by Ken Rosenberg
After Harmeet’s annual beginning-of-the-year party at the end of orientation week, many of the grad students – and a few of the more adventurous professors – ventured to a bar to continue socializing. Over a couple of drinks and amidst the roar of the collective chatter, Bryant Paul helped second-year M.A. student Yanyan Zhou understand the role she is beginning to adopt as a researcher of “Boys Love” stories and as a future teacher of sex in media. In an interview last week, Bryant elaborated on his advice … on how to deal with the extracurricular activity of giving advice to students.
Professor Bryant Paul is easygoing and sociable. His area of study is at the interaction of sex and media, which means he often has to speak plainly about oft-stigmatized topics. For these reasons, students often see Bryant as a knowledgeable and safe advisor for many of their personal issues. Some are directly related to discussion points from class, though many are not. They are usually beyond the purview of the average professor, but Bryant’s open and empathetic demeanor compels him to help as much as possible.
First piece of advice: Embrace the research – it’s scholarly and important.
After initially being dissuaded from pursuing his ideal course of study, Bryant went to University of California, Santa Barbara, with adamant intent to study sex in media. His mentor, Professor Dan Linz, inspired Bryant to never again doubt his academic lot in life. Bryant says “He doesn’t run from it at all … he absolutely embraces the notion. What you come to realize … is that you’re really studying the most fundamental human social behavior. Before people could talk, sex was still part of the equation. It’s something that is not only okay to study; it definitely needs to be studied. You have to start thinking about it in those terms, in a more clinical sense. Otherwise, there is a tendency for it to become a bit of a joke – at least to other people.”
Second piece of advice: Let people vent, but stand your legitimized ground.
“It’s okay for them to think it’s hilarious,” Bryant explained, “because it makes them a little uncomfortable. That’s one of the reasons they act that way – but there’s a point where you have to let them know that you’re a serious person, as serious as anyone else about what they do.” It is easy to “get away from that,” something Bryant attributes to his joking nature, but “you have to be careful,” he warns, “because there is the tendency to want to marginalize in their minds, at least, what we’re doing.”
“Because of the topic that I teach,” Bryant said, “which is stigmatized by a lot of people, what I think ends up happening is a carryover. We’re discussing things that aren’t commonly discussed, in class and personal meetings about class, and it’s not uncommon for someone to let their guard down. They feel that since we’re already talking about things most people talk about behind closed doors, it’s alright to bring these problems to this guy. I’ve found out a lot about people and I’ve been – not shocked, this is what happens – but, at least early on, I’ve been taken aback by how willing people are to disclose their personal backgrounds, particularly issues of a sexual nature.”
Third piece of advice: Empathize and advise whenever possible.
Bryant has heard about abuse and relationship issues; he’s had people come out to him and discuss their sexual preferences – and he knows it’s not for everyone. “There are times when some people would advise you to step back,” he said, “but that’s not who I am. I see someone hurting, and I want to try and help them feel better.” He knows that Yanyan has a similar caring nature and that she will face these issues, too, especially given their teaching topics.
“I want to work with people who would already by doing this sort of thing,” Bryant said. “Yanyan, I have to say, is very much that person. She’s nurturing, a person who tries to help other people.” So, Bryant would never say “go out and do it,” but he would tell those inclined, “don’t be afraid to do it. Follow that inclination; it’s okay. If that’s something that gets in the way of your productivity sometimes, so be it. I think it’s more important that people are healthy and happy.”
“I’m sure that everybody gets talked to about this, at least some of this stuff,” Bryant said, “but I can’t help but feeling like, since teaching about sex and media at an undergraduate level, I’ve really had a lot of people come and talk to me about things that I don’t think most people talk to most of their professors about – which I think is awesome, by the way. I love it. I think it’s absolutely fantastic. I am perfectly happy to have that happen. I’m glad, because I want to help people if I can. I’m not a therapist, but sometimes people expect that you are, at some level. That’s difficult.”
When it first starting happening, “I was freaked out,” Bryant said. “I didn’t know how to handle it. Somebody comes in and says, ‘my girlfriend just had a miscarriage.’ How do you handle that, if you’ve never had to think about it?”
Fourth piece of advice: Share what you know; listen and don’t judge.
One option is to draw from personal experience. “I consider my students my equals, on most levels,” Bryant said. However, he is confident that he has much more experience. Bryant often tells his grad students: “the only thing I have on you is years.” He also encourages his mentees to “divorce yourself of your cultural predispositions. You’ve got to keep your moral compass, of course, but you can’t judge through your own eyes. You have to realize that maybe, in this person’s culture, what they’re doing is perfectly reasonable.”
Many students are connected to their professors via social networks, and Bryant has found this link to be a handy way to monitor emerging crises. “Usually, you just stay out of that sort of thing. But, if they starting making what seems to be “a really obvious mistake,” he is not beyond – or above – offering help. “The worst they can say is ‘no.’ You don’t want them to feel like you’re trying to meddle, but you’re lending a hand if they want to take it.”
Fifth piece of advice: Don’t sweat the role, but give referrals when necessary.
What about the risk of giving advice that could make things worse? What about interfering? “You have to worry about that,” Bryant said. Still, it’s not as anomalous a risk as some might think. “You run that risk bumping into a stranger in public,” he said, and “it’s the same risk when you’re in a classroom, talking about something to which you’re personally attached. You have a theory about it, and you’re pushing your theory as though it’s truth. You’re running the same risk.” However, at the first signs – even a subconscious inkling – that a student is seriously depressed or has a mental health issue, “my first inclination is always to make them aware of our university’s counseling services.”
“It takes a special breed to go into graduate school,” Bryant said. “We’re not average, and sometimes that quirkiness makes students more sensitive to issues. I worry about that.” Regardless of what degree one is pursuing, college is often a turbulent phase in one’s life. “There are a lot of students that come here in the process of turning into an adult,” Bryant said. “Some are even quite immature. They’re very inexperienced, very naïve. We can say ‘you’re so immature, you’re so inexperienced, you’re so naïve – grow up.’ Or, we can help them do it. The better way is to at least offer the opportunity, to offer a little help.”
So, if you have a student approach you during your next teaching opportunity, keep this advice in mind. If you feel up to it, try to lend a hand. After all, we’re all in this together.
“I think that’s what we’re obligated to do, because we’re educators,” Bryant said. “While it’s not included in our contracts, an educator is a citizen-maker. You’re helping them become better citizens. That’s what media literacy is all about. We’re here to give them the tools to handle themselves later in life.” Besides, on a more pragmatic note, it’s difficult to absorb class lectures if they’re worried about more serious issues.