Pressure on professors

Contributors discuss the changing university environment and the toll it takes on students and faculty

Photo: 
Elaine Power.
Elaine Power.
Credit: 
Supplied by Claire Stewart
Beverley Mullings.
Beverley Mullings.
Photo: 

Elaine Power

Since 2004, I have been teaching HLTH 101 — Social Determinants of Health — here at Queen’s.

The size of HLTH 101 was stable for many years at 400 and then 450 students, drawn from all over the University.

In the summer of 2013, I received a frantic message from our undergraduate coordinator that the demand for the course had outstripped the room capacity. With only 80 per cent of the first-year students enrolled, the course was already full.

After years of intense budget cuts imposed by the University, my department, the School of Kinesiology & Health Studies didn’t have the resources to add an additional section of the course. It was decided that 100 students would sit in an overflow room and watch a small video of me on the screen, along with my PowerPoint slides.

It hardly seemed ideal to me, and we lost valuable class time many days because of technological glitches.

A cramped room and lower quality classes are more than simple inconveniences. I’ve seen a rise in students who come to me with anxiety and mental health issues, looking for support.

There are lots of good reasons for students to be anxious these days, especially the intense pressure to succeed in a time of economic gloom, where jobs are increasingly scarce for young people.

Despite all the attention paid to individualized mental health remedies on campus, I worry that university initiatives — such as increased enrollment and altered class formats — don’t account for the mental health implications of students being treated primarily as revenue sources.

Student learning suffers in larger classes where students are easily distracted and feel anonymous. In turn, professors suffer when they lose a classroom setting that’s conducive to teaching and have to compete with distractions.

For the fall of 2014, I agreed that I would teach HLTH 101 as a night course on West Campus. I didn’t keep students the whole three hours — partly because it’s hard for anyone to concentrate for that long, and partly because I was exhausted by 8:30 p.m.

Teaching a night course took a big toll on my sleep patterns and physical health. I feel like the students got a watered down version of the course because we had less time together and direct interaction was limited.

What keeps me awake at night these days is our undergraduate population — especially the first-year students I come to know in person, via email or indirectly through teaching assistants.

I’ve long observed high levels of anxiety among our first-year students. But this year, anxiety levels were through the roof. I’ve never seen anything like it.

This manifests in considerably more email traffic, with students looking for extensions on assignments and accommodations on exams. I’ve had more one-on-one meetings with students about anxiety-related problems this year than any other. Perhaps that’s partly a reflection of increased enrolment. But the intensity of the stress seems qualitatively different.

Mental health problems are experienced by individuals and must be treated individually. But as a sociologist and public health scholar, I understand mental health, like other aspects of health, to be affected by larger issues and deeper causes.

Students tell me that one of the reasons that HLTH 101 is so popular is they understand — even in a class of 650 — that I care about them.

My answer to that is I do care about them. But I’m worried about them, too, and worried about how the University thinks of them.

My fear is students are being commodified, like so much in our society — that increasingly they’re seen to be sources of revenue generation, not unique individuals who are here to learn and grow.

I hope students will start asking more questions about the quality of their education and about how the University treats them. I hope they demand better.

Elaine Power is an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health studies, cross-appointed to the gender studies department.

*****

Beverley Mullings

Growing recognition of the debilitating effects of mental and emotional distress among students has led to a number of initiatives at Queen’s.

Student-driven initiatives like the Mental Health Awareness Committee (MHAC) have worked to reduce stigma. The creation of the Principal’s Commission on Mental Health in 2012 showed the University administration is aware of student concerns.

These programs are designed to heighten awareness and remove the silences around mental health issues. Queen’s has become a leader among Canadian universities in bringing the university community into conversation on issues of mental health and wellness.

The growing number of programs and policies for responding to student mental health needs, though, don’t attend to the full scope of a possible crisis of mental health in the academy.

Students aren’t the only ones experiencing mental distress in university communities, and these experiences are entangled with shifts and changes in the academic environments in which we work.

University faculty members face an existential threat to their wellbeing, which has manifested itself in years of frozen pay, threats of department closure, losses of tenure-track faculty positions and budget cuts for many academic programs.

This is an issue universities should be addressing.

This realization became clearer to me at the end of last year, when news of the death of a university professor in the United Kingdom — and an email posted from his account after his death with the subject heading “How Professors are treated at Imperial College” — began to circulate online.

In the circulated email, it was claimed that Stefan Grimm had been threatened with the potential loss of his job because he was unable to raise 200,000 pounds of research income each year.

Grimm was asked to consider whether he was performing at the standard expected of a professor at his college and warned that he could face formal consequences for poor performance.

While it’s clear the relationship between Grimm and his superiors was contentious, we can begin to piece together other dimensions of the crisis of mental health on university campuses that are rarely discussed, much less addressed.

His case suggests there may be a link between heightened levels of mental distress on university campuses and the increasing pressure for universities to operate as though they’re profit-making institutions Nearly every university is under pressure to cut budgets and re-orient programs and resources towards activities that generate revenue or meet corporate demands.

As academic faculty and administrative staff here at Queen’s know only too well, there has been a steady decline in the resources available to maintain a vibrant academic community for a number of years.

Faculty, staff and students had to meet the challenges associated with budget cuts; a long-standing freeze on new faculty hires; increasing student enrolments; and, most recently, a reduction in the number of full-time unionized custodial staff and their replacement with part-time and precarious workers.

The challenges of these changes have been significant because they’ve required all teaching faculty, graduate students and staff to compensate for the diminished resources with more and more of their personal time and resources.

Faculty now must work longer, compete harder to bring research grants into the university and, increasingly, find new ways to generate revenue. As opportunities for full-time and protected employment become more precarious, questions of mental distress among academic faculty and administrative staff will continue to remain largely taboo and invisible.

It’s time for all universities, including our own, to begin to broaden their commitment to creating healthy, inclusive environments.

Exploring the changing university environment — and its relation to heightened levels of mental distress among all its members — is a necessary place to start.

Beverley Mullings is an associate geography professor, cross-appointed to the gender studies department.

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