alarms, or they were too depressed to leave their room. These things happen, and if the student lets the department and me know about it, we can do something about it – like move the student to an afternoon seminar group, meet them individually to help them catch up on work, reassure them about coming to a seminar or direct them to better sources of support.

It’s also better to do this sooner rather than later – let us know when there’s a problem developing rather than when you’ve got loads of work to catch up on and are feeling a horrible mixture of guilt and anxiety for missing so much work, making it impossible to approach your tutor. There are things we can do to help.

Ultimately, we want our students to get as much as possible out of university and develop intellectually, creatively and personally. Mental health problems mean that it might not be easy or straightforward, but it’s still possible to do very well – indeed excel – at degree level.

Thanks to Heather and Alex Brett for their much appreciated comments on this post

Conference bingo

Another conference season draws to a close. Heather Froehlich and I have been discussing a conference I recently attended and this is the result:

Conference bingo card

Play along!

Let us know how you get on! Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.

Addendum: We forgot to mention food! I once spent three days miserably eating dried fruit and nuts at a conference because I’d brought that along as a snack, little realising that there would be no vegetarian option. Consider yourself winning if this happens to you, if such a thing can ever be described as “winning”.

Also, if your conference experience involves a dying rabbit and having to wash said rabbit’s blood off your hands, at that point you can reasonably be allowed to give up and just drink everything in sight.

Viva classics

To prepare for my viva, I came up with a list of viva classics questions and a list of questions specific to my thesis – mostly about weaknesses that I wanted a ready response for. The list of viva classics ended up being more useful than the list of perceived weaknesses and so I thought I’d share it. My examiners started with a couple of these questions to put me at my ease (ha), then we moved to going through my thesis chapter-by-chapter, then we finished by talking about plans for dissemination.

  • What is the main contribution of this thesis?
  • Why this topic?
  • Has your view of your research topic changed during the course of the research?
  • Who has done the main work in this area?
  • Who is your audience – and what is your message to different elements of your audience?
  • Where do you position yourself?
  • What would you do differently if you started now?
  • What have you learned from the process of doing your PhD?
  • What research questions does this thesis open up?
  • What are your plans for dissemination?

The first question is an absolute gift as it gives you the chance to give a good summary of your research and why everyone should be interested in it. I found it helped to make a note of my main finding(s) for each chapter and use that to make sure I didn’t miss anything out.

These questions are more open-ended than the tightly focused “so why did you use term x and not term y” questions you might get during the chapter-by-chapter examination, and are meant to help you reflect on your research, your research practice and your development as a researcher. Your examiners know you’ve produced a PhD thesis; they’ve read it. What they don’t know is how your thesis has shaped you as a researcher.

Edinburgh post!

I am currently at the Edinburgh Fringe performing in Lashings of Ginger Beer Time’s production of Fanny Whittington. This is my first ever acting (deemed too rubbish for the school play in secondary school and I’m not sure being a tree in a primary school assembly counts) and I’m surprised by how much I’m enjoying it! My thesis is also making its acting debut as the script calls for a Really Big Book.

Today I saw two other acts. First up was Job Seekers Anonymous by Sh!t Theatre. Becca and Louise – or “Blouise” – are a confident duo of the “laugh because otherwise you’d cry” school of comedy. JSA was, by turns, funny, frustrated and despairing. Because being young and and un(der)employed and skint[1] and trying really hard to navigate the baffling maze of employment, internships, benefits and what you want from life is pretty rubbish. The act did what it said on the tin but what made it enjoyable was Blouise’s energetic delivery of visual metaphors, statistics, and experiences.

I’m not totally sure it worked as a one hour act – there was a bit in the middle where I thought it lost some of its energy and focus – but on the whole, it did a good job of outlining the various interlocking factors that make being un(der)employed so dispiriting and difficult to break out of.

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang was the surprise of the evening. I wasn’t sure what to expect – the description of “‘Carry On…’ meets Hilary Mantel” wasn’t too promising and I expected some kind of “ooo Matron” campery. However, I was blown away.

The stage was simply set with a minimum of props – a panel cut out in the shape of the supports for a stained glass window, fallen pillars and two boxes. Over the course of the play, the pillars are righted and candles placed upon them.

John Burrows and David Brett both play a range of characters based in a monastery at the time of the Reformation, from the lowly Brothers Adam and Stephan, the Abbott, other monks, the Abbott’s brother, his wife, her various maidservants, and Dr Layton, the dreaded representative of Thomas Cromwell, the Vicar General. I was struck by their physicality and how they signalled the different characters they were inhabiting using nothing but body language, gestures and posture. I also enjoyed the way they moved around the stage, using its space in an agile and imaginative way.

