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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

When the going gets tough (the weak get weaker): Primitive Mental States and Emotional Traumas in Students

This paper arises out of experiences of working with undergraduate students in my capacity as Study Skills advisor and out of my increasing realisation that prevailing models of study skills teaching were hopelessly inadequate for understanding, let alone diagnosing and remedying, a series of responses from students to their work which were, rather then simply being 'defective', in some cases deluded and in others frankly psychotic. This is not to say the students in question suffered from psychiatric disorder but rather that there were psychotic or primitive mental states at work which were activated by their attempts to engage with academic work. These states of mind seemed to me to require a language of psychoanalytic understanding that fitted uneasily with the cognitive (and sometimes humanistic) educational psychology of the study skills literature.I was also becoming more and more aware of strong the strong feelings engendered in both myself and my colleagues on marking the work of students who had not performed well. These feelings included despair, helplessness, disbelief, contempt, hatred and occasionally horrified amusement at what we saw reflected back in written work. At times, it was like being 'hate-bombed'. At others, one could only wonder what had happened to the ideas - intact, dynamic and complex when taught - and somehow derelict, desiccated, and distorted beyond recognition when returned. If reading this kind of work represented some kind of counter-transferential phenomena, and I believe it did, then there was something was clearly happening. Powerful emotional states were being communicated by impact (Casement 1985). The description given by a psychoanalyst of working with a very disturbed patient reminded me very powerfully of the experience of marking: she notes 'My communications were forced back into me causing me great anxiety and pain. I realised we were in the field of the anti-container and were bereft of any means to communicate, absorb or dream together' (Van Buren 1998) I wanted to look at what these communications might be and to try and use a psychoanalytic perspective, mainly post-Kleinian, to explicate the processes. I also wanted to explore the scope for intervention in these processes and the extent to which these interventions could be incorporated into how we teach our students to learn.The paper is divides in to sections. In the first section I explore the study skills literature and the shortcomings of the cognitive skills or 'training' emphases which dominate them. In the second section I introduce some of the ideas I have used to help me make sense of both my experience and students' experience of learning when 'the going gets tough'. These ideas come mainly from the work of Bion, though I have borrowed from the sets of understandings embedded in Object Relations when it seemed to help. In the third section I discuss the findings from interviews with students focusing on their emotional experiences as learners. Finally, I try to assess (a) what sense can be made of these experiences using the theoretical framework outlined above and (b) what implications, if any, follow for our thinking about how we deliver teaching and support learning.