April 28th, 2011

Faculty-Student Interactions: Why You Should Care

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The May issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter highlights some content from a really excellent article on caring for students. The article by Steven A. Meyers summarizes research documenting the strong and positive association between caring and a variety of learning outcomes. It also addresses reasons why faculty object to the idea that they should care for students—reasons like, students not appreciating the way faculty do care, that caring compromises professional distance, and that teaching, not caring, is the job of academics.

At the end of his article, Meyers proposes a number of yet-to-be-answered research questions which make equally good points for discussion and reflection. For example, some research documents that the importance of expressing care and concern for students is ranked differentially by disciplines. In one study it is was ranked lower by those who teach chemistry, computer science and history, and higher by those teaching communication, education and English. Is this an issue? Should care be expressed equally across disciplines? Or, is caring more important in some fields and less so in others?

Meyers also thinks it would be valuable to know whether establishing supportive relationships with students is more important at some times during their academic careers than at other times. Are early experiences with caring teachers more beneficial than later ones? Or, are caring teachers important at every stage of a student’s academic career?

Finally, Meyers points out what most of us would admit: “… it is easy to connect with students who perform well in classes, appear invested in their college education, and display positive behaviors toward faculty members.” (p. 209) But are these the students who most need teachers who care? How does caring affect those students not as well prepared or motivated? Should teachers make a special effort to connect with these students?

All good questions, but I think Meyers missed another really central question: can teachers learn to care for students? He does note that sometimes teachers express care with behaviors students don’t always interpret as caring—such as devoting time and energy to stay current with content; carefully planning and preparing the materials they present; and writing copious comments on student papers. Students are more likely to equate caring with whether the teacher knows their names, promptly answers email and sticks around after class to answer questions.

I don’t think any (certainly not many) teachers start out not caring about students, but students can challenge a teacher’s commitment to care. They can be disrespectful, disruptive and seemingly not the least bit interested in learning. Some seem to want nothing more than easy A’s and classes that end early. Their behaviors can make teachers tired and less willing to extend themselves. What do you say to a colleague who might be disconnecting from students? What do you say to yourself? Can teachers relearn to care for students?

Caring is one of those abstractions conveyed behaviorally—people do things that are taken to be indicative that the person does care. The problem is that any time you feign behaviors that you don’t genuinely feel, that inauthenticity is easy to detect. Exhibiting behaviors commonly associated with caring may be a good place to start, especially if you do care but aren’t expressing it in ways meaningful to students.

If you no longer care or don’t care as much as you used to, I wonder if the better advice isn’t to get back to the reasons and see if they can be addressed. The way back to caring should be pursued cautiously. Maybe it starts by connecting with a few students, those about whom it is easy to care. Maybe it starts in one class, with majors who are interested in the material. Maybe it starts with a few behaviors that fit comfortably with who you are and how you teach. Maybe it’s letting students know that there are lots of ways a teacher can have students’ best interests at heart, and some of those may not be things they thought of as caring.

Reference: Meyers, S. A. (2009). Do your students care whether you care about them? College Teaching, 57 (4), 205-210.