One of the most important things I’ve grappled with as a teacher is how to be empathetic, caring, and supportive to students while not crossing ethical boundaries. My work in Trauma-Informed Pedagogy (TIP) has been a big part of this, as have my studies of pedagogy, psychology, sociology, leadership, and ethics. But it goes back even further—when I was an undergraduate voice student and later a young professional opera singer, most of the voice teachers I interacted with were super fused with their students in one way or another. They gave relationship advice, screamed at us, critiqued our bodies, and in some cases, had intimate relationships with us. This happened across the field also with conductors, directors, and other people in positions of authority.
I sometimes joke (but not really) that I got a degree in leadership and ethics because my former career had none. This is an oversimplification—what we often had was leadership in the absence of ethics. The “artist temperament” was used to gloss over things like psychological abuse, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. I witnessed many instances of highly effective, but totally unethical leadership in my first career. A talented conductor can still be an asshole and a sexual predator. A seasoned director can produce an amazing show and also be a cruel sociopath. They’re not mutually exclusive and they don’t cancel each other out. But we didn’t have HR departments watching for violations of statutes like the ADA, or the Civil Rights Act, or Title IX. We should have—but we didn’t.
I left opera because something was deeply wrong with the field and my growing awareness of this wrongness made it impossible to stay. While some of my experiences with singing were transcendent, it didn’t change the fact that it was mostly dehumanizing and awful. Auditions just sucked. Singing for a bunch of people whose job was to disqualify me, over and over again, sucked the joy right out of me. Being in a field where it is perfectly acceptable to be discriminated against for your beauty, size, height, race, and many other things that have nothing to do with your voice and musicianship was just ugly and demeaning. Having to explain to my voice teachers that emotional abuse was 1) unacceptable and 2) ineffective, got really old after fifteen years. Don’t even get me started on sexual harassment. It was so normalized that it barely registered on my radar. Decades later, in the wake of #metoo, I had to take a hard look at many of my experiences and recognize that they were often coercive and nonconsensual.
So a good part of the rest of my life (age 30 on) has been centered around figuring out who I am, what I’m good at, and what my lane is. There’s a lot of crowing about “staying in your lane” on social media or directed at artists whose opinions differ from their fans or whatever, but I mean it in a different way. Here are the big questions I’ve been asking myself over the last 20 years:
- What am I really gifted at?
- What makes me feel fulfilled?
- What are the healthy limits around my assigned roles (such as mother, wife, teacher, and friend)?
- What do healthy boundaries look like when I have a lot more power than the people I work with? (What are the ethical limits to my relationships with students? To my child?)
- How do I support my child without diminishing or parentifying them?
- How do I support my students but not attempt to take responsibility for problems I am not qualified to handle (drug addiction, eating disorders, mental illness, traumatic events)?
- Where is the line between support and caring, and crossing into territory that needs to be handled by someone in a different lane, like a therapist, or nutritionist, or doctor? How do I hold that line compassionately?
- How do I hold space for other people’s emotions and experiences while making sure my own boundaries are healthy and not fused? (If I experience secondary trauma from hearing about a traumatic event, how do I manage that?)
- Where do I have the right to speak authoritatively and where do I not? (I piss off a very small percentage of white dudes each academic year who think that talking about the developmental effects of family child separation or racism is somehow not based in the science of my discipline. It is, but I am not an authority on many things and should not speak to them authoritatively. )
- How does my positionality—my privilege and place in society, limit or increase the ways in which I should take up space?
- When am I ethically obligated to speak out?
- When am I ethically obligated to leave space for others to speak out?
- When should I give up my space to others so they can be heard?
All of these questions have come up repeatedly during my academic teaching career. I’ve done a whole lot of ranting about the empathy gap among my colleagues, but some of that comes from our utter lack of training. College teachers are not taught how to teach. We’re not taught the ethics of teaching (and grad school is at least exploitative and often abusive so we don’t have good examples). We’re not taught to recognize how our privilege affects how we perceive our students’ struggles. We’re definitely not taught how to handle student trauma or crisis. K-12 teachers do certifications and ongoing education, but we are assumed to have everything we need because we know a bunch of stuff about one area of scholarship. We’re not taught how the ADA, Civil Rights Act, and Title IX affect our students and our jobs, beyond surface level mandated training. So it’s somewhat understandable that my colleagues balk when I talk about understanding and responding to student trauma. Nobody told them that was part of the job—but it is.
