Anxiety and teaching sociology

Louise St Guillaume, University of Notre Dame, Sydney: 

I am an early career academic and in the short time that I have been teaching I have noticed an increase in levels of anxiety in students. Colleagues have also noticed similar trends and these increases align with empirical data. For example, research on Australian tertiary students and their wellbeing published by the National Union of Students and Headspace found that ‘close to 70 per cent of respondents rated their mental health as poor or fair, while two-thirds reported high to very high psychological distress over the past 12 months’. As educators, we could argue that we are only responsible for the academic and intellectual development of students, while universities should provide support services including counselling and disability support that we can refer students to. Nevertheless, if we as sociologists and activists are interested in and concerned with ‘how people’s lives are influenced by their opportunities and experiences’, ‘the ways factors such as class, wealth, race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and religion shape people’s lives’ and ‘the dynamics of power and inequality in everyday life’ (The Australian Sociological Association) then it is important to consider what these increasing anxiety levels could mean for the way we teach sociology.

We know through our discipline and various empirical investigations that increased levels of anxiety in students can shape their lives in particular ways. For example, students who experience mental ill-health are more likely to withdraw or consider withdrawing from university, and evidence suggests that it is highly likely that some symptoms of mental health ‘problems’ will impact on student study (Headspace and National Union of Students). Furthermore, students who experience anxiety are more likely to resort to ‘safe’ strategies such as surface learning as a way to cope with fears of failure (Liu). In addition, if we draw on the work of Paulo Freire, bell hooks and others who emphasise the importance of education as liberatory then we must consider all students regardless of academic abilities, and examine how the contexts of their lives intersect with our lecture and tutorial classes. For as Engstrom and Tinto state, ‘access without support is not opportunity’.

As such, this article is part of a recent internal dialogue. As a critical disability studies scholar, for example, acutely aware of the underemployment and unemployment rates of people with disability in Australia, what role do I have as an educator who teaches students with disability and what role do I have in ensuring that I do not perpetuate existing disadvantages and inequalities? What role do I have in cases where we know from research that employers may discriminate on the basis of race, gender, sexuality and/or disability and students are acutely aware and anxious of this given that they learned about it in our classrooms? Why are students’ levels of anxieties increasing and what can I do to help decrease levels of anxiety in the learning and teaching space? How do I balance this with my workload, set boundaries and consider my own mental health? This article seeks to examine these questions and others to draw together some preliminary suggestions about teaching sociology in this context. I begin by exploring the pressures on university students, including how sociological content could be a pressure point in a student’s education. I then explore the extent to which students are accessing support services. Following this, there are two key points. Firstly, I examine the unique, though difficult, position of sociology lecturers who may be likely to experience students’ disclosures of anxiety, mental illness and/or depression. Secondly, I explore the assumption that we should consider these broad trends operating within our classrooms and offer preliminary thoughts on how we might respond to them in the learning and teaching context.

Pressures on university students

Evidence suggests that Australian society more broadly, and university students more specifically, are experiencing increased levels of anxiety, depression and stress (Headspace and the National Union of Students). Students often have caring responsibilities, experience pressure to perform in an increasingly competitive job market, lack sleep, have a poor diet, live out of home, have higher workloads and looming deadlines and/or work long hours of paid work to support their studies and meet the high cost of living (Vukovic). These factors influence the amount of time that students can dedicate to their studies, the quality of their study and could add further stress and worry. A major study into the state of student finances found that ‘[m]ore than half of Australian university students are often worrying about their finances and significant numbers are even having to skip meals to see themselves through university’ (Trounson). Anecdotally, employers are reluctant to give students time off work when they are unwell, and/or students are financially unable to take time off work to recover when unwell because they need the money. This perpetuates a cycle where students are unwell throughout semester which again can affect their studies.

In addition, research has shown university students strive for perfectionism, with increases in perfectionist tendencies apparent among United Kingdom and American undergraduate university students over the last three decades. Perfectionists hold high standards of themselves and strive for perfection. They often feel pressure from parents and teachers and ‘the typical perfectionist is stuck in an endless loop of self-defeating and over-striving in which each new task is seen as an opportunity for failure, disappointment and harsh self-rebuke’ (Etherson & Smith). Perfectionism is linked to depressive symptoms and Etherson and Smith suggest that ‘University fosters optimal conditions for perfectionism to thrive and spread – whether in examinations or sporting trials, students are measured, evaluated and compared against each other. Such pressures are problematic for many students as they can lead to the perfectionist belief that their value as a person depends on being perfect at everything they do’. This could in part explain students’ feelings of hopeless and worthlessness.

