“But he doesn’t seem to know our names…” I remember reading this in a student feedback form years ago, from a unit being taught by a senior colleague. I actually thought it was pretty impressive, and a mark of the Bristol spirit, that such an eminent scholar would be teaching a beginners’ course for first years without a hint of complaint, rather than (as often seems to be the case elsewhere) insisting on limiting his exposure to students to advanced seminars where they could be expected to do most of the work themselves. I can also fully appreciate the difficulty, as one gets older, of learning names and retaining them; apologies to any of my students reading this, but my short-term memory is basically rubbish these days, and the effort of learning the names of all the second-year ancient historians for the unit in this half of the year has driven out roughly 60% of the names of the first-year ancient historians that I memorised back in the autumn. (The good news is that, according to our discussion in a class on digital history, today’s students don’t bother with blogs, so I may be okay).
Now, my defence would be that I want to know all my students’ names, I’m just finding it a struggle these days, and so end up apologising a lot. I’ve no basis for determining what the balance was between can’t and won’t in the case of my distinguished colleague, nor indeed whether the student’s concern was more with an apparent lack of inclination to get friendly than with a failure to manage it in practice. But this does leave me wondering how far there have been changes, not just in my cognitive abilities but in the expectations of students about their teachers and of lecturers about their duties when it comes to the personal and emotional aspects of the relationship.
One reason I found myself thinking about this a couple of weeks ago was reading an article by Paul Mason on modern working conditions, which mentioned in passing the idea of emotional labour, increasingly expected from service workers: it’s not enough to make a decent espresso, “you have to smile and mean it”, at the risk of losing an essential part of your wages or even of getting fired for insufficient sunniness. Now, personally I’m quite happy on most occasions to have no conversation whatsoever beyond the specifics of the transaction, and would consider giving a bigger tip to someone brave enough to be open about having a lousy day in a crap job – but I can see both how an apparently genuine friendliness from a barista or waitress can be a pleasure, and how employers are likely to try to exploit that. Prima facie, the more that students are conceived as customers, the more we may expect to find that emotional labour is expected of their lecturers.
Of course, it isn’t that the relationship between lecturers and students in the past was not personal. Indeed, one of the reasons why lecturers feel themselves ever more under pressure, one might suggest, is that (at least in the humanities) the default model for that relationship remains to a significant degree the small Oxbridge tutorial, where the pedagogic dynamic could play out over three years of fairly intimate intellectual exchange – and so we run ourselves into the ground trying to recreate that dynamic with vastly more students and significantly fewer resources. In the same way, the friendliness and simulacrum of a personal touch expected of baristas today is only partly new; it’s also partly an attempt at recreating a version of the sort of relationship that a shop-keeper or pub landlord would have had with his or her customers in a village of a few hundred people, all of whom had lived there all their lives. We (well, some of us; clearly I am more of a happily alienated urbanite than I thought) would prefer multi-faceted, personalised relationships, where someone not only serves you coffee but is also the niece of your mother’s bridesmaid’s sister who was two classes below you in school, to the anonymous, instrumental relationships of mass society. Even I quite like the feeling of being recognised when I go into a cafe that I frequent regularly.
In other words, most of us, a lot of the time and at least in certain contexts, would prefer to live in villages, and modern capitalism seeks to provide an equivalent experience as a means of parting us more effectively from our money on a regular basis. And (in a much narrower frame), most lecturers would, at least in certain contexts, prefer to be teaching in some sort of idealised Oxbridge, maybe without the fancy dress, or at least a pre-expansion university with lots of small seminar groups and plenty of opportunity for discussion and development. I don’t actually know what ideas of university most students are operating with or where they get these from (parents? teachers?), but I feel reasonably certain that they will likewise involve a certain amount of expectations based on an actual or idealised past, and the import of guidelines on personal tutoring and the like is to try to get some way towards that goal with staff-student rations of 15-20:1 rather than 5:1.
