As far as the spectrum of human emotions goes, fear poses an eternal paradox. It's simultaneously unique and universal. On one hand, fear is democratic—almost no one is immune. Yet, everyone's fears are highly personal and often individualized.
There's a general consensus that at the very least, fear is inconvenient. The pest hiding in the dusty corner of your room undulating on an iridescent web triggers the knee–jerk brand of fear. Maybe you squeal and fling the nearest household object at it before cautiously inspecting the area for its corpse. Your trepidation fades away in a matter of minutes, with the rapidity of a wave receding from the shoreline.
At its worst, fear can be crippling. There are deeper iterations that underscore our worst nightmares. Sometimes they’re transcendent philosophical concepts—the idea of death or aging, for instance. Other times they're the product of an A24 film that cast our inattentive boyfriend in a hauntingly threatening light (looking at you, Midsommar).
For some, persistent fear is crystallized in what others perceive as mundane interactions.
Social anxiety disorder, as defined by the National Institute of Mental Health, is an "intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others." The disorder exists on a continuum—more severely afflicted individuals indicate a greater number of social fears or describe more severe responses. In any case, those affected by social anxiety disorder experience high levels of anxiety or stress from engaging in certain everyday interactions. The disorder is more common than most assume, affecting 6.8% of the U.S. population.
Social anxiety is characterized by a fear of performance, social situations, or interaction. Essentially, people feel intense distress about engaging in specific behaviors in the presence of others, dreading negative evaluation or scrutiny. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders cites several markers for the disorder—including the fact that “the fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the social situation and to the sociocultural context." Often, individuals recognize the disproportionality of their fear but are still unable to fight it off.
Angela B. Collins' 2009 dissertation found that social anxiety disorder was nearly as prevalent within undergraduate college populations as the general population. Eight years prior, a study in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found that the vast majority of college students experience symptoms of anxiety in social situations from time to time. This research, in conjunction with epidemiological evidence indicating the early onset of the disorder, surmises that both the disorder and symptoms of anxiety are rampant on college campuses.
For most students, this evidence is unsurprising. There's an unspoken familiarity to mental health struggles on campus. This is slightly paradoxical, given the persistence of Penn Face, a phenomenon by which students want to appear better than they feel. In her senior thesis on Penn Face, Antonia Diener (C' 16) further described the contradictory nature of mental health culture at Penn. There's an “openness with hardship versus wanting to appear put together; advocating for change with regard to mental health versus not wanting to be personally involved; understanding mental health as an issue versus actually helping one another."
These contradictions still persist. The buzzword "mental health" frequently appears in our inboxes, often tacked on after the Counseling and Psychological Services support number concluding emails from the administration. Some students discuss it in the privacy of their social circle, while others reserve their dialogue for the mental health professionals they consult.
Most would agree that Penn does have some level of infrastructure in place to support mental health concerns. However, in a lot of Penn's classes, mental health is not made an explicit priority. There seems to be a certain level of stagnancy with respect to integrating wellness into curriculums.
Mandatory participation policies are a prime example of such a stagnancy.
These policies, in essence, mandate some form of live student participation in class. Prior to COVID–19 restrictions on synchronous class meetings, this was usually marked by actively engaging in live class discussions, or contributing to dialogue when cold–called. In a lot of courses—especially humanities–oriented classes or seminars—this participation made up a significant portion of a student’s final grade. These policies were obviously debilitating for students suffering from social anxiety disorder. Furthermore, their fear of evaluation was no longer unfounded due to such policies. The quality and efficacy of their participation were not just being evaluated implicitly by their peers, but now had a quantitative grade attached to it, as per syllabi.
Participation mandates have been restructured due to the pandemic, with many professors opting to grade through completion of discussion posts or otherwise. However, a lot of the pre–existing participation policies have been translated into the Zoom era, including forcing students to have their camera on, remain unmuted, or participate via video chat.
Research actually suggests that Zoom learning could compound, rather than alleviate social anxiety in such cases. The presence of self–image in a video chat has been shown to increase the self–scrutiny that accompanies social anxiety, and amplifies the number of socially anxious thoughts that these people endure. Moreover, the small hurdles present in online communication (lagging video chats, awkward delays), are magnified in the minds of those prone to social anxiety.
Most professors include some sort of addendum in their syllabus indicating that they will make accommodations for the policy on a case by case basis. However, such accommodations can depend on certification by the Weingarten Learning Resources Center, and more importantly, the student’s own awareness of their diagnosis. Social anxiety disorder is often left undiagnosed, which is why students may not even recognize the issue they’re facing. Students may also feel uncomfortable with disclosing details of their mental health to a professor they’re unfamiliar with.
Educators themselves have mixed opinions on the subject. James Thompson, the associate dean of undergraduate curricula at UNC, believes participation should not weigh too heavily on students’ final grades. Yet, at the same time, he recognizes that participation is essential to the pedagogical process: "learning should not be a one–way street."
In an era marked by a global pandemic, political strife, and economic concerns, mental health issues are exacerbated. Global context as well as Zoom fatigue have worsened many students' pre–existing tensions. If there were ever a time to relax the participation component, it's now.
Even with a return to normalcy, however, professors should give more thought to social anxiety disorder among their students. Professors should consider that participation may not be achievable for everyone in the classic sense, while noting that mental health concerns are an extremely personal subject. As such, they should attempt to create a range of avenues through which participation can be measured. For examples of how to do this, they can actually look to the changes implemented by virtual asynchronous learning. A number of professors have offered the option of achieving participation through either discussion posts or live class discussion—whichever works best for the student.
Ultimately, this points to a more central conclusion in the educational context: Professors should trust that students have the best idea of their own limits for learning. Emboldening students to do whatever works best for them and their mental health is crucial to heightened awareness and consideration of mental health conditions.
Social anxiety disorder can transform seemingly commonplace anxieties into insurmountable fears. It is up to educators to dispel this fear in the classroom or do their absolute best to alleviate them.