Furthermore, the content that we teach in sociology can lead to or compound anxiety for students. In courses on genocide, human rights abuses, discrimination, power structures and inequality, we cover and engage with sensitive and difficult content which is reflected in the world around students and of which they are a part. Although students find content in the social sciences confronting, they do value the opportunity to engage with it (Lowe). Our content and emphasis on critical thinking may also challenge their values, encourage reflexivity and result in students questioning their identity and beliefs that they may have previously taken for granted (Gibbs; Lowe). Sociological investigations could also put them at odds with the values of their families and friends, which may cause them to feel frustration, isolation and anger at those around them.

Support, access and services

Evidence suggests that many university students are unlikely to disclose experiences of mental ill health, anxiety and/or depression (Orygen The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health 2017: 6). Stigma, a lack of understanding from university staff and a fear that disclosure will affect results, job prospects and reputation are some of the reported reasons why students are unlikely to disclose (Orygen The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health). ‘Students who do seek help from university support services can often find themselves on waiting lists and/or with only a very limited number of sessions available to them as these services struggle to respond within their existing resources’ (Orygen The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health). Furthermore, although Medicare offers a rebate for ten counselling sessions for those on a Mental Health Plan, this help could still be costly for students who may be struggling with cost of living expenses.

Disclosures and teaching sociology

Sociology lecturers, particularly female educators, are often in a unique though difficult position when it comes student disclosures in general (Branch, Hayes-Smith & Richards) and disclosures of anxiety, depression and/or mental illness more specifically. While ‘[h]istorically, there has been a perception that by the age of university admission young people should be in a position to independently support their physical and mental health without the involvement of the educational institution’ (Orygen: The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health), universities have introduced programs and policies to respond to the mental and physical health needs of students. Similarly, despite arguments that this is not part of our job description, (Branch et al.) and knowing we are not trained to deal with student disclosures, the reality is that students are disclosing to their lecturers (Branch et al.; Hayes-Smith, Richards & Branch) because at times it can be difficult to leave personal experiences outside the classroom even though it may be beneficial to do so (Lowe).

One of the main reasons that students disclose to us is because of the content taught in our courses. Students are likely to come to us because we teach them about issues that may or have directly impacted on their lives (Hayes-Smith et al.) and as such, they feel comfortable with us. We may appear to hold the expertise to assist students, students may feel that a previously ‘taboo’ topic is no longer ‘taboo’ because it was discussed in class and we may be perceived as non-judgmental (Branch et al.; Hayes-Smith et al.).

Similarly, students may be unable to discuss ideas, concepts and theories with those around them who may hold different values, beliefs and experiences. Lowe suggests it is important that, as educators, we work through these experiences with students because they are significant to learning and teaching. However, this emphasises again the unique position that we encounter as sociology educators. In addition, as sociology educators we often bear the responsibility of not only creating a learning and teaching environment in the classroom but of teaching students how to interact and engage in everyday life. For example, students ask about how to live social justice, solve or change the experiences of those seeking asylum who are detained or inquire about how to call out racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and/or ableism.

Responding to disclosures and questions of living sociology 

Existing studies suggest various ways to respond to disclosures when teaching. Branch et al., writing in the context of student disclosures of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, found that some professors included more opportunities for disclosure in their courses. Among the examples were including service learning and other community projects following disclosures and using journals and creating assessments or papers for students to work through their experiences of victimisation. However, while these assessments, papers or journals may be cathartic, if they are being assessed questions must be raised about the implications and effects on the student of grading a disclosure of sensitive information or an assessment which is designed to help them work through victimisation. Others in Branch et al.’s research reached out to students who were falling behind, while some emphasised an open environment in their classroom and sought to create a nurturing and safe space. However, it is important to note that balancing the needs those who have disclosed against needs of other students and encouraging an ‘open’ classroom is often difficult (Hayes-Smith et al.).

