Unpleasant emotions are normal and desirable in academia


We are currently witnessing a discussion about academic freedom, which is the right to teach, learn, study, and publish without economic or political pressure .

An independent commission on academic freedom was recently set up in Quebec. For its part, following several controversies, the University of Ottawa commissioned a report on academic freedom from a committee chaired by the former Supreme Court Justice of Canada, Michel Bastarache. It was delivered at the beginning of November .

In all of this debate, academic freedom may seem to clash with the recognition and acceptance of the unpleasant emotions felt by some members of the academic community.

However, academic freedom also includes a certain social responsibility . Professors and researchers should be able to exercise their research and teaching activities in the freedom of their ideas, provided these do not harm the mental health of other members of the university community. Moreover, these ideas should not contribute to the reproduction of oppressive relationships.

As doctoral candidates and teachers in the fields of psychology and sexology, sensitive to trauma, we propose to deepen collective reflection by addressing the importance of identifying and accepting the existence of unpleasant emotions during incidents in a learning context.

Why are unpleasant emotions important?

Accepting and experiencing unpleasant emotions is important, both for individual mental health, but also for living well in society . Each emotion has a function that allows human beings to adapt to their environment.

Anger allows you to set limits and enforce them. In some contexts, such as a confrontational situation, anger is desirable because it helps defend personal interests and progress toward a goal . Anger allows you to activate and mobilize energy towards the achievement of a goal.

Guilt invites us to change our behavior to do better in the future. For example, it makes it possible to recognize socially inappropriate behavior such as stealing, lying, or defrauding. People who feel less guilt and shame are more likely to engage in such behaviors, which are considered immoral .

The place of emotions in learning environments

Learning environments, particularly at the post-secondary level, are often presented in the West as the preeminent places of intellectualism and rationality without regard for the emotional aspect of the learning experience .

From this perspective, any argument can be debated, as long as it remains detached from the emotions. The rational then becomes the privileged way out for refusing to discuss a lived experience, when it manifests itself with emotion.

In a context where unpleasant emotions such as anger are difficult to accept, individuals develop ways of ignoring them, or actively attempting to change them in order to adapt to social norms. Strategies of this type have well documented impacts on mental health.

One of these strategies, cognitive reassessment, aims to change our thoughts about an emotional situation by minimizing its impacts or even trying to find positive aspects. This strategy is generally considered to be beneficial for mental health, since it allows to consider a different perspective and to decrease the intensity of the emotions.

However, this strategy is not appropriate in all contexts . For example, researchers have pointed out that cognitive reassessment could be particularly harmful for people who experience assaults that undermine their identity.

One study suggests that in people living with oppression, actively trying to suppress unpleasant emotions is linked to deteriorating mental health.

Other studies show that people who are victims of racial discrimination in schools experience more psychological distress, which affects their educational success.

The students are part of the community 2SLGBTQIA + would also be at risk of experiencing discrimination and the consequences.

Unpleasant emotions, mental health and oppressive relationships

In learning contexts where the teacher is in a position of power over the student, oppressive relationships are at risk of occurring. The teacher, in the context of transmitting emotionally charged or even non-inclusive content, may attempt to minimize or denounce the unpleasant emotions expressed by socially oppressed students.

Such behavior can lead to an escalation of exchanges, as well as to aggression and re-traumatization of some. Note that teachers can also experience psychological distress, for example if the unpleasant emotions experienced by others are manifested in an aggressive or violent manner.

In addition, student-teacher conflicts affect the school climate, which is essential for learning and academic success. Thus, it is essential to find solutions aimed at preventing the deterioration of student-teacher relations and we believe that better welcoming unpleasant emotions could be an interesting course of action.

Courses of action

In a school setting, it is essential that students and teachers can learn to develop their emotional skills . In addition, they should be able to identify, understand and use their own unpleasant emotions as well as those of others in order to be able to discuss and develop a non-oppressive school climate.

Institutional change is also necessary since the acceptance of unpleasant emotions is crucial for mental health . This recognition of the perspective of the other and the adoption of an open posture contributes to the creation of a positive school climate. Such a climate is necessary so that students feel that they can express the presence of unpleasant emotions and that they will not be invalidated. Thus, this climate allows for student-teacher relations that are more favorable to dialogue and respect for each other. The school climate has positive impacts not only on students , but also on teachers .

In order to avoid situations conducive to conflict and to foster respect for people who are under-represented in post-secondary studies, it is essential that the entire university community benefit from rigorous and regular training on equity, diversity and inclusion, which are based on the latest scientific studies .

In short, faced with these multiple debates about academic freedom within learning spaces, we want teachers and educational institutions to realize that freedom also comes with a moral responsibility towards the university community.

Omitting the existence of unpleasant emotions can have important repercussions not only on learning, but also on mental health and the reproduction of oppressive relationships.

Author Bios: Catherine Cimon-Paquet is a Doctoral candidate in Psychology (PhD) and Eliane Dussault is a Ph.D. candidate in sexology both at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM)