A Little Help?

As those of you who follow this blog know, I’ve recently changed jobs at the university. Term has begun now here and I am gradually getting over the sheer freakiness of sitting in my old rooms, not teaching French literature, but instead greeting a series of students from across the range of subjects who are in need of learning support. My college has never had this facility before and so it’s new for all of us and my expectations are mutating by the day. I’d thought I might see a student here or there, but it turns out to be more like a steady stream. What’s also surprising is how very intriguing the job is so far. When I was teaching French literature, the students came to me to be given something, and I knew in advance what that would be (more or less). Now, I feel so curious every time a new student appears; I never know what they are going to tell me, or what I will need to do. I can’t wait to hear their story and start figuring out the best way to proceed. I can already see that the problems have a pattern to them, but the individuality of the student concerned means that the answers are never the same.

So far, so good. But – and it’s a big but – I’m posing myself all kinds of philosophical questions about the capacity we have as human beings to help one another. We’ve all of us had the experience (I hope) of receiving help when we’ve needed it in just the right way. There’s nothing like the moment of expansiveness and serenity that follows, and it’s one of best experiences we can have, encouraging us to cultivate the trust in the world and the love for our companions that makes life a cheering proposition rather than a prison sentence. And we’ve all had the experience (all too frequent) of having the wrong kind of help pressed upon us, in a way that grates and jars and puts our teeth on edge. Or it can do worse; a constant and unrelenting supply of the wrong kind of support can lead us into self-denial, delusion and depression. A word of advice can be a powerful and a dangerous thing. And so perhaps that’s why human self-defensiveness is so strong in relation to being helped. The urge to be confirmed in our worst delusions is utterly overwhelming – that people are out to get us, that we are not loved, not valuable, not capable, that life is pointless, that tasks are beyond us, oh the list goes on and on. Negativity clings, it grows on a person like ivy on a statuesque tree and threatens to strangle the life out of it. I’m beginning to see, too, that such negativity gains in power, the more determinedly positive or achievement-oriented the circumstances of the individual. If we insist that life must be a steady upward progression, full of good things, if we find value only in perfect appearances and admirable achievement, if we constrain ourselves to be perpetually cheerful and good-natured, then we silently feed the demons of negativity, who thrive on being kept in the darkness of shame. Too much positivity sets the barrier unreasonably high, and then inevitably real life compared to the ideal is going to look pretty awful.

But what to do about all of this? Where to begin? Freud was somewhat astounded to note that his patients, once given a clear explanation of their neuroses, and one that they understood and agreed with, were often still not able to change their behavioural patterns. When the answer to their problems stared them in the face, what possible reason could they have for not being able to take it? This breakdown of his faith in the talking cure as a form of human crossword puzzle ended up in a radically different conception of the mind. Rather than see individuals as problems to be solved, he was forced to admit that they were instead creatures of shadows and fog, full of gaps and quirks and powerful underground forces. My favourite psychotherapist has to be the one and only Milton Erickson, who was particularly good at curing phobias. Erickson seemed to understand straight off that reason was a rather weak force with someone who was mortally afraid. Instead his eccentric solutions maintained the fantasy of the troubled individual and worked from inside it. For instance: the wife of a couple came to him, broken by her husband’s hypochondria. For years he had controlled their life together with his fear of having a heart attack. He was convinced his death was imminent and refused to do anything for either the household or their entertainment. Erickson told the wife to take the husband at his word, and to collect together a whole lot of different brochures from various funeral parlours. These she was to place strategically around the house, calling his attention from time to time to the kind of coffin he might like. For variety he also suggested she tot up his life insurance policies and tell him what he would be worth to her dead. The wife did as she was told and in no time at all the fear had disappeared. Of course, the problem didn’t go away within the couple, but it had been forced out into the open. Erickson was full of indirect solutions like this. On another occasion he was called out to a mental home to assist with an inmate who absolutely refused to take part in the communal work projects that were obligatory for every patient. Instead this particular individual would dress himself in a sheet and claim that he was Jesus; avoiding all scheduled sessions he would walk around the campus trying to convert the nurses and heal his compatriots. Apparently Erickson simply walked up to him, said ‘I believe you have experience as a carpenter,’ and set him to work on a bookcase building project. Now that’s class.

