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Anxious at School: Enablement and Disablement at Women's and Historically Black Colleges

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Anxious at School:

Enablement and Disablement at Women’s and Historically Black Colleges

Sula Malina

November 22nd, 2014


“Academic discourse operates not just to omit, but to abhor mental disability—to reject it, to stifle and expel it”

-- Margaret Price, Mad at School



The umbrella term “anxiety disorder” covers a variety of mental disabilities—from social phobia, to obsessive-compulsive disorder, to post-traumatic stress disorder. As characterized by the National Institute of Mental Health, although “each anxiety disorder has different symptoms [. . .], all the symptoms cluster around excessive, irrational fear and dread (Anxiety Disorders 2). This paper will focus primarily on the phenomena of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia, the propensity to become overwhelmingly anxious and panicked in everyday social situations). With good reason (though of course no mental disability is reliant on reason), many adolescents dealing with social anxiety disorder find themselves most severely disabled in college. College is a time for constant, new social interaction. Students must navigate finding new friends and fitting into a niche, while at the same time balancing a hefty workload, post-graduate plans, internships, and extracurricular activities like sports or music. Because the majority of college students live away from home, it can be some time before a truly comfortable living space and support system are available—creating further stressors. Individuals coping with these anxiety disorders experience physical symptoms (like sweating and nausea), coupled with the temporary inability to speak or interact. 

Studies have shown that anxiety disorders affect a far higher number of women than men, and it is for this reason that the study of anxiety at a women’s college seems particularly important (Lewinsohn 109). How does the environment of a women’s college lend itself to anxiety management for women with the disability? Because research on anxiety (like most studies) focus primarily on a Caucasian population, it seems also significant to look at the impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) on the anxiety of the Black students attending them—and in particularly, on African American women. A closer look at communities designed to cater to a specific identity group may clarify what elements of college are simply (and perhaps inescapably) anxiety-inducing. 

Anxiety Support at College

Without debate, the first and foremost complaint of any college student is stress. For some, this seemingly never-ending pile of work with no immediately-foreseeable outcome, along with many other factors, can lead to depression, a state that is often comorbid with anxiety. Those who enter college with an anxiety disorder, already diagnosed or otherwise, face a struggle to deal with their disability from day one, in an environment generally hostile toward self care (no matter what the college recruiters claim). Surveys conducted on college drop-outs show that at least 62 percent of students leaving college before graduation who have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, actually leave for this very reason. Although depression was the primary diagnosis of 27 percent of students demonstrating mental health issues in 2011, reports of anxiety surpassed depression, according to college counselors (Grasgreen 2012). The issue is particularly significant because the average age of onset for most mental illnesses is between the ages of 18 to 24, suggesting that many college freshmen may have no prior experience dealing with anxiety (Tartakovsky 2014).

Much of the data and research on this topic readily available focuses primarily on student mental health services at colleges and universities. As necessary as effective counseling services are, it seems that to look merely at the care provided for students in response to heavy workloads and other college-related stressors is to accept nothing more than a band-aid on a wound. In fact, over 60% of college students reported that the college mental health service most readily available to them was a 24-hour crisis line (Grasgreen 2012). Why wait until there is a crisis? To truly understand student anxiety, social and otherwise, researchers must take a critical look at what factors within the institution of college are leading to stress overload, and leading high numbers of students with anxiety disorders to leave out of necessity.

Anxiety in the Classroom

One of the primary spaces on college campuses that quite directly disables many students suffering from anxiety disorders is the classroom. Academic settings are centered around the idea of reaching for and beyond the norm, a goal completely counter to the focus of disability studies. As Margaret Price, author of Mad at School, asserts,academic discourse itself is based firmly on a list of necessities that leave out countless people dealing with mental disabilities. She enumerates these topoi:

