Math Therapy for the Unqualified

I’m sure you can all relate: while making small talk with a stranger, eventually they’ll ask what you do. “Professor” is never a sufficient answer – they want to know what subject. And once you say “math,” the potentially interesting part of the conversation is immediately over. Maybe it’s that I’ve got a nonthreatening face and a Midwestern female inability to tell people to stop talking to me, but nine times out of ten I’ll get to hear all about every traumatic mathematical experience this stranger has ever had. And boy, do they have a lot of ’em.

Eventually, after tenure, I’d like to write a pop math book for these people. They’re (usually) not stupid by a long shot; successful in their field despite their past difficulties with calculus or statistics or algebra. Many of them are ashamed of their mathematical failings and have a strong urge to someday revisit mathematics and try to overcome their old obstacles.  They just want someone to assure them that yes, math is hard sometimes, but you don’t have to be a wizard to learn it. Persistence is enough for most people, and if they didn’t have the grit when they were 18, they’ve probably got it now.

This math therapy is a little dull, but it’s easy to put up with, and (mercifully) over quickly. But this isn’t the kind that I want to devote the bulk of this article to. The other kind – the kind to scared, anxious students – is much more serious, and with terrifying consequences. I’ve been trying to write this post in my head for at least a month now, and I’m still not sure my ideas are fully-formed. But this work and these thoughts have been taking up a pretty big chunk of my mental energy lately, and I hope others can contribute to and benefit from this post.

Since my very first days working in the tutoring lab in graduate school, students have asked me for as many pep talks during office hours as actual mathematical answers. Sometimes it goes beyond light encouragement and into discussions of seriously heady issues. Depression and anxiety are endemic in our students, but many are secretly dealing with deaths in the family, difficulty with their relationships, identity issues, chronic illnesses or disabilities, financial problems, domestic abuse, and suicide.

I never realized what a charmed life I led as an undergraduate until my students started pouring their guts out in my office.

Mid-semester student survival kit?

Mid-semester student survival kit?

We’re a little past the mid-semester mark now, and I’ve had a good half-dozen come by with some kind of distress or another. Most of them are just pushing up against the limits of what their previous study habits (or lack thereof) can handle. Some just want to vent, some want help. This is when I break out all the growth mindset talk I can, and offer tissues and pamphlets from the counseling center when appropriate. But I’m never sure that what I’m doing is actually helpful. So I went looking for resources.

There’s not a lot out there for faculty on how to deal with students in crisis. While I was first pondering this post, a great Vitae article came out called, simply, “We Are Not Prepared for Students in Distress,” by Katie Rose Guest Pryal. Her article gives advice from a former professor and dean who is also trained in counseling. Two main themes are “Be Gentle With Yourself” and “Know Who to Ask for Help”, which, coincidentally, are also numbers 2 and 5 in the Top Ten Things I’m Terrible At. I’ve probably re-read this weekly since it came out.

In researching more on the topic, I found another post from my new favorite blog, Tenure She Wrote. The post, called “I’m Your Professor, Not Your Therapist,” is from another new faculty member who, like me, is not naturally comfortable with other people’s tears. The comment section is a wealth of tips, from the simple (keep tissues in your office) to the complex (don’t burn yourself out trying to help your students emotionally). Also: beware of crocodile tears!

The comments on that article also treat something I’d never really thought about, namely that female faculty bear more of a burden in this arena. We’re expected to be caring and nurturing, therefore more students come to us, where we feel more pressured to help them – to the detriment of our research programs. To my knowledge, there’s nowhere in my tenure dossier to list the number of tears dried or anxieties eased, and I need to remember that when students start getting too needy.

All this was complicated enough, but then a ProPublica article, “When Students Become Patients, Privacy Suffers,” came out last week. The first half of it describes a 21-year-old student who was briefly hospitalized for mental health issues after seeking help from her campus counseling center. The center notified her parents, even though her record noted a “broken relationship” with them. Her parents flew down to campus, where the student felt pressured by the school to go home. There, her family prevented her from continuing therapy. She ultimately graduated, but was only allowed to return to school if accompanied by her parents. The school was trying to do what was best, but for students from a toxic home, I can’t imagine a worse ordeal.

I’ve pushed dozens of students towards on-campus counseling centers over the years, and many of them are terrified that their families will find out. Going to therapy may be on the level of a regular dental cleaning for some, but for others it’s the equivalent of being thrown into the stocks in the town square. School counseling facilities are the only option for students who can’t afford private treatment, or who don’t want their parents to see that they’ve used their health insurance. I thought FERPA meant the worst that could happen is that they use up their allotted sessions too quickly. Now I’m not so comfortable.