I, alas, am no Milton Erickson, but I see the problems in the students separating out into three general categories: 1) I’m not good enough, 2) I don’t want to and 3) I’m extremely confused. Most problems have a mixture of elements from all three categories, but there’s a gender distinction that is forming before my eyes. On the whole, the problem with the young women is one of lack of self-confidence, and my heart goes out to them because it’s an issue from which I am not exactly immune. Confidence is nothing but an illusion, but it’s one that makes all the difference. Conjuring it up out of thin air is not an easy thing to do. For the young men, by contrast, the problems settle around motivation. That’s not to say that uncertainty might not lie buried underneath, but application and endeavor are the greatest challenges that face them. So far we’ve only taken baby steps because I think the first realization that needs to take hold is that they are no longer alone in the face of the problem. I don’t necessarily want to advise or alter them yet – I just want them to know I am there. After that…. Well, I’ll let you know how it goes.


16 thoughts on “A Little Help?

  1. Those lines on negativity … it’s like having one’s mind x-rayed! Not for the first time, your writing is a light in dark places.

    So you’re no Milton Erickson, but then he’s no Litlove! Your students couldn’t be better in hands.

  2. I think you will do fantastically well at this. You approach it from an informed and thoughtful standpoint, you take it very seriously, and you have no arrogant, simplistic idea of what you have to offer the students.

    ‘I just want them to know I am there’ – no ‘just’ about this; I suspect this is the very heart of what you can offer them. To be there for them, listen, hold a space for them to hear themselves, take themselves seriously – making that space at least as important as the resources and pointers you may put into it.

    Lucky students.

  3. Every sympathy – I know what it’s like at uni! Don’t forget that these first few weeks are more difficult too as it’s all new to them – they’ll gain in confidence once they establish a routine and some sort of familiarity with their new lives. Certainly the needs are greater now than they’ve ever been. Our counselling service regularly puts on workshops on key issues eg making friends and confidence-boosting topics. They’re very popular.

    And don’t take on too much. You can only do what you can and in some ways it’s best if you enable them to take charge of their own learning curve, rather than attempt to solve it for them. If you manage to help them 40% then you’re doing well! Don’t expect perfect results …!


    Hugs galore


  4. That Erickson guy sounds like a hoot! But seriously, I can’t think of anyone better to help the students. They have no idea how lucky they are to have you there for them.

  5. Litlove, I’m sure you’ll be a good ear and s sensible brain for the people who come to you. So I’ll just offer a few thoughts, useless as they may be.

    Most people don’t like to ask for help, at the student level – or so I recall from my student days – because it makes them seem like they’re, well, students, and not capable adults who have a certain control of their own affairs, as exhibited by the act of going to university. Getting to the university was a big step for them (not always of their own choosing, of course). They are now faced with a multitude of demands and requirements, inside and outside the classroom, that throw them into confusion, as if they were in school once again. They’re in the first year, a halfway world.

    Your role is very beneficial to helping them sort out this mess. If they could be brought round to see that asking for help and receiving it are things not restricted to students, that their whole life they’ll be doing the same thing, as well as giving help to others, perhaps their reticence (or fear, or pride) would slowly disappear. (Some might prefer the word advice to help, or yet another word.)

    Of course, some people will regard asking for help negatively, as pointless, or like begging, or petitioning, or saying: I’m not smart enough to figure out this problem for myself, and that embarrasses me. There’s only so much you can do about that. In my schooling before university, asking a teacher’s help was considered sucking up or admitting to a weakness. It’s possible girls had it differently.

    Also, you are learning, as you show, from them: they are “no longer alone in the face of the problem,” and you are now trying to get inside them a little to see what’s going on. As with any new thing, there are going to be missteps, or misreadings, so when they occur, be a little gentle with yourself. We need to question our capacity, and we usually do that when we run into the boundaries of it. You’re looking at that already, so you’re off to a good start. And it can only help your students – those who want to be helped – if you are self-aware and self-monitoring.

  6. I love your posts that deal with your university life. They often reflect mine so perfectly (as a student). That “1) I’m not good enough, 2) I don’t want to and 3) I’m extremely confused” is a perfect summation of–ok only part of my undergrad life, but all the same. If this post is anything to go by you’ll be very successful in your post. 🙂 I look forward to reading more as time goes on.