            - rationality

            - criticality

            - presence

            - participation

            - resistance

            - productivity

            - collegiality

            - security

            - coherence

            - truth

            - independence

Here, I would like to highlight in particular the notion of “participation.” Price expresses the inadequacy of this term (or at least how it is typically used in the academy) to encapsulate the wide variety of ways in which people participate. As John C. Bean and Dean Peterson explain in their article, “Grading Classroom Participation,” creating a numerical value for participation is insufficient even without mental disability in mind; “Participation often depends on a student’s personality, thus disadvantaging shy or introverted students” (Bean & Peterson 33). What of the student coping with social anxiety who simply cannot speak up in class, no matter how irrational they consider their situation to be? Further, many rubrics used to assess participation take into consideration the number of absences a student has collected. But, as Price expresses, “what does ‘participation in a class mean for a student who is undergoing a deep depression and cannot get out of bed? Or a student who experiences such severe anxiety, or obsession, that he can barely leave his dorm room or home?” (Price 5-6). Clearly, there is much lacking in the average college professor’s grading system.

It appears that, for students able to come to class on a regular basis, participation within the  classroom is directly affected by the approachability of the professor. A study conducted by Charles Spielberger in 1978 found that even students who were characteristically anxious were able to participate frequently if the discussion was led by a relatively non-threatening professor. In fact, the professors included in the study were rated as equally non-threatening by both the anxious and the non-anxious students (Peters 393). This study implies that there may, in fact, be methods by which to minimize student anxiety symptoms within the classroom. Perhaps careful screening of professors could affect the classroom environment in which students are expected to participate. However, much of this connection would seem to be based around personality-type, and the ability to relate to a professor, in order to see him/her at one’s own level, and not a threatening authority figure. This, clearly, could not be screened for, at least on an institutional level. This implies that something must be done to the structure of class discussion in general to reduce stressors, rather than leaving this responsibility to the instructor’s ability to relate to students.

Further, other studies demonstrate that an anxious student’s stress lies beyond the professor him/herself. Dolly Young, in studying the anxiety produced by foreign language learning, quotes Krashen, another, similarly focused academic: “The more I think about self-esteem, the more impressed I am with its impact. This is what causes anxiety in a lot of people. People with low self-esteem worry about what their peers think; they are concerned about pleasing others. And that I think has to do a great degree with anxiety” (Young 427). Certainly, this notion applies beyond the language classroom. It is not just the threatening professor the anxious student attempts to impress, but his/her classmates as well. This may be particularly true in higher-education courses, where expectations are high, and students often go far out of their way to excel in front of their peers.

But how much of this anxiety—caused by the professor, caused by classmates—is identity-specific? Are women more anxious in classroom environments because of a male presence? Could the same be true for African-American students in the presence of their Caucasian peers? How might the expectations imposed upon identity groups affect the anxiety symptoms these individuals exhibit? 

Women’s Colleges

“…However, this interaction [between professors and students] was found for males but not for females and involved differential changes over time. The females answered so few questions that it was not possible for the personality variables to influence their response rates” (Peters 393)

Historically, the majority of higher-education research has centered around co-ed institutions. yet, as the above quotation demonstrates, this is simply not sufficient as a method of studying women’s participation in the classroom, especially in relation to anxiety. In fact, the study that Peters references simply neglects to question why the women may not have participated in the class discussion, and instead mentions it off-handedly, brushing it off and essentially removing it from the data.

Still, is this not what women’s colleges are for? As Smith, Wolf, and Morrison assert in their study of the impact of women’s colleges, “women are often treated as ‘outside the norm’ and as ‘second-class citizens’ on coeducational college and university campuses” (“Paths to Success” 245). This frequently results in lower self-esteem, self-confidence and expectations for themselves. Although fewer than three percent of college women choose these same-sex settings, studies prove that the typically negative impacts of co-ed schools on attending women have historically been just the opposite in women’s colleges. As the theorists asserted, “compared to their coeducational counterparts, women’s college graduates held stronger views toward equal gender roles, expressed higher self-esteem and self-control, and were more likely to have achieved success in their occupations and to have achieved marital happiness” (247). A large part of this success was contributed to the large presence of female faculty and staff, acting both as role models and relatable figures of authority. Such results seem to answer some important questions raised by Peters’ research on instructor threat; though women did not participate enough in class discussion to have their responses measured, this could be related to the comparatively high male:female faculty ratio at most co-ed institutions—all four professors used in the study could likely have been male, resulting in such a high level of perceived threat on the female students’ part that female participation essentially did not exist.