The play moves through farce, camp comedy, sung Latin chants and heartbreak. I was convulsing with laughter at the use of the Te Deum and by the end, felt I’d been on an emotional journey. No one-note comedy, this was a meditation on mistakes, regrets, devotion, loss, love, and the crumbling of everything familiar and dear to the characters.

It’s at a rather specialised nexus of Catholicism, gay stuff, and history so I’m not sure how far its appeal extends, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Tomorrow I hope to see the intriguingly named Ladyboner

Also, in the midst of this, I sent off my thesis corrections. The end (the proper end) might just be in sight.

[1] I admit, part of the reason I saw these two plays was because they’re at the same venue we’re performing at and I could get in for free with my performer’s pass.

A defence of political correctness

Trigger warning: this post contains slurs for race, sexuality, disability, neurodiversity and gender.

So I tweeted something the other night and was a bit surprised that it took off:

As a queer, Asian, female-assigned-at-birth person with an interesting medical history, I like political correctness. Political correctness is why it is generally considered unacceptable to loudly inform me that I am a “chink”, a “paki”, that I should “fuck off back to where [I] came from”, that I should “fuck off back to Santa’s grotto”, that I am a “fucking dyke”, that I am a “fucking lesbian”, that I am a “fucking dwarf” or that I’m an “it”. Obviously not everyone agrees, which is why all of these examples are taken from real life.

When I come across a written article that uses slurs, I am not inclined to read it. I have lots of things to read: my “to read” list is constantly full of books, journal articles, blog posts. Unless someone has contracted my services as a proofreader or copyeditor, I am not obliged to read anything – and I am not wasting my time on something that uses hurtful language. I am not obliged to “look past” those slurs when those slurs hurt me.

If someone who doesn’t have the right to reclaim the term uses the word “tranny” throughout an article, I also have to wonder how far their knowledge extends. As someone who is involved with trans* welfare, health and legal issues, I have to wonder what I can take from it. I read a lot of those articles because one of my academic interests is the media representation of minority groups and issues, but – please forgive me if this sounds arrogant – I tend not to find something interesting and insightful and useful in such articles.

I love words. My degrees have basically been a love affair with words – how they’re used, what they mean, how they come with associations and connotations. I’ve also been accused of being “politically correct” and I’m well familiar with the argument that such political correctness stifles free expression and is a form of censorship. However, I think avoiding these slurs makes me a better, more thoughtful and more creative writer. For example, when I see the word “demented” being used, my mind flashes back to the dementia ward and day hospital where my mum worked and where my sister and I would accompany her if we were off sick from school. I think of my friend’s dad – my mum’s patient – and having to pretend to be my mum because he couldn’t recognise that I was a different person and trying to explain to him that I wasn’t my mum would be pointlessly upsetting. I think of the astonishing people my mum has treated – doctors and teachers and lecturers and footballers – and their families, and the aching loss of a mind, a history, a person.

I almost certainly don’t think what the writer wants me to think, which appears to be “isn’t this insane[1]/outrageous!”.

If I wrote something and there was so great a mismatch between what I wanted to say and what my readers took away from it, I’d consider that an unsuccessful effort. Not because I’d upset someone – I enjoy creating discomfort and disquiet in my creative work – but because I’d upset someone without intending to, because I’d used my words ineffectively, because it meant that I wasn’t doing my best as a writer.

Being politically correct has made me think about my language choices, and to think carefully about what I want to say. I’m reminded of these posters by Alison Rowan:
that's so...

There are lots and lots of alternatives which often express something more precisely. Just look at what you could use instead of “gay”: silly, heinous, preposterous, contemptuous, hideous, hapless, uncouth, unfortunate, deplorable, trashy, ridiculous, atrocious, corrupt, foolish. Or “retarded”: childish, absurd, indiscreet, ignorant, uncool, pointless, careless, irrational, senseless, irresponsible, illogical, unnecessary, trivial, ill-considered, dull, fruitless, silly. Each of those has different shades of meaning. Instead of the scattershot of “retarded” or “gay”, your words can be like precision strikes, hurting only the people you intend to hurt.

If you want to hurt people, that is. How much worse it is if, in your casual and unthinking use of “gay” or “retarded” or “spaz”, you wound someone you never meant to wound, never realised you wounded.

So back to political correctness.

