The email was sent by an academic to freshers at Queens' CollegeAzeira

You have probably seen the email sent out by the fellow at Queens’ by now. For those that have not, it is a masterclass in decimating the self-worth of all but the most assured of students. It reads as if the person writing it was consulting a checklist to ensure they did not miss an opportunity to trample all over anyone who has ever had a mental health condition, struggled with work or felt like they do not belong here. I think that’s probably all of us.

In the email, having a “good time” becomes a “behaviour pattern”, and one which is not “possible or acceptable” at that. For “a large fraction” of those addressed, even their “full brain capacity” would not be enough to ensure they fulfilled academic expectations. This would be quite the feat of insensitivity were it sent to a group of hardened third-years. It was sent to a cohort of freshers who have been in Cambridge for just over four weeks.

“Why do some academics consistently engage in behaviours which perpetuate and exacerbate mental health issues?”

We know imposter syndrome is a commonly experienced phenomenon here, particularly amongst underrepresented demographics. We know that mental health issues related to work stress and academic pressure are rife. Why do some academics consistently engage in behaviours which perpetuate and exacerbate these issues?

The potential damage that email might have caused to student welfare was clearly not a remote consideration for whoever authored it. And if it were, that is in many ways far more concerning.

The email was admittedly extreme, but it was not produced in a vacuum. It is part of a much wider culture of disregard for the welfare and mental health of students at Cambridge. Much has already been made of the need to further invest in mental health provision and limit students’ workload – which are both, of course, vitally important – but there has been less of a focus on the environment wilfully fostered by some of the academics at this university. Pressure is deliberately piled onto students in an attempt to improve their academic achievement, without any care for the impact that it could have on those concerned.

These attitudes come in exaggerated forms, as in the case of this email, but equally insidious are the smaller interactions which take place between staff and students. These are not procedures which require reform – such as class lists, scholars dinners and financial incentives for first-class students – but attitudes. They are the odd comment at the tail-end of an email, telling you that you can ‘build on’ a set of results you were actually pretty happy with, thank you very much. They are the deliberate over-estimation of hours students have to put into a working week to achieve the ‘minimum standard of a 2:1’. They are disapproving comments about over-commitment to extracurriculars, letters of explanation demanded of ‘underperformers’ and counterproductive ‘criticisms’ scribbled in the margins of essays.


READ MORE

Mountain View

Queens’ refuse to condemn DoS over fresher email

In the first meeting of the year with your Director of Studies, the discussion is rarely about the grade you would like to work towards, but rather the grade that is expected of you. They should be there to offer academic or even pastoral support; we are not here to work for them. A university-specific entrance process and a good reputation do not change the fact that we are paying £9,000 for the privilege to be here. Our education should be ours to manage.

There is much that could be changed institutionally at a college and university level. We know from experience, however, that this is easier said than done. A shift in attitudes is far more achievable. Every single academic needs to understand the impact of what they say to students, to appreciate the nuances of the ways in which a demanding academic environment and mental health issues can intersect, and treat students as if they are people rather than a grade.

The University needs to own this. Perhaps it is not us, but some academics who need to be “careful” how they “handle” themselves. To those who find themselves falling short of the required standard, I say: look after your students, learn to enjoy it – and then see if you have any desire to send demeaning and belittling emails to those over whom you have a duty of care.

End of


READ MORE

Mountain View

Queens’ refuse to condemn DoS over fresher email

Sponsored links