I got a student evaluation comment this term that really made me think. Not about my teaching or courses, but about my students and what my role is to them vs. what they perceive it should be. The eval was something to the effect of:
“She is passionate about the content and subject matter, but she doesn’t seem to really care about her students.”
At first, I kind of shrugged and thought, yes, that sounds accurate. I care about the content and what my students learn, but I’m not sure I care about my students. Well, let’s get specific here. I care that they all receive the same equal opportunity to learn the content in my course. I care that they are provided with all the information they need to understand how to succeed. I care that they are exposed to the material that I need them to learn.
But do I care about THEM? I don’t know. Is it my job to care about them?
We see that women in academia are penalized when they don’t exhibit nurturing behavior toward their students in a way that men aren’t. Students are, perhaps, looking for their women professors to act more like mothers than professors/bosses/authority figures.
I have always held the firm and well-thought-out belief that there are other institutions both on campus and in their personal lives who exist to “care” about them. Their families or friends. College counseling centers or Student Life offices. And I do think part of my responsibility is to guide them to those resources if they need someone who can provide the “care” that I feel is beyond the scope of my profession. The kind of “care” that could, perhaps, require someone more personally invested or professionally trained. The “care” that is absolutely never reflected back toward me (imagine me complaining to them that they don’t care enough about me!)
And also, the “care” that I am certainly never being rewarded for when I’m working toward tenure.
A recent Chronicle piece was slammed pretty heavily because the author seems so nonchalant and annoyed at what could potentially have been a real tragedy in a student’s life. I understood that this was written in sarcasm/hyperbole. I also understood the criticism: that this woman was far too callous and “didn’t care about her students.” But I also understood where she was coming from.
There are some students, those who have sought and created a mentoring relationship with me, about whom I care on a more personal level. After many office hours visits or semesters in class, through voluntary independent study courses in which they write lengthy papers under my guidance, these students have shown that they really DO care about the course content, the information, and the discipline. When those students have a work/life balance question or a personal crisis, I have certainly offered a listening ear or advice that would certainly fall under “caring.”
But there are students who would try to take advantage of the “caring,” like the student the author describes in her article. So when a student that I have seen in class just a handful of times approaches me, asking for some sort of extension on an assignment, etc., either because of a personal crisis or just for no reason at all, my response is always the same: I guide them to the university/community resources that can help them with whatever problem they’re experiencing, and I remind them of the very specific policies laid out in the syllabus for how extensions or late work will be handled. No judgement call on my part. No unfairness. No . . . caring.
Maybe it’s true. Maybe I don’t care enough about them. Our students are adults who are learning to navigate a world independently, where they must deal with adversity and learn how to find resources to overcome it. My job is to teach them political science. And while I certainly don’t mind providing information on resources available to my students, caring and nurturing students is a burden, sometimes a futile one or one that students will take advantage of. It is a burden that is expected from women far moreso than men, and we aren’t rewarded for it. So why should I care?