Alternatively, other professors minimised opportunities for disclosure. For instance, they included warnings encouraging those unable to cope with the sensitive nature of the course not to take it, screened materials used in courses and topics covered, and emphasised to students that the classroom was not the appropriate space to disclose. Some of these findings are similar to Lowe’s research, where students emphasised the importance of educators making them explicitly aware when sensitive content was going to be discussed, letting students who were experiencing distress know that they could leave the classroom and that staff would be available to speak to students should they require it.

However, we must not ignore our own mental health in these scenarios, particularly if it is valuable for us to make ourselves available for students experiencing distress based on content covered in our courses. Branch et al. found that professors felt unprepared about the expectations of students and unprepared for disclosures. Many professors were unsure who did disclose and their motivations. The situation left many professors feeling confused, stressed, guilt-ridden, sad and angry (Branch et al.; Hayes-Smith et al.). It had a detrimental affect on both students and professors. In addition, female professors were likely to experience role strain when students disclosed to them and this could impact on their psychological wellbeing (see Hayes-Smith et al.). Participants in Branch et al.’s study therefore encouraged professors to familiarise themselves with resources provided by the university and the community, to listen, to have more access to resources and training for staff, to invite expert guest speakers into the classroom and provide the opportunity for staff to debrief following student disclosure.

It is worthwhile also that courses include strategies which can provide students with the tools to address problems that they learn about in the classroom and see and experience in the social world. While examining sensitive topics and confronting issues may not be a positive experience for students, it is ‘an important part of transformational education’ (Lowe). Therefore, it is important, for example, to build solutions to social problems and the reconstruction of social problems in our classrooms and show students where progress has been made. This may alleviate some anxieties experienced by students both within and outside the classroom about the social issues discussed and faced. Lowe also suggests that the discomfort can be alleviated through regular exposure to sensitive issues. In addition, given that students may encounter content that they are unable to discuss at home or which may challenge their sense of self, it may be useful to establish mentoring or peer support programs between students. Establishing this as a way forward may allow them to feel that they are not alone in what they are experiencing and there is a way forward that others like themselves have taken (Gibbs).

Modifying teaching sociology to respond to anxiety

Having considered issues raised by disclosures by students who experience anxiety, in this section I explore whether there are strategies that we can employ in our learning and teaching practice based on the knowledge that the student body is generally more anxious than in the past. Liu and Gibbs identify various strategies that we can employ in our classrooms. For example, students may resort to surface rather than deep learning as a coping mechanism to deal with fear of the unknown. As educators, it is important then to make our expectations clear. This may involve going through marking criteria and standards, providing students with exemplars that are worked through in class, clarifying key terms, and scaffolding in lectures and tutorials showing how to approach assessments. Gibbs also highlighted the importance of creating ‘a warm and supportive emotional environment for students’, rather than threatening students with how many students have failed the course in the past. This is because it was found that ‘only when threat to the self was reduced was learning likely to proceed’ (Gibbs). In addition, Liu suggests sharing content which may be of interest with students via an announcement to help break down barriers and make students feel comfortable, allowing students to pose and answer anonymous questions so that they do not have to be concerned about embarrassment, working aspects of an incorrect student response into a correct answer and acknowledging their contribution, and sending encouraging messages acknowledging any difficulties and their achievements. Gibbs acknowledges that although this may appear as if we are coddling students, ‘[g]raphs of the effect of stress on learning show an upward curve, up to a point, showing that some stress is helpful or even necessary. But then the graph shows a catastrophic fall, showing too much stress is debilitating’. That said, we also need to think about the quantity of content covered and the expectations placed on students. Here again, Gibbs highlights that students are more likely to resort to surface, rather than deep, learning when there is too much content because memorising at least provides them with some solid ground should they be assessed on the content.

Conclusion

In this article I have provided some preliminary thoughts on our obligations as teaching sociologists who are increasingly likely to be engaged in a learning and teaching context with a population experiencing high levels of anxiety. If such trends and patterns continue, and we as a discipline are concerned with inequality and examining how opportunities and social structures shape peoples’ lives, then it must be asked what, if any, obligation do we have to current and future sociology students (

Share Button