Anxiety, procrastination, and the academic life

Suey Park has written a post detailing the kinds of unhelpful responses people with anxiety disorders often receive from their professors. The question of how to help students deal with and what to offer for nervousness and anxiety to disappear is one that has bothered me since I started teaching — seemingly every semester, a student who was perfectly capable of completing the work somehow just… didn’t. I’ve also reflected on how unforgiving the traditional academic calendar is in general, and in fact both institutions I’ve taught at had exacerbating factors (Kalamazoo College was on quarters, increasing the pressure; Shimer College has a rule that all written work is due on the last day of classes, with almost no room for exceptions). Our institutions seem to presuppose that students can simply opt out of their outside lives and that they are already adept at making the best use of their free time — and this is even before we start thinking about students for whom anxiety is a serious mental health problem.

It seems to me that in many cases, the path to college sets students up to suffer from these disorders. We complain about “helicopter parents,” but the over-scheduled, over-achieving lifestyle of the college-bound student is only really sustainable for someone with a lot of parental support and pressure — and then we suddenly throw them into an environment where that day-to-day support is completely withdrawn and the adults in their lives all feel compelled to take up a “hands-off” stance (bracketing non-academic concerns so as not to “pry” into the student’s “personal life,” etc.). The pressure is exacerbated when you realize that the issue isn’t, “If you don’t go to college, you’ll wind up working in the factory like your dad.” For many, it seems that the alternative to going to college is simply unthinkable, as if they will literally die if they don’t succeed in college. Add in the burden of non-negotiable student loans, and suddenly an anxiety disorder doesn’t seem pathological at all.

I don’t claim to have profound insights into this topic, though — the main point of the post is to link to Park’s article. So go read it.

3 thoughts on “Anxiety, procrastination, and the academic life

  1. This is something that has always bothered me as well. Where I’m studying now (Institute for Christian Studies), thankfully they’ve amended the traditional North American model such that a paper is actually due two months after the completion of coursework. That has proved to be incredibly helpful to me, personally, as I now have the freedom to pay attention fully in class without the stress of a paper looming over me, and I feel able to allow my thoughts to really culminate during the class. Somehow the due date horizon has really helped me to just think. It comes with its own problems, of course–for the fall semester, for example, one ends up having to work on papers over the holidays, but the spring is just fantastic. And there’s nothing saying you can’t turn a paper in by the end of the semester, either, and plenty of students do just that.

  2. Thank you for this. I think that non-standard places of learning like Evergreen in Washington State, or Naropa in Colorado can fill some of these gaps, but we really need an insurrection at the existential level when it comes to Uni-versity.

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