Stiffening the Backbone

As usual the problem seems to lie with the sub-editors. I read a piece in the Guardian entitled  ‘Struggling students are not lacking resilience – they need more support.’ Reading the heading on its own I thought that the article must be going to imply that resilience was somehow an optional extra in life and decided that was rather silly. However, the article itself made much more nuanced and important points, including the vital conclusions

“…we should never use the term when discussing mental health.

Being resilient doesn’t mean never asking for help or never being affected by difficult situations. We need to focus our discussion on boosting wellbeing, and teaching a set of skills that help students bounce back from setbacks in life and academia.”

As I have often said in talks, and probably on this blog too, asking questions should be regarded as a sign of strength not weakness, because it is the only way one is going to learn how to do things better. Asking for help is just one strand of improving. If you’re in a fog there is no point blundering on without seeking the equivalent of a spotlight to illuminate the desired direction of travel. Students should appreciate this and have the confidence to act upon it. Too many students find it easier and less threatening to hide their confusion; the larger the group being taught the easier this tends to be. One of the strengths of the Cambridge supervision system is that, being taught in a group of 1-3 means there is nowhere to hide. It is a very poor supervisor who lets a reticent or befuddled student not open their mouth throughout the hour of teaching or permits a mumbled ‘dunno’ to be an adequate response to a point blank question.

Setbacks in life are of course not limited to students. One only has to watch Mo Farah literally pick himself up from a nasty fall on the athletics track and still go on to win Gold in the Olympics 10k race to know what resilience in the face of potential disaster looks like. Or look at 58 year old Nick Shelton win Olympic Show jumping Gold 15 years after he had broken his neck, ‘retired’ and had a hip replacement before deciding to enter the fray again. That determination not to be deterred is what is required in the face of adversity, but frequently students will indeed need help superimposed upon that determination. University systems need not only to notice when students are falling behind or avoiding turning up at all because they are embarrassed by their struggling (again something that the Cambridge supervision system will naturally highlight because of the close and regular contact), but also to provide assistance with study skills, exam technique and time management. These further skills can make a massive difference to a student who has the brain power to master complex concepts but not necessarily the additional expertise required to maximise the product of that brainpower. One has to hope in the putative TEF, credit will be given for the teaching of these ‘softer’ skills.

But what of the first sentence in the quote I give above? What about those students who are struggling, not because they aren’t managing to get up in the morning or are ineffective in mastering the art of a well-reasoned essay? These are the students whose personal life is faltering and causing them distress through no fault of their own – perhaps the death of a close relative or the breakdown of a parents’ marriage – or those for whom depression or other mental health issues arise. These should not be talked to in terms of ‘picking themselves up’ and ‘trying just a bit harder’. In my own college (Churchill) we have a (part-time) counsellor who can act as a first port of call if depression beckons before a student can be slotted into to the longer term University Counselling Service. Having such a person on the doorstep as it were, available to students and staff alike, may seem like a luxury but it is one the College is willing to find the funds for because we recognize its vital importance. The tutorial team are also always on the alert to look out for incipient problems, such as eating disorders, to attempt to tackle them at the earliest stages if at all possible. Even if counselling itself is not needed, having concerned individuals in the form of tutors who look out for the students is a great resource. A tutorial team is a crucial part of the support students need, people who not only provide direct help but who can go further, for instance by organising friends to sit with a struggling student (and then provide support to the student circle itself, because caring for your friends can itself be draining particularly at times of high stress for all, such as exams).

I have come to believe that the way we bring up our children does less to foster resilience in our girls and young women than is the case for the male of the species. Cultural norms, anachronistic norms, mean that parents (and teachers) are too prone to talk to a youngster climbing a tree (for instance) differently by gender.  Girls may be advised to be careful and not to get their clothes dirty; boys may be encouraged to see how high they can climb. Equivalently in lessons girls may be more praised for neatness than for originality. Those – teachers or parents – who do this, are likely to be completely unaware of how they parse their sentences differently for boys and girls. I wouldn’t be surprised if 25 years ago I wasn’t as guilty of this as any mother because I hadn’t thought it through. But now I am deeply suspicious we ingrain habits of excessive caution and unwillingness to take risks too often in the girls and, perhaps just as unhelpfully, promote a devil-may-care and never mind the consequences attitude in many boys.