Research has found that women typically suffer from anxiety disorders more often and earlier in their life span. By age 6, females were already twice as likely to have experienced an anxiety disorder (Lewinsohn 109). Researchers have suggested that this earlier age of onset may contribute to the large role anxiety plays in the classroom for female students; the sudden inability to speak may have lasted longer for female students, thereby convincing them over time that their contributions are generally less significant. Because females generally reported feeling more self-conscious both in and out of school, the proclivity to be self-critical coupled with the high pressure of a co-ed classroom with a male teacher could easily result in high anxiety for such students.

However, it is essential to note that more than 90% of the students in the study were White. Smith, Wolf, and Morrison express the failure of studies on women’s colleges to acknowledge the differential experiences of women of color. In fact, the authors cited a separate study on African-American women at HBCUs that came to a surprising conclusion: women attending co-ed HBCUs actually described themselves as more self-reliant and assertive than those at single-sex HBCUs—the direct opposite of their White counterparts. Such results call into question our assumptions about sex differences, particularly as they relate to race (“Paths to Success” 262). 

If the stories and experiences of women of color are consistently left out of research on the impacts of women’s colleges, it seems imperative to look as well at the impacts of Historically Black Colleges and Universities on their students—both male and female.

Historically Black Colleges

The study of students’ success at HBCUs is unique, in that the way these students measure their success is significantly different based on the institution they attend. As Kevin Cokley explains in his study of HBCU impact, students at predominantly white colleges and universities (PWCUs) determined their level of success based on their GPA, while those attending HBCUs measured it based on relationships with faculty (Cokley 148). This may, in fact, be similar to the experience of (White) women at women’s colleges; while women’s colleges hire more female faculty, HBCUs traditionally hire more faculty of color, perhaps leading to solidarity and the ability to relate between students and professors.

However, despite these differences in measurement, Black students attending HBCUs did appear to have a higher academic self-concept. Additionally, researchers found no statistically significant differences between men and women at these institutions, as far as their self-concept went (151). Students at HBCUs reported having more positive experiences on campus, and generally felt better about their environment. They were also more confident in their academic abilities, which would certainly positively affect anxiety with speaking in class. Cokley additionally argued that “the kind of institutions students attend has less influence on a student’s academic self-concept than what happens to the student after he or she arrives on campus” (159). Essentially, Cokley believes that a Black student should be able to thrive just as well at a PWCU as they would at a HBCU, if they have the same level of support and access to faculty to whom they can relate. Still, there seems little doubt that the increased sense of self-worth present at HBCUs for Black students would lead to higher levels of comfort participating in class in a social scene, thus resulting in lowered anxiety symptoms.

A separate study, conducted by Joseph B. Berger, focused only on church-affiliated HBCUs. Here, Berger came to similar conclusions as Cokley—HBCU students gave themselves higher self-ratings in terms of “psychosocial wellness, academic, and achievement orientation” (Berger 381).  Berger cited separate studies that found HBCUs generally to be less rigorous and offer a more well-rounded educational experience (388). A smaller workload and a greater sense of connection between courses could certainly affect student anxiety, both in and out of the classroom. Popular belief suggests the same is true at women’s colleges—they are no longer “hidden ivies,” but rather more like typical liberal arts schools, with smaller workloads and more focus on adjustment to student life. Thus, it would appear that Black students at HBCUs generally do experience fewer stressors leading to anxiety than Black students at PWCUs.

Conclusion: But It’s Still College

It is apparent that colleges catering to a specific, historically marginalized population, in terms of reducing symptoms of anxiety. But to what extent are even these institutions disabling, simply by nature of being collegiate settings? In their piece “On Being Transminded: Disabling Achievement, Enabling Exchange,” Professor Anne Dalke and Clare Mullaney write on the inevitably disabling aspects of the academy, and the need for the integration of crip time into student life and academia.