But there is more going on. After all, the point about one’s relationship with the shop-keeper in this mythical pre-modern village was that it was multi-layered and personalised – you knew them, they knew you – not that it was automatically friendly. The idea that one’s relationship with the barista should appear to be not just personal but actively pleasant, and that it’s the job of the barista to make it so, is, I think, a new one; hence the idea of ’emotional labour’. Is it the same with lecturer-student relationships today? My experience of Oxbridge tutorials was that you got the time and the attention of the lecturer, not that you liked them or expected them to like you – indeed, the whole thing could be downright scary and/or unpleasant, but (mostly) in retrospect also productive and educational. Lecturers were – and were allowed to be – curmudgeonly, short-tempered, impatient, dismissive and sceptical, and I don’t recall feeling that they should be compelled to be anything else. Negligence, laziness and unreliability were problems; grumpiness was part of the rich tapestry of university life.
I do feel, admittedly without any hard evidence, that this has changed somewhat. It isn’t formal or explicit, but it seems to be there in, for example, anxieties about the tone of feedback; not whether or not the feedback is helpful but whether it might be upsetting – everything has to be framed in terms of constructiveness, which makes pedagogical sense (what’s the point of feedback that just points out errors?) but which also seems to involve something of a slippery slope towards the avoidance of any negative comments at all. The underlying drive of the National Student Survey seems less about whether students are actually learning than about whether they’re enjoying the experience; given that this, and other surveys of customer ‘satisfaction’, are what increasingly set the expectations of our role, the implication is that we are indeed responsible for the emotional state of our students as well as their intellectual development. We should be supportive, available, welcoming, patient, tolerant, forgiving – and not in the least judgemental if they don’t like economic history or if they prioritise sports or partying over their studies so long as they get ‘their’ 2:1.
It is perhaps worth stressing that I do actually like my students (well, all but one or two) and enjoy trying to enthuse them with the subject, even if this also sometimes leaves me exasperated. Is such attitude a pre-requisite for the job? I’m reminded of this exchange in Buffy:
Principal Snyder: I mean, it's incredible. One day the campus is completely bare. Empty. The next, there are children everywhere. Like locusts. Crawling around, mindlessly bent on feeding and mating. Destroying everything in sight in their relentless, pointless desire to exist. Giles: I do enjoy these pep talks. Have you ever considered, given your abhorrence of children, that school principal was not, perhaps, your true vocation? Snyder: Somebody's got to keep an eye on them.
Many if not most lecturers entered academia not because they love students but for quite different reasons, and people whose idea of fun is an eight-hour stretch in an archive with as few other people around as possible are not necessarily equipped with the sort of people skills or outward-focusing emotional intelligence that now seems to be in practice more or less a requirement for the job.
Does this make them less good teachers? As I said, I come from an era where academics could be as brusque, dismissive, uncaring, cold, and unimpressed towards students so long as they knew their stuff. Some of my lecturers I remember with enormous affection, others still with an twinge of past resentment – but I learnt from all of them, and there’s no automatic correlation between the ones I learnt most from and the pleasantness of the experience. The attitude of “oh God, another one; okay, show me if there’s anything about you to make me care what you think” can be a spur as much as a discouragement. Today the appropriate line is more like “of course what you have to say is interesting, but let’s think about how we can make it even better” – even if that’s basically untrue.
To quote another Buffy stalwart: “Tact is just not saying true stuff. I’ll pass.” That isn’t my style – I would be falling over myself to find the positive in student work whether or not this was expected – but I’m not sure if that makes me any better as a teacher, and I’m not sure if the energy that other, less doormat-like colleagues have to invest in ‘being nice’ is the best use of their time. However, niceness is no longer a matter of personal inclination but a core competence. It’s increasingly clear that education is just another service industry, desperate to keep its customers happy and so requiring its employees to do emotional as well as intellectual labour.
[Incidentally, it was an enormous relief to find, in the course of the aforementioned seminar discussion about digital history, that a fair proportion of my students still know about Buffy. My pop cultural references are not completely out of date. Admittedly this arose as a result of attempting to explain to a sea of blank faces what I was talking about when referring to Firefly…]