I’ve gone about finding the answers to these questions in a variety of ways. I’ve talked to my therapists about things like processing secondary trauma and holding healthy boundaries. I’ve studied psychological theories that help me understand how and when unhealthy fusion and transference happen and how to avoid it. I’ve studied and explored many spiritual paths to understand what makes me feel centered and fulfilled. And I’ve studied ethics and leadership to understand the responsibilities that come with power. Most recently, I’ve learned about social justice, intersectionality, and the history of oppressions in the US in an attempt to better serve my diverse students and community and to minimize the harm I can thoughtlessly cause with my privilege. I’ve also leaned on my TAs, who are often from different backgrounds and have different knowledge areas. I still have to be aware of power distance—because I am their pseudo-employer—but recognizing that people with less status may have more experience or knowledge than I do in a given area has saved my ass many a time.
This is not a checklist for perfection. In fact, I think humility is possibly the best trait to cultivate if you have the ability to influence others. If you are in a position where you teach or parent or treat or manage other humans, you need to cultivate humility. I have fucked up on all of these things many times. But if I had fucked up, rationalized it, and moved on, I would have continued to do harm and I would be an unethical jerk. Unfortunately, those of us driven to learn all the things, like academics, or be the best at things, like artists, often resort to defensiveness rather than recognizing that we don’t know everything and our power gives us many opportunities to cause harm. The challenge of fucking up is recognizing that it is also an opportunity for growth. I know one more thing that I didn’t know before, and I can choose not make that mistake next time.
Early in my teaching career, I was having adult undergraduates build personal websites for a career development course. I required that all of them put good headshots on their home pages. One student kept avoiding it. I tried to explain that it was really important, but she avoided discussing it with me. We became friends after she graduated, and one night over cocktails, she told me it was because her culture doesn’t think it’s okay for a woman to put her picture on the internet, and her family would judge her. It had never crossed my mind that it was a cultural thing. It should have, but it didn’t, because I am super white and just didn’t think to ask. Now I do. I have my students do LinkedIn profiles with photos, but I also give them a pass on it if they tell me they don’t want to include a photo for any reason. So for the low, low price of apologizing to my former student for being an idiot, I learned something that positively affected all my future students.
When I taught people my own age, I would respond to overtures of friendship if I was interested and I was no longer their teacher. As I moved to traditional undergraduates, it became clear this would not work. There is too much power distance between a 45-year-old professor and a 20-year-old undergraduate. This doesn’t mean that my relationship with all my students ends when they graduate—I remain available to those that are interested, but in a mentorship role, not a friendship role. We chat over zoom about career stuff, they update me on their grad school admissions, or sometimes just ask for advice. While with adult undergraduates I had to prove my worth as an authority figure in their age range, with traditional undergraduates I have to break down some of the power distance in order to engage them fully in the material, but not to the extent that I pretend I’m one of them. I think of my role as “weird professor aunt” rather than “weird peer with specific knowledge.”
I figured all of this out on my own, and with the help of my own good professors, therapists, and friends. I learned by example, both good and bad, and I learned from my many, many mistakes. Parenting, too, is an endless exercise in humility, guilt, joy, pride, and frustration. Our society makes a huge mistake by discounting the experiences of parenthood on the workplace. I was a far less empathetic person before I had a kid and had to face my daily failures. I used to freak out every time I had to teach attachment theory because I was sure I had totally fucked up my kid. I was also far less forgiving of myself and others. Eventually, I realized that nobody does parenting perfectly because there’s no such thing. You’re different people and sometimes you don’t mesh. And sometimes you have to pass the ball to another person. When my kid was having anxiety after a couple of really scary life events, I got them a therapist because I knew that helping them work through the trauma was not something I could do on my own.
The same thing applies to my students—I’m a caring, responsible adult, but I’m not a doctor, psychiatrist, therapist, or nutritionist. I have a list of those people to refer them to when needed. And I have my own people for when I need the same help.
Anyway, I think this is the beginning of a larger body of work. I think knowing your lane is the heart of what I’ve tried to do and be in the second half of my life, and I think it can be helpful to others. How have you learned what your lane is? And how have you learned what it isn’t?