Faculty, Students, and "Emotional Support"
The Problematic Blurring of Public and Private Spheres

Martine Watson Brownley, Goodrich C. White Professor of English
and Winship Distinguished Research Professor

Academic Exchange September 2000

Undergraduate Survey Findings

New findings on Emory graduate students

Professor Brownley's essay responds to a report in the February/March 2000 Academic Exchange of the recent survey of Emory seniors. The survey found that while 97 percent of the respondents felt their professors provided them with intellectual challenge and stimulation, only 20 percent said they received frequent emotional support and encouragement, and over 30 percent said they never received emotional support or encouragement from their professors.

My concern is not with the relatively low percentage of the Class of 1999 who reported receiving emotional support and encouragement from the Emory faculty. In my view, the basic problem is that the question was ever posed to the students in the first place. Such a query reflects serious misunderstanding about proper professorial conduct and sets up false expectations among students about what we who teach can and cannot reasonably offer to them.

The question is yet more evidence of the problematic blurring of public and private spheres that has increasingly marked U.S. society as traditional family, community, and religious structures implode. Every college student has a right to expect professors to be thoroughly prepared, to offer intellectual stimulation, and to be available for all the academic guidance needed. No student has a right to expect professors to provide the kind of quasi-familial or therapeutic relationships that involve emotional support. Professors fail students when they move to be mothers, fathers, psychiatrists, or buddies to them.

Arguing against professorial dabbling in the emotional lives of students is difficult, because the automatic response is: "Oh, you just don't really care about students." But I do care about my students, and I care enough about them so that I want to offer the best assistance that I can. I have no training in psychology or psychiatry, but I do know a good deal about English literature. And if I teach my literature courses as I should, both my students and I will derive emotional as well as intellectual sustenance from the stories that we read and analyze together.

The emotions that professors can most appropriately share with students are their passion for their subject matter and their commitment to do all that they can to help every student master that material at the highest level possible. As Samuel Hazo's poem "For My Last Class of Freshmen" puts it, "we share the private tables of the mind." From this kind of intellectual focus, many different kinds of relationships evolve between students and faculty members, relationships that remain healthy only if the distance required for proper intellectual respect and discipline is maintained. My students' emotions should be focused on the literature they study, not on me.

My experiences in the classroom continue to indicate that most Emory students are not deficient in self-esteem. Their deficiencies in areas such as the basics of English grammar, however, grow more appalling each year. Right now, I spend far too much of my time teaching my students things that they should have been taught in middle school--or at the very least, in high school. I keep thinking that perhaps if their other schools had paid more attention to their minds and less to their egos, they, I, and the society as a whole would be a lot better off.

As professors, the intellectual challenges we face are increasingly demanding, as students arrive more poorly prepared. We cannot give our students the educations they deserve if we try to be all things to them. If I do the job that I have been trained to do-if I teach my students how to use the English language properly and how to read it with not just comprehension but understanding--their experiences should give them a solid ground on which to build esteem not only for themselves, but for the literature that itself can provide emotional sustenance for them that will remain long after I am gone.

A new study by the Office of Institutional Planning and Research indicates that some 45 percent of graduate students seeking advice felt they were not receiving adequate advising on career and personal matters related to the profession. The Academic Exchange invites faculty responses to this finding, as well as to the findings on undergraduate responses.