Arriving at university with an obsession to care
It’s almost 20 years ago that I was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship (2001), and ‘caring’ featured heavily as a concept, philosophy and action throughout all aspects of my reflection, citations, and project. Re-reading the piece that I originally wrote (I was so astonished to win that I kept it!), what stood out for me was the ways in which I conceptualised caring, that and my obsession with it! It’s clear to me now, but it wasn’t clear then (it was more like an urgent desire to change people’s lives) that what I was really engaged in was a form of remodelling pedagogy based more on students’ agency rather than caring as being a tool of widening participation and inclusionary politics.
I distinctly remember having many conversations with academics about students’ motivations and I couldn’t recognise myself in their accounts of them and their behaviour: I was (am) a working-class academic, with all the attributes and uncertainties that often go along with an upbringing of poverty and exclusion, but even so, I have agency, I also have a social conscience, and above all, I am kick-ass.
Being all three seemed to be impossible within many universities in 2001: perhaps it was because Widening Participation was a project that was to be so key to funding and outcomes that it overtook everything else; perhaps it was because most academics still saw accounts of students’ learning as pathologised rather than as multi-faceted being-ness in action (as one of my students recently called it), or perhaps it was because most of the academics who worked in HE at the time simply could not ever see that working class students, part time students, students of colour, students of lived diversity in fact, had any agency at all. To them, excluded, marginalised invisibles (staff and students such as me!) were victims of structural hardship, our only contribution to the academy, to raise the awareness of difference and discrimination.
Caring teaching and caring teachers: dirty words in higher education?
What did and does care have to do with this? Ten years ago, on writing the reflective story about pulling and nurturing, it had become clearer to me what I had intended all along with this obsession to care, and in addition, what was wrong with the way that I had researched it and communicated it to my peers. That rested upon clarifying dipolar views of the same concept – one that suggested that care was indeed a relational quality and so necessitated an examination of personal behaviours and intentions; but the other one rested upon a re-definition of the impact of care and caring pedagogy – I was and am arguing for caring as a forceful and agentic process. Up until then, much literature – and most academics – saw care as a social activity, whose purpose was to both include the excluded, offer solace and succour to the delicate and the depressed, and in general, to ensure that in line with an increasing social awareness of mental ill health and anxiety, education should be a form of therapy.
My writing and my teaching were easy targets for critics of care: I was contributing to a therapy culture, and unwittingly positioning students as frail victims and lecturers as compliant servants. Despite my own research and other emerging studies demonstrating cognitive as well as personal gains to be made from caring teaching, pedagogic care is still misunderstood, due in large part I would argue, to the fact that in higher education, structural accounts of disadvantage and exclusion/inclusion still dominate the discourse of student learning and achievement. And another discourse has emerged to strengthen this notion – the issue of students as consumers and customers and teaching as a service. Unfortunately, it seems in popular discourse, that agency is too easily aligned with students’ personal gains from their study, positioning learning as individualistic and caring teaching thus as part of a pandering world view to students as continually demanding, yet perpetually frail beings.
So why should academics still care in 2020?
In my writing and my research, I examine models of teaching and learning with care, and often, I don’t recognise such views of students, despite them being presented as standard tropes in the media and so on. Things have changed in 20 years of higher education, of course they have! Our understanding of the motivations of students in higher education has been informed by complex analyses of the impact of fees and of poverty. Our understanding of the motivations of academic staff has been informed by studies of performativity and burn-out. And above all, our understanding of learning and affect has been informed by bio-anthropological studies of attachment and relationships. But I still teach and still get to know my students deeply and what they want above all else. This is why I am still convinced to teach with care, so that students have a deep and sustaining connection with their teachers, and feel changed as a result of it.
Caroline Walker-Gleaves is Professor of Education at Newcastle University. You can find out more about her work in Constructing the caring higher education teacher: a theoretical framework (Teaching and Teacher Education, 2016), and Exploring the Conceptual and Practical Impediments to Operationalizing Care in Higher Education (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019).
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