Caring about Caring
Once (and only once) and for a reason that escapes me now, the engineering professor had written the word ‘love’ on the blackboard, He stepped back and mused, “….don’t see that word often here …” and we males all shifted uncomfortably in our seats. At the time I thought him a little eccentric and behind the times. Rather than building on past successes his research had veered towards psychological and even philosophical aspects (OMG!). I preferred the nitty gritty of technical detail. He was not a particularly good administrator either but his door was always open and when I was in financial difficulties (more than once) he always managed to help. Not all the academic staff were so caring.
University engineering departments probably represent an extreme when it comes to caring about caring. In an almost all male environment it can be difficult to even discuss relationships let alone agree what needs to be done for the better. In particular, the small minority of female students, however academically gifted and self-assured, can find it difficult adjusting to an atmosphere of boyish geekiness and literal mindedness exhibited by some male students and academics.
Being a bit geeky and literal-minded myself and having no background in social sciences, much of the pedagogical discussion in MOOCMOOC either goes over my head or comes through too simply as exhortations to ‘Do Good!’. But I am invigorated by the stories of real teachers and real students and there have been some excellent thought-provoking examples of this. Some caring suggestions I came across could apply to the type of Higher Education environment I knew as a lecturer and I try to envisage the practicalities.
For example, turning up early at lectures for casual chat is one suggestion I considered (apologies as I can’t find who suggested this!). Sometimes students approach the lecturer before a lecture and conversation can flow but it’s not so easy when setting up overhead projectors, drawing curtains, dispensing handouts and attendance sheets, organising demonstrations etc and having to start more or less on time. For the career academic at a UK university, teaching, admin and research usually account for most working activity and in my experience (albeit last century) only the superhuman can balance all three satisfactorily. Promotion prospects hinge primarily on research and that involves travelling to meet potential sponsors, supervising research students and contracts, nail-biting applications for funding, ordering equipment and so on, not to mention actually doing research and writing it all up. The result is that teaching may come to be regarded as a secondary activity or even a necessary evil. Those taking the time to excel as teachers can be sidelined by a lack of publications.
Passion and involvement of the whole self are advocated and for good reason but displays of passion are not without danger. The prof I mentioned above liked and respected his young secretary but became worried that a goodnight kiss following a tequila-laden social event was a little too fond. So he apologised profusely to her the next day. Fortunately, to everyone else, including his secretary, this was nothing more than amusing evidence of his humanity and careful sense of propriety.
Most university academics probably recognise the benefits of getting to know students on a personal level but this can be difficult for practical reasons such as lecturing large numbers of students from different departments and can even be counter-productive if not approached with skill and maturity. The dean in Tom Lehrer’s comic song who “Tried so hard to be pals with us all” illustrates this nicely. These lines also highlight the stark ‘them and us’ divisions that can characterise university life.
To the beer and benzedrine,
To the way that the dean
Tried so hard to be pals with us all.
To excuses we fibbed,
To the papers we cribbed
From the genius who lived down the hall.
To the tables down at Morey’s (wherever that may be)
Let us drink a toast to all we love the best.
We will sleep through all the lectures,
And cheat on the exams,
And we’ll pass, and be forgotten with the rest.
The trouble with ‘linear’ subjects such as engineering, or STEM in general, is that there actually is a considerable amount of content that has to be transmitted into heads one way or another before moving on to a next stage. Yes, tutorials can be used to get to know students, problems can be framed authentically to spark interest and engagement but can calculus or circuit theory ever have the same potential for intimate discussion and reflection as poetry, art or philosophy?
UK universities seem better prepared for personal interaction between academic staff and students these days. There are formal systems such as staff/student committees and personal tutor schemes in place for mentoring and identifying collective and individual student problems. Personal tutors are encouraged to meet regularly with their tutees helping them with any type of problem arising but again, properly keeping track of perhaps 8 tutees is time consuming and may not be regarded by some tutors (or students!) as important. When borderline exam results are discussed in the privacy of examiners’ meetings the input provided by personal tutors can be crucial for fair decision making. Sadly, some tutors may have little to contribute – some may not even recognise the names of their tutees!
All sorts of practical issues bedevil good healthy interaction between academic staff and students. Perhaps things will change with the climate of opinion inside universities but I find this difficult to envisage without systemic change and proper resourcing.