I’ve asked around campus for more help. I want specific guidelines about when I’m required to report a student’s issues to the school. I also want the counseling center’s policy on reporting health issues to students’ parents without their permission. I’d like a list of best practices for teaching students on the autism spectrum. And possibly most critically, I’d like to know what to do when I suspect a student might be a danger to themselves or others.

This column will likely be the first of many over the next few years. One of the reasons I love my job is that I like helping people, especially with math. I like seeing students overcome their anxieties. I like trying to be the person who I would have wanted to talk to when I was younger. I’m glad my students see me as a resource both for their classwork and for how to be a grown up without going crazy. But I need to make sure that I’m actually a force for good in their lives, that my advice is valid. And more importantly, I need to not focus on their problems at the expense of my tenure obligations.




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9 Responses to Math Therapy for the Unqualified

  1. Allen K. says:

    I’m embarrassed to say that it hadn’t occurred to me that as bad as I get it from students oversharing their personal problems with me, women are going to automatically get it worse. I doubt it’s any relief to you to hear that it’s already plenty bad enough coming to me, male. Or at least I thought so until I clicked your link and read the comments!

    As for the smalltalk with strangers, despite my native New Yorker male ability to tell people to stop talking to me I usually end up finding out which was The Teacher who turned these people off of math. Sometimes they have detailed enough recollections for us to figure out, ex post facto, that said Teacher themselves hated math and hated having to teach it.

    • Sebi C. says:

      When talking with people on planes and other places, I get the same response as you “I loved math until grade … when I had this teacher that ….”. On the other hand, I like math and I remember all the great math teachers I had from primary school to university. Perhaps memory pushes things to the extremes ?!

      • smalec says:

        Both of your comments are an excellent reminder of how crucial our math courses for education majors are! A good math teacher can do so much to affect our future students and citizens. Unfortunately, so can a bad one.

  2. Greg D. says:

    Nice article! The box of Kleenex is absolutely essential for those moments when a student in crisis comes into your office. And you’re spot-on about how there’s no line in your tenure file for Number Of Students Counseled. As many have said, it’s sometimes necessary to close the office door (or go to a coffee shop) to do your own work.

    It can be tempting to get involved (sometimes too involved) in your students’ lives; you care about them, and you want them to do well. But one marginal benefit to the growth of academic administration is that there are lots of people on campus (counselors, deans, etc) who are specifically trained to do this. There are certainly problems with counseling centers (as documented in the ProPublica article you linked to), but who’s to say that you wouldn’t make similar mistakes in your own well-meaning but perhaps amateurish efforts to help?

    • smalec says:

      Thank you for your comment. Your last paragraph is exactly why I hope to get some more professional guidance in exactly what I should and shouldn’t do for students. They seem to get enough unsolicited and inappropriate advice as it is.

      • Sebi C. says:

        Related to this point, I have had students throw complete tantrums in my office. I remember one case where the student (3rd year undergrad) cried and said something like “I will fail this class! I never had to study until now!”. Luckily, the tantrum was thrown early in the semester, the student shaped up and actually got a good grade. A panic attack or some stress can help as long as it happens early in the semester and the students can keep things under control and change their study habits and work ethic.

  3. Steve M says:

    I teach high school. One thing I tell my students is that although we will be friendly, and we will be respectful, under no circumstances are they to confuse our being friendly with our being friends. I love my wife and my son more than I like any of you.

  4. Rebecca R says:

    Excellent article and beautifully written, Sara !
    In my 25 yrs teaching math (K-12, and now Univ), all people in all walks of life have some sort of “math ptsd” (as i call it)… in addition, add their daily life stress and it’s mountainous.

    Just yesterday, a male student pulled me out of my office (it was packed with students during office hours) to explain to me that he has been homeless since the beginning of the semester! I was floored! What campus resources could possibly come close to helping him?

    I am all in for campus resources to connect with community resources. This is where students can feel connected and I can feel better about helping them. I feel quite similar to you in that I am unsure that the reroute to counseling, disability services, etc will have the impact i imagine.

    Thanks for keeping this conversation alive and sharing!!

    • smalec says:

      Thanks for your comment, Rebecca! I’ve read that an estimated 60,000 of US college students are homeless. As if college isn’t stressful enough.

      I really like your comment about connecting campus and community resources, though to be honest I can’t think of many examples of that in any school I’ve been at. It seems like a natural partnership that should go well beyond finding places in the community for students to put in volunteer hours.

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