What Does it Mean to 'Care' About our Students?

The Gallup results and more.

May 15, 2014

A Gallup poll came out and the headline reads “A Caring Professor May Be Key in How a Graduate Thrives”. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, and it is the same conclusion that the recent book How College Works comes to (read my review here and Just Visiting’s review here): the relationships that students forge with faculty, staff, and their peers is the most important factor in their persistence and success in college. Those students who don’t connect drop out. Those students who do connect don’t just thrive in school, but beyond.

My question, however, has to do with the language used in the headline to describe the ideal professor: caring. The gendered nature of the language can’t be ignored; it calls for an increase in unrecognized emotional labor, often on the backs of female professors (I’ll get to the adjunct issue in a moment). But if you would, compare the description of the findings from two different publications covering the report. From the first:

College graduates, whether they went to a hoity-toity private college or a mid-tier public, had double the chances of being engaged in their work and were three times as likely to be thriving in their well-being if they connected with a professor on the campus who stimulated them, cared about them, and encouraged their hopes and dreams.

And now, from the second:

The poll didn't measure graduates' earnings. Rather, it was rooted in 30 years of Gallup research that shows that people who feel happy and engaged in their jobs are the most productive. That relatively small group at the top didn't disproportionately attend the prestigious schools that Americans have long believed provided a golden ticket to success. Instead, they forged meaningful connections with professors or mentors, and made significant investments in long-term academic projects and extracurricular activities.

“Caring” here is more than just mentorship (which is still different from “caring”), it is also “sponsorship” – where the person actively promotes and pushes the student in ways that benefit their academic careers. The long-term academic projects. The increasing responsibility within extracurricular organizations. Caring about the students has to also come with opportunities for the students to benefit from.

Language matters. And there are still professors (largely, but not exclusively, old and male) who rail against this kind of treatment of undergrads. You know, the ones who say that we are their teachers not their parents and our job is to educate, not baby-sit. However, many of these same professors will in fact sponsor students that they see potential in, students who stand out, students who they want to help succeed. The focus for this particular demographic is not that they care (a feeling) but that they act.

Which bring me to my next point: how much good does “caring” do if you are not in a position to back up the emotion with any sort of concrete action? Adjuncts and other contingent faculty often lack the capital, both personal and institutional, to actually act on the fact that they “care” about their students. Beyond a sympathetic ear, what can an adjunct do to help the student feel more connected? What opportunities can they provide for the student beyond the three-credit-hours of the course, with no office, no time, no established place within the larger university or college (or multiple universities or colleges)?

I care about my students. And these findings and the contrasting language used to describe these findings have finally allowed for me to articulate the problem I’ve had with rhetoric that we just need to “care” more or that adjuncts and other contingent faculty don’t “care” as much – we don’t have the time and energy to “mother” them, and even if we did, we have limited access to the really important aspect, which is showing we care by providing opportunities for them beyond the walls of our (temporary) classrooms.

Share Article


Lee Skallerup Bessette

Back to Top