In my most recent therapy session the idea of compartmentalization arose. We discussed how difficult it is to leave separate in our mind experiences of various settings, such as the professional or the varying degrees of personal. I understand the value of parsing out the different modes that we use to mediate interactions with one another but my mind is prone to rekindle connections. I wonder if the compartmentalization that we believe preserves healthy boundaries so that we can all function with ease and efficiency is actually the source of poor boundaries.
Recently a peer instructor experienced a severe migraine in front of her class. I was in my office when this occurred until I heard an uncertain but quite audible knock at my door. It was my peer. She was leaning into the doorway on her dominant arm and hand with a fuzzy smile on her face. One of her students had clearly helped in guiding her from the first floor to the fourth to seek my help.
The only thing she stated was that she had had a migraine and that her students were presenting their speeches that day. Immediately I offered to step in and handle the remainder of her class and the one that followed. She looked relieved. I gathered my things and headed down to the first floor to the classroom we share. When I walked in the students were chatting lively. They were making conversation and trying to lighten the mood. I overheard an impromptu discussion between a few students. They were discussing their mental associations to migraines and their teacher suffering right in front of them. I was quick to announce, "There's nothing like a migraine to remind you that Instructors are human."
There was a resounding quality of agreement in the air and in their verbal responses.
"That's so true!"
"Haha We forget!"
"I hope she is okay.."
We briefly chatted about adapting in the moment and to audience, one of the core concepts we teach in beginning communication courses. The following three speeches were some of the best I had witnessed in the past two years.
In the past I have discussed with my peer instructor the difficulty she was experiencing with her students. They seemed disinterested in her lessons and unwilling to fully engage in discussions. After watching a few of these students perform exceedingly well, it was clear to me they had paid attention. The critical lessons were absorbed, that or they were innate in them. I like to think education draws out the relationship between the external lesson and innate knowing.
Before my peer's incident of public vulnerability the students tended to clam up or shut down. After, they revealed their true character. They showed real care for her well being. It took a moment of raw inspiration to inspire them to embrace their own public displays of vulnerability; to present their true selves. For both my peer and her students, I think that the migraine brought about something essential. It reminded them that they have a responsibility to each other.
Reflecting upon this incident and many other moments of vulnerability I have witnessed or heard retold, I am sure that the professional persona gets in our own way. I put in a lot of mental work to keep soft the hard line of my Instructor persona. I fear that if I relax too comfortably into professionalism, my humanity will seem invisible or muted. This is why my students know when I am ailing, fatigued, or lacking the spirit to be present. Together, we bring these very human states into the learning process. My willingness to directly engage them at a human level invites them into the communication and learning junction. I can reach to the stations where they have arrived and travel with them to new destinations of knowing.
As for the boundaries that professionalism seeks to make clear, it is my serious duty to preserve the boundaries of student safety as much as I am able. Safe feels markedly different to every single individual. I do the work. I am committed to maintaining an open line of communication so that when boundaries are pressed against in a way that is damaging or threatening, we can cease the pushing. If I were to set boundaries so static that only predictable behaviors and ideas could take place in the classroom, the humanity required to build knowledge would surely be neglected. What I really desire to say is that often what we deem professional is a justification to deny the human condition, to wish it simpler and more predictable than it ever will or should be. From where I stand, higher education needs more serious discussion around the difference between real harm and the discomfort of growing and facing our own humanity.
I say this because I operate in a culture where to be a professional and to reveal a vulnerability is undesirable. In this same culture it is common to ignore the boundaries of the vulnerable when they are crossed. Even when those who at first benefited from this culture find themselves vulnerable in professional situations, they may still choose rationalize how they are perpetrators of their own demise. It becomes commonplace to compromise our own safety to uphold the myth of professionalism.
I choose to live counter to this culture as much as I can. It is reassuring to have experiences like the one I had with my peer's students on a day that was very difficult for her to navigate. However, we do not need to wait until we have no choice to reveal our vulnerable side to show the wholeness of our humanity. This is something we can achieve at all times as long as we are unwilling to compromise who we are for an aim unworthy of bending our wills for.