  7. Lokesh – oh thank you, that’s so kind. In a funny way I really wouldn’t mind being Milton Erickson (apart from having polio as a child and spending years learning to walk again – which doctors said he would never do). He was pretty cool. And I must say I never even noticed the small typo, btw – comes from reading comments when I’m working too 😉 Jean – you are such an encouragement to me, really you are. What a lovely comment. I like so much what you say about giving the students a space in which to hear themselves. That’s at the root of the trouble, isn’t it – they are looking for themselves reflected back (in good grades or success or popularity) and really they need to hear themselves. That’s such an interesting thought to ponder. Anne – what wise and experienced words from you! I will read them several times a day. And I do agree about making the students self-sufficient. I’ve been watching the training sessions on ITT with Claudia (I know you know what I mean) and have been impressed by all the tough love. Hmmmm – firm Litlove. Whole new concept. Big hugs to you. Stefanie – you would find Erickson hilarious. There’s a great story that was too long to tell here about a man who had a phobia about a certain restaurant and Erickson made him go to it, accompanied by a fearsome divorcee date, and Erickson made it all as unpleasant as he could, arguing with the waiters and causing a fuss. Incredibly, it worked perfectly. Aww and thank you for your lovely comment – sending a big virtual hug of thanks. JB – I think that’s a masterclass in being supportive – thank you so much for that. What you write there tallies so very well with what I see more in the male students – the enormous barrier between them and admitting anything is wrong, the urge to insist that everything is fine now, no problems, and yet, and yet. That’s extremely useful insight for me because I’ve never minded asking for help so it’s sometimes hard to see the flip side. When I was teaching, I used to feel that I couldn’t teach anyone anything, I could only make them want to learn it for themselves. I’m thinking my way gradually into a parallel frame of mind here, in which I can only help them see that making changes might be a positive, life-enhancing thing to do in and of itself, an expression of control rather than a capitulation. Well, we’ll see how that goes. Imani – lol! that cracked me up. From my experience every student has a healthy dose of uncertainty, which is part and parcel of learning. It’s just for some poor folk the uncertainty gets out of hand. And thank you for being encouraging. I will certainly be posting on the novelty of it all again, I’m sure!

  8. Oh, how interesting! It definitely sounds like a fascinating job and that you are doing excellently well at it. I’m glad, not that there are a good number of students with problems, but that the job seems to be going well and surely the response from students will silence some of the faculty questioners?

  9. The young people who seek your help are probably the most mature on campus. As you pointed out, seeking help is a difficult thing to do, and even more so for the young. Bravo/a for them to be so brave and astute!

    I can see from your report thus far that we are very alike: problem solvers! Isn’t it wonderful to see the light in their eyes when you gently point the direction they might take, and they solve their own problem? A double reward/success for them. I am sure you will serve them well. You have the gentle personality to suggest, while allowing your student to figure out the answers for themselves, which we know is the best way to learn.
    I get to use one of my favorite quotes here:

    The best teacher is the one who suggests rather than dogmatizes, and inspires his listener with the wish to teach himself. ~Edward Bulwer-Lytton

    It does sound like your position is definitely a fair amount of psycho-therapy. I will be very interested to hear “how it goes.”

  10. I’m interested and intrigued by what other commenters have to say about students not liking to admit to a problem or ask for help. I work in a university (administrator, not teacher)and this is absolutely not what I see among the students I work with (postgraduates, mostly not British). They never cease to shock me by how quick they are to raise problems, demand support and solutions. They certainly don’t expect to be seen as inadequate if they articulate their problems (or care if they are?) – partly the therapy and counselling culture, I think (which I certainy don’t decry) partly the consumerist ethos: they pay a lot of money to the university and expect a high level service. The latter sometimes makes me feel quite hostile to them – it’s so different from how things were ‘when I were a lass’. But of course, scratch the surface and the nature of their difficulties and how they experience them is not so different…

  11. Ow! First of all, let me just say that I hear you. But, I also have to say that I worry for you as well. Years of working in this sort of area have taught me that the worst thing that you can do for your students and for yourself is become too involved in their problems and I think you need to be very careful that you don’t do that. Knowing you, you could very easily become so involved that your health starts to suffer again and we none of us want that. There are things you can do. You can listen and I mean really listen and sometimes you can make practical suggestions. You can empathise (inside) but empathising too openly can be really dangerous. Either the student resents the very idea that you might understand their problem or they become dependent on you and then expect a level of support that you cannot possibly give. What I think I’m getting round to saying is that especially in the early days of this new job you should work on the basis that less is better. You will become more practised at divining and weighing up the real nature of the problem and knowing just how much and what type of input you should give. But, if you are going to remain well and if you’re going to be of any lasting help to the students you need to keep a level of detachment. This isn’t to say that sometimes you won’t do things that might seem extreme. I have been known to get the car out late at night and go and find a student who was lost somewhere in the middle of the city suburbs, but the lass had been thrown out by her very religious parents when she’d told them she was pregnant and been walking for hours only to ‘come to’ and discover that she had no idea where she was. You can’t do that or its equivalent on a daily basis or you will collapse. Seriously at this stage walk very slowly.

