Today we are up to "F" and there are a lot of choices, ranging from "F" and its cognate "Failure" and "Freshman/Freshmen" and "Faking it" but instead of all those good choices, I wanted to talk about Fear.
Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
-Frank Herbert, Dune, from the Bene Gesserit litany against fear
Fear is something we all deal with at all levels of our lives, including in academia. It manifests in a wide variety of ways -- I can only talk about my own experiences, but there are a lot of different implications for each of us when we are afraid, and when we let fear influence us and our choices. And there are different levels of fear -- there are the overwhelming (largely) irrational fears of heights and small spaces, of flying and people of differing backgrounds, and there is a fear of stepping outside of your comfort zone, doing new things that you don't have any faith in your ability to complete successfully. So... fear is phobia, and nerves. But fear can also be the result of physical and psychological threats and actions. I was only once threatened by a student who was unhappy at a grade. Today I would insist it be taken more seriously than it was 20 years ago. That was not irrational fear, by any means, and I was lucky it never went beyond one telephoned threat, but that can also be an important component of academic life (and of non-academic life that can influence academic performance, etc.) and I think it can be looked at as probably a useful experience to have that happen once, as long as it never went beyond a single threat. I know a bit of what that not-being-sure-if-it-is-safe-to-be-in-your-own-home thing feels like. It was scary, and I would not have spent that night at home for a million dollars.
Fortunately most of my experiences with fear are ones that I can control internally but that I haven't controlled very well. I do get intimidated and have to work through that. As a freshman at college, I was intimidated by the huge stacks of books for some introductory level classes, including Philosophy and Anthropology. I was not sure that these classes were what I wanted to really get into, but because of the tall pile of required textbooks I didn't even try. In retrospect, I realize I was scared of doing something outside of my comfort zone, something that required effort I wasn't sure would lead to success. I wasn't necessarily scared of hard work, but I was afraid to do put the effort into something without a guarantee of success. It was just starting to occur to me that I wasn't going to be good at everything. But I hadn't processed what that was doing to my academic trajectory. I think I recovered, but I never did the full year-long anthro class, and I never took chemistry. I did two years of Geology and the cultural anthro class and an upper level one in archaeological methods (ironically largely statistics that I never got in a stats class it would have been good to take).
My students are, in this at least, more sophisticated than I think I was at their age. It is at least partly the way they are taught -- the distribution requirements in high school these days are broader than I had and therefore students are more experienced in a wider array of approaches to learning and they are sometimes more understanding of how to make it through things outside their comfort zones. It doesn't mean they will want to do it, of course. But they know they have to and they know, in a way, that they can. For example, my art history majors have to take a drawing class, which is teaching them how to look at and record the world in a completely different way. It is nothing they have necessarily done before, and it is something that is not easy, even for someone who wants to be a studio artist. But while they aren't all happy to do the class, they don't let that discomfort stop them. They don't let fear overwhelm them and stop them from doing something they would benefit from.
Then there is submitting an article, a grant, starting to write a paper or teach a new class or teach subject matter that is not familiar to you. Teachers have a thousand opportunities to be afraid every day. We have students who are happy to be in class, of course, but some are not. Some are pushy, some are angry. You can't help but think of the situations where a student has been angry at his grade and has brought a gun to the class. This all is scary. But standing in front of a class is scary, frankly. Being a teacher is performing without a net.
What is frightening to you in the classroom? Or are you one of those lucky people who doesn't feel fear?