We all should think carefully about how we interact with the young and how this translates into characteristics for tackling life-challenges later on.


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5 Responses to Stiffening the Backbone

  1. cvcbcn says:

    A lecturer giving our departmental seminar, started by summing up her career (as she had been asked to) also talked about the grants she wrote and that hadn’t been funded. For me this was a very powerful message, she was willing to acknowledged what hadn’t worked and also showed that it was part of her career and she continued on. I guess the cvs of failure that some academics have published recently, are in effect demonstrating resilience on the professional level. I think that if I hadn’t known about those examples, when I was younger it would have made a difference about how I felt about what I could do.

  2. Maria says:

    First of all, thank you very much for your article. I previously read the British news for relaxation and intellectual stimulation, but the last months have made this an impossible pastime, so I moved on to reading this blog for leisure.

    Most conversations around resilience put the burden on the affected person which I think is wrong. People recommend that you need to “get a thick skin” etc., which sometimes boils down to them prompting you to simply accept and live with adverse circumstances, without taking into account we simply should not have to subject ourselves to loss or unfair or unethical treatment and should rather join forces to fight what can be fought and accept what really cannot be changed or prevented anymore (- perhaps the loss of a relative is such a case).

    In resilience psychology, some point out that some emerge from serious trauma (e.g., bombings) without too much damage while others suffer drastically from the divorce of their parents or from not being the top of their class anymore. I sometimes wonder how you can be a counsellor and apolitical.

    This completely ignores that, in many cases, people are subjected to unbearable circumstances and it is the circumstances which need to be changed and not the person. For example, no one should have to put up with sexual harassment, which you previously covered, or, for example, racism.
    In science, there are cases in which people being subjected to impossible working circumstances and improving resilience here is simply wrong – you should change the environment and put the burden on the cause of the problem, not the victim.

    Discussions around resilience need to stop putting the blame on the affected person.

    PS: When I read the headline “stiffening the backbone”, I thought that this article would be about trying not to be too submissive and slick? Is this a pun I got wrong or perhaps a Germanism from my side?

  3. Beth says:

    I think the idea of resilience in sports people is very misleading. Mo Farah was distraught after the race you described, because even as he won he had realised that all of his hard work and sacrifice could so easily have gone for nothing through apparently no fault of his own. I watched that footage and thought – there is a man who has just realised what a bad idea it is to put all your effort, dedication and obsession into one single thing that can be taken from you by chance.

    Many sports people have declared either on retirement or even before that actually pouring your whole soul and being into one thing isn’t healthy, many have battled with depression before during and after their heroic sporting accomplishments.

    I have had the same experience – I had all my being, all my self-esteem invested in my academic success. As soon as the wheels began to come off that, I had no place else to turn to for the validation of worth that human beings need to have to survive.

    Now I understand that lesson, and find my validation in many different places, whether it is in music, sport, or in being a parent, being kind and compassionate to students, or yes – still in being a smart arse in the world of academia. This makes me far more resilient than anyone with a single track towards success will ever be….

  4. Christina says:

    I was surprised to see that there is a mind test pink and blue in the RS for Open Day.
    Apparently it is either ironic or historical. Either way I would be worried.
    I would like to point you toward Adam Marshall. Interestingly in the city and in the business world many recognize the importance of having more women, and of supporting families.
    ‘Don’t let women pay a price just for having children’ Adam Marshall
    “Sustained investment in high-quality, affordable childcare provision would be transformational – for the gender pay gap, for parents’ career prospects, for the success of their company, and for the UK’s overall productivity.” said Adam Marshall of the British Chamber of Commerce.

    Better childcare is the key to creating a competitive, dynamic and successful workforce that includes all of the talent in this country.
    A recent interviewee of mine, said ” we didn’t have pink leggo when I was growing up, neither did my children.” so how come blue and pink mind test at RS?
    very best wishes,

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