Dalke and Mullaney provide an abridged history of women’s inclusion in the academy, explaining the recent “realization” that women can operate in academic settings in the same way men can. However, this development, coupled with the creation of women’s colleges, has created sometimes dangerously high expectations for the perfect college student. They write: “a recent study of the ‘campus climate’ has made it clear that the portfolio of the idea Bryn Mawr woman—an ambitious, capable and high-achieving student-emphatically excluded mental illness (and with it multiple, valuable forms of human and academic expression)” (“On Being Transminded”). Now, more than ever, women are expected to do and be everything in order to keep up with their male counterparts.

Despite all of the positive points offered to women by a women’s college environment, the stressors imposed by the same environment are many. Dalke and Mullaney call for crip time, “a more relaxed, hammock-like way of thinking about what happens in educational practice, one in which the shared time we occupy in classrooms gives ‘space’ to a more capacious sense of phenomenological time.” Further, they discuss “the profound need [. . .] for some time that [. . .] is ‘just plain wasted…sometime we are just ‘doing time’—in depression, in illness, in times when there is nothing really beyond surviving to do.’” As much as we can discuss tactics to alleviate anxiety in the classroom and caused by large workloads, anxiety for some college students is truly time-halting. Further, what of the individuals who do not fit so neatly into either identity group? What of those who identify as transgender who attend women’s colleges, or those who identify as mixed race who attend HBCUs? Participating in a community intended for a specific identity when an individual does not entirely identify in such a way (or is not identified by others in such a way, for that matter), can bring with it its own sort of anxiety. Professors can be replaced, or trained to be less threatening, and workloads can be lessened, but until there is a substantial shift in the shape of the institution, college students’ anxiety will continue.


Works Cited

Bean, John C., and Dean Peterson. "Grading Classroom Participation." New Directions for Teaching and Learning 74 (1998): 33-40. Print.

Berger, Joseph B., and Jeffrey M. Milem. "Exploring the Impact of Historically Black Colleges in Promoting the Development of Undergraduates' Self-Concept." Journal of College Student Development 41.4 (2000): 381-94. Print.

Cokley, Kevin. "An Investigation of Academic Self-Concept and Its Relationship to Academic Achievement in African American College Students." Journal of Black Psychology 26.2 (2000): 148-64. Print.

Dalke, Anne, and Clare Mullaney. "On Being Transminded: Disabling Achievement, Enabling Exchange." Disability Studies Quarterly 34.2 (2014): n. pag. DSQ. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Grasgreen, Allie. "Students Rate Mental Health Services." Inside Higher Ed. N.p., 30 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Sept. 2014.

Lewinsohn, Peer M., Ian H. Gotlib, Mark Lewinsohn, John R. Seeley, and Nicholas B. Allen. "Gender Differences in Anxiety Disorders and Anxiety Symptoms in Adolescents." Journal of Abnormal Psychology 107.1 (1998): 109-17. ProQuest. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Print.

Peters, Ruth A. "Effects of Anxiety, Curiosity, and Perceived Instructor Threat on Student Verbal Behavior in the College Classroom." Journal of Educational Psychology 70.3 (1978): 388-95. Print.

Price, Margaret. "Introduction." Introduction. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. N.p.: U of Michigan, 2011. 1-24. Print.

Smith, Daryl G., Lisa E. Wolf, and Diane E. Morrison. "Paths to Success: Factors Related to the Impact of Women's College." The Journal of Higher Education 66.3 (1995): 245-66. Print.

Tartakovsky, Margarita. "Depression and Anxiety Among College Students." PsychCentral. Psych Central, 30 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Young, Dolly J. "Creating a Low-Anxiety Classroom Environment: What Does Language Anxiety Research Suggest?" The Modern Language Journal 75.Iv (1991): 426-37. Print.