  12. Hi again, Litlove; interesting to see you have transitioned in your job. (I’m still in your debt for introducing me to Collette’s Claudine.)

    I’ve recently begun volunteering as an English tutor, something I was once paid for, long ago. The program I’m in now, run by the local library, puts us through training, which proved more helpful than I expected.

    Two points have been particularly relevant. I already knew the importance of positive reinforcement, but it was good to hear again how critical it is for people who’ve had often feedback on how deficient they are. So I keep that in my forelobes; I try to let my pupil know when he does things right. As his English teacher used to strike him for his mistakes, it’s helped him get past his anxiety.

    The other point may be less pertient to you, but it’s to be patient. I probably wouldn’t have had that in mind, necessarily, as I come from a culture that stresses working hard when faced with challenges. Now I can see how some tutors, used to working hard to achieve goals themselves, might get frustrated when their pupils don’t exert themselves to the same degree.

    Loved your story of Erickson and the funeral parlor. It makes complete sense — that phobic persona confronted with a response that gave it credence. What now?!

    Good luck!

  13. Dorothy – I do wonder how it compared to your experience in a similar area? The induction days went quite well, so that was a good start, and now I do hope I can be helpful to the students in this capacity. My colleagues seem to be warming to the idea, so cross your fingers for me! Qugrainne – you have caught me out, I am indeed a problem solver! And I like that part of it very much. But it would be all wrong to impose solutions on people who’ve lost their confidence. I do agree completely that getting the student to figure out their own answers will be a big step forward for them on a number of levels. That’s a lovely quote you’ve put there, I’ll make a note of that one, thank you. And the psychotherapy is me – I only give practical suggestions to the students, but figuring out which ones to give is the part I find most intriguing. Jean – the students here nowadays are heavily monitored and I’m getting referrals from a number of places, the directors of study who are in charge of student learning and the tutors who give pastoral care, as well as the nurse. DoS’s decide to send students to me, and the others either ask their tutors, or end up obliged to figure out a way forward after poor exam results. So it’s hard to know who has asked and who has been warmly encouraged my way! But yes, the trend is definitely towards a consumer culture for students and the trend for years now in education is towards the business model, which puts unreasonable pressure on everyone to ‘succeed’. Quite what success looks like is an interesting one – the student who loves the work but gets a 2:2 or the one with a first and a nervous breakdown? I’ve known both, but the government only appreciates the latter. It’s a minefield out there. But you’re quite right, fundamentally the problems are the same as they ever were. Ann – I feel very strongly how much you want to remind me to look after myself and I feel very cared for. But I do promise you, I knew I couldn’t take this job on unless it had better limits than the last one. And it does. I only see students for 40 mins or so, once a fortnight, my advice to them is resolutely practical and destined to help them stand on their own two feet. And given that when they come to me they also have their director of study and tutor looking out for them too, I feel much less directly responsible than I did with my own students back in the days of French literature. Thankfully, it won’t ever be me who has to go looking for poor distressed students like the one you mention. So don’t worry, I’ll be fine. Ombudsben – hello, how nice to see you and how interesting too to hear about your own experiences. Students in our system don’t get much praise; more often they hear a stream of criticism, so it’s always nice to be the one able to accentuate the positive. And whilst it can be a relatively quick thing to figure out what’s going wrong, it takes a lot of practice to put it right! How awful to think that corporal punishment still exists in some places! Your poor student – no wonder he had anxiety! And as for Colette, you are very welcome. As you know, I love her too!

  14. I think even now I occasionally suffer from each of those categories of problems! LOL. I get the feeling that you are going to be a great advocate for those students. Do you miss teaching your other classes? Sometimes change can be really good, and there’s a lot to be said for helping those students get on in their studies (and life).

  15. Danielle – LOL, so do I! I do miss the French lit, it must be said, and it feels very odd not to be teaching it. But I’m also enjoying the change and the novelty at the same time. I don’t miss teaching French translation class, although to be fair, I used to have a lot of fun in it and had some fantastic students. But marking all the homework was a bit tedious. I’m such a lightweight – I do enjoy things that mean I have to think on the spot!

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