Academics and the fundamentals of caring

It’s easy to say academics should be kinder and more giving to students, but they already face myriad other demands and must mind professional boundaries

November 15, 2018
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At the start of the academic year, a scholar based in Nebraska shared some personal experiences of how his own professors had gone above and beyond to help him as a student.

His aim, he wrote, was to highlight “how meaningful acts of kindness, small or large, can be”.

When, as an undergraduate, he was admitted to hospital, one of his teachers stayed at his bedside throughout. When he was discharged, another invited him to stay at their house.

As a master’s student, with barely enough cash to get by, a supervisor invited him over for regular evening meals, and when he was applying for his first full-time posts, “a professor hired me to coach a debate tournament and paid me enough to buy a suit”.

The moral of the story? “As we begin a new semester, remember you can be kind without being easy, and students are complex people who sometimes could use a hand,” he advised.

It would be an icy heart that was not at least a little warmed by these tales of support, which clearly made an indelible impression, as well as providing material assistance at times of need.

But my glib comment, when I retweeted these posts, that this amounted to “real student support”, was rightly challenged by others at the sharp end of the academic-student relationship.

The broad thrust of the responses was that while it is all very well, and a nice Twitter thread, the reality – as ever – is not quite as simple as that.

Indeed, it was pointed out that deep involvement in students’ lives can not only lead academics into complex and difficult areas, it can also be directly detrimental to their careers (and, potentially, personal lives), given the time and energy that such “emotional labour” often entails.

What’s more, it is women, as ever, who tend to suffer most, because they are often more actively involved in the “academic citizenship” stuff, which does not usually earn recognition or reward.

Let me give a few examples from respondents to the posts in question.

“When a colleague and I visited a student in hospital, he later went around boasting that we had only gone to see him because we fancied him,” one UK-based academic replied.

“After I spent a couple of days recently looking for accommodation for a homeless student, she made a formal complaint about my teaching.

“Obviously we try to be professional and kind, but experience has shown me that it’s rare for most students to appreciate such efforts, and sometimes they backfire spectacularly.”

Or this from another UK academic: “I’m sure inviting a student into your home is likely to be misinterpreted by management in some places. Sad to have to consider that.”

And this quandary from a third: “If you reach out there are risks to you and to students, but if you don’t you are contributing to the fact that a lot of students are abandoned (often the already marginal ones).”

Such debates and doubts must be familiar to many who work directly with students, and are highly relevant to our cover story this week, on the 24/7 academy.

Scholars are increasingly snowed under by the blizzard of demands on their time and constant draining of reserves of energy and motivation.

The pastoral element of the role in particular has grown, and the impact on scholars is often forgotten as institutions and policymakers fall over themselves to be seen to be putting students at the heart of whatever they are talking about at any given moment.

Which is not to suggest that students should not be cared for, taken seriously, nurtured and challenged. Nor that academia should necessarily be (or has ever been) a nine-to-five job.

But if it is not to become an impossible strain on academics (who have many other demands on their time, too), then it has to be managed and structured in a way that works for all.

As one of the respondents to the survey underpinning our cover story puts it: “Academic staff need support to support students.”

That’s not just kindness, it is also common sense.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Fundamentals of caring

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