The term “political correctness” was popularised by its opponents; people who agree that political correctness is often a good thing tend to call it other things, like “basic courtesy”. Political correctness means treating people with respect and courtesy, being mindful of what they do and do not want to be called and how they do or do not want to be addressed. It is offering dignity to minority groups, who are already being shat on in so many ways without having to deal with a barrage of slurs.

Saying that you’re against political correctness is not radical or edgy or subversive; it affirms the status quo. It affirms society’s default as white, straight, cisgendered, neurotypical, non-disabled, male. It does not challenge or mock or destabilise power. What, precisely, is subversive about trotting out the same tired racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, ableist crap?

 

[1] And let us contemplate the wide variety of words used to stigmatise mental illness and neurodiversity.

Corpus Linguistics 2013

Ah, the biannual Corpus Linguistics conference…the biggest date in the Corpus Linguistics calendar, the event that Tony McEnery described as more of a bacchanal than a conference.

This is one of my favourite academic conferences – it was the first one I went to as a wee MA student and I’ve been to every one since. Luckily it’s biannual or my wallet would be a thinner, sadder thing. I’ve done a lot of growing up at this series of conferences – first conference I attended, first conference I was a student helper for, first conference I got funding for, first conference I’m presenting at post-viva – and it feels a bit like home turf for me.

Photo by Michael Pace-Sigge

Photo by Michael Pace-Sigge

It was wonderful to catch up with friends and to meet new people. One of the conference helpers, Robbie Love, wrote a great post on his experiences at CL2013 and I’m delighted that he found it such a friendly place.

I was presenting on my PhD research, this time trying to give an overview of how the three approaches I used in my thesis fit together: corpus linguistics, three approaches from critical discourse analysis and, underpinning all of this, an awareness of the social, political and cultural context in which the suffrage movement operated. I only had a limited amount of time to present so decided to show elements of the corpus linguistic analysis and some of the work I did on Emily Wilding Davison using Theo van Leeuwen’s taxonomy of social actors. However, I argued that without an awareness of the historical context, any analysis of these texts would be lacking.

I’ve uploaded the slides so have a look if you’re interested.

One of the cool things about big conferences is that you assemble your own experience. It reminds me a bit of big music festivals with headliners/plenaries most people make an effort to see, then dozens of interesting people and projects. That up-and-coming person you’ve been advised to see, that fascinating project you’ve seen an announcement about, that person that you’ll see because you know they’re a fantastic presenter, that thing you’ll go to because it sounds controversial and you suspect the response will be good, the friend you’ll go and watch for moral support, the person you used to work with back in the day and want to find out what they’re doing now, the one that you’ve never heard of but looks intriguing… Talking to someone else, I realised that it was almost as if we were at two different conferences! It was, once again, fascinating to see how many things corpus linguistics can be used to investigate.

Some of my highlights were:
Michael Hoey giving a characteristically energetic opening plenary
An intense discussion of p-values following Jonathan Culpeper and Jane Demmen‘s talk
Paul Baker‘s beautifully neat demonstration of triangulated methods
Claire Hardaker on trolling (she refused to give the site name of one place, referring to it only as the “internet hate machine” – naturally I knew exactly where she meant)
Alison Sealey on the People, Products, Pets, Pests project
An incredibly lively morning presentation from Laurence Anthony on AntConc
A whole team from Lancaster represented by Paul Rayson on the Metaphor in End of Life Care methodology
Sylvia Jaworska on representing the Other in tourism

Over the course of the conference we also drank a bar dry and drank 180 bottles of wine at the gala dinner, so good work everyone.

And, because Michael P-S claims it’s not a conference without me lurking on my laptop somewhere…

Photo by Michael Pace-Sigge

Photo by Michael Pace-Sigge

Photos by Michael Pace-Sigge can be found here.

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013

Last week I wrote a post for InherentlyHuman, a blog based in the School of Law at the University of Durham.

I wrote about why the Marriage (Same Sex) Act 2013 does not bring marriage equality for trans* people and highlighted three major issues with it: the stolen marriages that the Act won’t restore, the spousal veto and the binary gender encoded into the Act.

I also need to write about my time at Corpus Linguistics 2013 and the Community Stage I helped to organise for Nottinghamshire Pride. Coming soon, I promise.

Emily Wilding Davison links

100 years ago on the 10th June, the coroner’s jury at Epsom met to discuss a woman’s death. They discussed whether it was suicide. They wondered if it was an accident. Eventually, they ruled that the woman’s death was “death by misadventure”. The woman’s name was Emily Wilding Davison, and her death was due to the injuries she sustained at the 1913 Derby when she was struck by the King’s horse.

I’m at a week-long programming course at the University of Lancaster and tomorrow I’m presenting at the UCREL Corpus Research Seminar so I’ve not had time to write much – nevertheless, here are some links to things I’ve enjoyed reading.

Elizabeth Crawford on Emily Wilding Davison And That Return Ticket, Kitty Marion, Emily Wilding Davison And Hurst Park and Emily Wilding Davison: Perpetuating The Memory. Elizabeth also asks why Emily Wilding Davison is remembered as the first suffragette martyr and reflects on perpetuating her memory.

Fern Riddell on Kitty Marion: Edwardian England’s Most Dangerous Woman

Briony Paxman and Clare Horrie on Emily Davison and the 1913 Epsom Derby

Rebecca Simpson on The centenary of the Women’s Suffrage Movement

Lesley Hulonce on ‘Mummy’s a Suffragette’: Contested Womanhood

Emily Wilding Davison’s connections to Parliament

And last but not least, Cath Elm’s review of Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragette.

My worst student

Today I’ve been grumpily following the Same-Sex Marriage Bill debate, contemplating my thesis corrections and pouring acetic acid into my sore ear so I have to admit, I’m not in the best of moods. And then I saw that the Times Higher Education decided to encourage academics to share their stories of their worst students on twitter. Aside from the obvious problems about professionalism and ethics, I don’t like the sneering.

You see, I was someone’s worst student.

Not in university – I’d mostly sorted myself out by then – but in sixth-form. I was doing an A-level in something I’d previously been good at and for which I was in the top set at GCSE, but at A-level my grades plummeted from As to Es. I couldn’t understand the material – I tried so hard and it constantly defeated me. I tried reading around the subject; I tried talking myself through it; I tried just knuckling down and memorising it. It slipped away from me, no matter what I tried or how hard I tried. It’s a horrible feeling to be so utterly powerless – to feel like your intellect has abandoned you, that whatever you try you’re going to fail, that you are stupid and worthless and wasting everyone’s time. It felt like being dropped into a world where the rules were opaque and all-powerful and I was constantly one crucial step behind. Every lesson was an ordeal, something to just survive for the next two hours and, eventually, to resent.

Naturally, the teacher and I loathed each other. He’d taught me when I was actually good at this stuff and in retrospect, probably couldn’t understand why I was suddenly so appallingly bad at it. If I was in his position and a student had suddenly gone from being one of the best in the class to the very worst, I would have sought help for this student. He didn’t. Instead he alternately ignored me – it was a very results-focused school and I was clearly not going contribute to his clutch of As – and bullied me. Because I was 17 and a bit of a twat, I made it quietly clear that I resented him every bit as he resented me. One day I snapped and told him that I wished I could drop this subject (I was very polite in my twattishness!). The next day, my Head of Year pulled me into her office and berated me for hurting his feelings.

I threw up every morning before school from the sheer anxiety of once more stepping into that classroom and once more, being utterly, helplessly adrift.

I have never, ever forgotten that feeling of being so totally lost. Not when I found a subject I loved, not when I got a First for my BA, not when I graduated from my masters, not when my examiners shook my hand after my viva, and especially not when teaching.

I’ve taught students who were uninterested, resentful and hungover – it’s one of the problems of teaching a compulsory Language module when most of the students would rather be doing Literature. I’ve occasionally got frustrated when marking. I know I don’t have much experience, but I hope I never get worn down by it. I hope I create an atmosphere in my seminars where students can make mistakes, test ideas that might not work or admit that they don’t understand something. I hope I can be sensitive to the students who struggle, and I hope I know when I’m out of my depth. I hope I never belittle or sneer at students – not when they frustrate me, not when they apparently don’t try, not when they appear to be hopelessly bad at something. I hope I am respectful and compassionate to the ones who resent me. I hope I am patient when it matters.

As an academic, we tend to be working in an area we love and that we’re good at. We’ve probably never been crushingly bad at something we now teach. Given the kind of grades we’re expected to get to enter a degree programme, then a Masters, then a PhD, we may never have been crushingly bad at any academic subject. I, with my E in that A-level, somehow sneaked in. I’m not proud of that grade, but the harsh lessons I learnt in that classroom have shaped my teaching forever.

Other posts:
Caroline Magennis: On Teaching
Kirsty Rolfe: Talking teaching on Twitter (and talking nicely to students)