“I get so emotional, baby, every time I…”

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Note: We occasionally feature posts written by just one of us or by a guest. This post is by Anita.

(Thanks, Whitney Houston, for the title! I miss you.)

I’ve been thinking recently about emotions in professional spaces. What does it mean to display emotion, to speak with emotion, at a professional meeting? Does the emotion mean that the message isn’t heard? Is it seen as unprofessional? As not belonging in a setting where we’re expected to be calm and rational, follow the rules of engagement, Robert’s rules?

Generally, I’m not one to show a lot of emotion in public spaces. When Adriana and I get ready to go see an emotionally-challenging movie or play, the tissues we take along are all for her. However, I do sometimes speak from a personal place during a meeting, usually from a place of anger, worry or disappointment, and it seems like the emotions and the vulnerability rarely get acknowledged. Since working with emotions is so important in our work as teachers and researchers, I want to know how we can support each other better in being able to hear and acknowledge each other’s emotions as well as our intellects.

Two recent examples.

At a faculty meeting, I brought up a racist incident that occurred on campus the weekend before the meeting. I stated explicitly that I was particularly upset because all the students involved–the person causing the harm and the people being harmed–are students I know, students who’ve taken my classes where we have discussed multiple times racism and the negative effects it has on individuals, schools, and societies. The next person to speak gave more context for the incident but didn’t say anything about how I was feeling and then we moved on to discussing other topics. I was left feeling a bit foolish for the way I shared this information and feeling a bit alone in my feeling of disappointment and frustration.

Of course, this dynamic is not something particular to Carleton. I was at a conference a few weeks ago–the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association--the biggest education-related research organization in the country. There was a town hall meeting to consider what, if anything, the organization should do in this particular political context including discussion about the utility and futility of putting out statements–for example, about the travel ban; the necessity of using our research findings to advocate for equitable public school; and criteria for choosing conference venues. Someone brought up the fact that we were in Texas where a “bathroom bill” was on its way to being passed. One person said that we should not be in the business of political advocacy–we just needed to ensure that we were upholding standards of rigorous research because from what they had seen at the conference presentations, that was not happening uniformly. I was listening intently, not planning on saying anything because many of the concerns I had were being raised by others. Finally, someone said that we needed to be careful about taking political positions because the organization was huge (25,000 + members) and that not all of us were on the same page politically. There might be some of us who voted for President Trump. I decided that I did need to respond to that comment, so I stood and said that it is possible for an organization or at least for the leaders of an organization to take a stance while also affirming the value of dissent and freedom of speech. I pointed out  how the president of Macalester College did just that in his statement about the first travel ban. Then I said that I was worried that we are saying that people’s human and civil rights need to be justified on the basis of “rigorous research.” I mentioned that the bathroom issue was a very personal one to me–though I am a cisgender woman, there have been times when I’ve looked gender non-conforming enough that I’ve been made to feel unwelcome in a women’s bathroom. I added that we could use research to support bathroom accessibility–there is no evidence that trans folx have “attacked” anyone in the “wrong” bathroom while there’s plenty of evidence that trans folx and gender non-conforming folx are in danger of being harassed or harmed when trying to access bathrooms. But I didn’t like the idea of having to justify a basic human and civil right. I sat down and there was just silence. And then the discussion moved on.

At the conference, as we were leaving the room, someone came up to me and thanked me for what I said–and I really appreciated that gesture. This simple gesture and the way it made me feel acknowledged and heard made me wonder about how most professional spaces are set up in ways that make difficult for people to speak with emotions or feel heard when they do so.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this post isn’t meant to signify somehow that I am greatly skilled at working with emotions. Growing up, I was not given the language or skills to be able to recognize and name my emotions either within my family or in my schools. It’s only thanks to friends and therapists that I’ve started to get better at being able to recognize and name emotions, and to not be afraid when emotions come up for students in a class discussion or during office hours. It’s a skill I’m still developing but I’ve learned that it is important that I try to acknowledge the emotion of a comment before moving on to a discussion of the content of a comment. I have noticed that this simple gesture usually helps all students deepen their  intellectual engagement with the materials we’re discussed as well as with each other’s comments.

Nor do I want to leave you with the impression that I don’t appreciate the need for certain rules of engagement–after having taken part in a chaotic and therefore ultimately undemocratic precinct caucus meeting recently, I have a new appreciation for such rules and norms! However, it should not be so difficult to hear and acknowledge the emotions that are part and parcel of the essence of our jobs–teaching and working with young people. Adriana’s previous post addressed the pedagogical imperative to engage with emotions in the classroom and I believe that it’s just as possible and necessary to do so in the spaces where we get together as a faculty or research community to talk about our work together. As we have said many times in our blog posts, divorcing emotions from the intellectual work that we do as teachers, scholars, and researchers (and especially for those of us engaging in research in the educational field) misses the fact that the work we do is deeply entangled with emotions. If we are to support our students in being able to work through their emotions in order to engage more deeply with scholarship particularly about social identities and differences, we need to learn how to do so with and from each other.

P.S. As always, we’d love to hear from you about your experiences related to our posts! So please comment on the blog site or elsewhere. Also, if you identify as a woman/gender non-conforming/trans person of color and want to write a guest post sometime, hit us on the buzz!


3 thoughts on ““I get so emotional, baby, every time I…””

  1. I have a lot of inchoate thoughts about this. On the one hand, I totally agree with you that we need to engage emotions a lot better in professional spaces. On the other hand, I’ve seen emotions run amuck in some very ugly ways in some work spaces—usually in the form of white tears and/or the enfant terrible manager who has to be tip-toed around. One thing I thought about in a previous work space was the importance of allowing people to experience, express, and work through negative emotions rather than foreclosing on them (I had also just watched Inside Out and was thinking about how that movie sought a balance between positive and negative affect.)


    1. Yes, that makes sense. We’d hope that having more skills to deal with emotions would help us manage some of the “amuck emotions”! Your point also makes us think about who is allowed to show emotions, which emotions, in what spaces…


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