The majority of distress reported by students is likely not imminent in nature and may not be covered under mandatory reporting guidelines. This can include personal distress that does not appear imminent (including general distress, anxiety, family problems, economic anxiety and substance use) and can be communicated through a number of ways, including class discussion, individual meetings in office hours, class assignments, and through friends and family of the student.
In the Classroom
There are times when faculty may be able to anticipate distress in students, such as when course materials or faculty discussions touch on sensitive topics. Students may also report discomfort related to experienced macroaggressions in the classroom.
Guidelines and Recommendations
- Faculty can take pre-emptive steps to minimize the possibility of distress by including in their course syllabi all topics that will the focus of class material, lectures and discussion.
- Omitting critical topics due to fear of potential student discomfort may violate our faculty responsibilities to present unbiased, accurate and comprehensive information. At the same time, limits on class time may prevent a full discussion of all topics and perspectives on a given subject. Faculty should be responsive to reported student discomfort about topics that are not included in course syllabi or discussion, as students may incorrectly assume that faculty do not believe these topics have value, merit or importance.
- The decision for faculty to share personal information with students, either in the classroom or in individual meetings, can be a source of confusion. Faculty should carefully consider the appropriateness of personally disclosing information to students, and evaluate whether the personal disclosure has didactic, pedagogical or other teaching-related value. Faculty also clearly indicated that the focus should be on the student’s experience, rather than that of the faculty.
- At the same time, senior faculty should be aware of and mentor graduate students instructors and junior faculty who may be struggling with decisions to disclose minority identities (including sexuality, gender and other identities) in the classroom that might have unanticipated effects on classroom climate.
Microaggressions In and Outside of the Classroom
In class or during office hours faculty may become aware of student distress in response to overt or subtle forms of prejudice and stereotyping based on their membership in racial/ethnic, religious, or sexual orientation or gender socially marginalized groups. The majority of distress reported by students is likely not imminent in nature and may not be covered under mandatory reporting guidelines. Microaggressions are “everyday verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely on their marginalized group membership” (Sue, 2010). Below are a few recommendations generated by faculty:
- When student’s discuss reactions to microaggressions it is important to discuss and affirm their feelings and provide appropriate campus referrals, such as the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
- Student reports of microaggressions should inform class curriculum and/or classroom management style. Faculty from all disciplines should seek to include course material reflecting the contributions of minority scholars or written works on the life histories of socially marginalized groups in their course curricula.
- Faculty should also be sensitive to and prepared to address negative stereotypical language that may emerge in the classroom.
- When the faculty shares a similar racial/ethnic, religious, or sexual orientation or gender identity background to the student, they should not assume that the student has confided in the faculty member exclusively for this reason. Sharing personal experiences of microaggressions are often unhelpful, as faculty may be unduly burdening the students with their own personal experiences. Faculty should thus strive to focus on the student’s distress using an affirming and resource oriented approach. Our resource section below includes suggested interventions for addressing microaggressions.
Outside of the Classroom
Students may seek faculty assistance outside of class (e.g., office hours) or communicate distress in class papers. For example, faculty often come across student papers that describe a highly distressful or personal experience.
Guidelines and Recommendations
- Understand your role and limitations. As you address a student’s distress, be careful that you are not creating a potential therapeutic relationship.
- Seek advice from counseling services or other university resources, including any of the deans, to determine whether a referral is warranted and the resources available to the student.
- Avoid prying for details – it’s best to leave this to trained professionals. Asking for details that a student does not wish to divulge may be an invasion of privacy, cause harm, and violate student-faculty boundaries.
- In addition to mental health concerns, faculty encounter distress of other types, including economic, familial, and legal concerns for which faculty would benefit from additional university-based resources and guidance. For example, some faculty who participated in the seminar indicated that they frequently encounter students with significant financial concerns who are worried about paying for their education; participants suggested that having a university designated representative to whom faculty can refer students would be enormously helpful.
- Students also communicate distress through class papers and written assignments. It is difficult in these situations to know whether the student is reaching out for support or would perceive faculty follow-up as an intrusion or under which conditions such statements are subject to faculty reporting requirements. For example, faculty who learn about a sexual assault incident through a student’s written assignment must follow the University’s Sexual Misconduct policy mandatory reporting requirements.
For questions or more information, please contact:
Celia Fisher, Director, Center for Ethics Education: firstname.lastname@example.org | 718-817-0926
Adam Fried, Assistant Director, Center for Ethics Education: email@example.com | 718-817-0926
Patricia Scaglione, Director, Institutional Equity and Compliance Office: firstname.lastname@example.org | 718-817-3112