What does being a “caring” professor mean?

September 6, 2011, 8:00 am

There was a comment on this post back on the old site that I felt deserved more than just a reply. Raphael said:

…I flinched when I read this sentence:

“The ideal result is that the child/kid/student has a sense of being understood, cared for, and valued.”

There is one big difference between being a child and being a student. A child, I guess, has to be supported no matter what in the bounds of somewhat well-defined rules/values. You know your child is being stupid (like painting a green sky) but you still say it is doing great. It is part of the process.

As a student, I am on the verge of becoming a professional. What I need from my teachers (which includes other students, assisstants, professors) is honesty. If I do well, I need to hear that, true. But if I mess up, I need to know, too. And maybe the latter is more important. I have to learn my weaknesses so I can work on them. How can I feel honestly—and respectfully—treated if I have the feeling to be “cared for”?

I’m glad Raphael brought this up, because “caring” is one of those concepts that is very important for teaching, but there’s a fine line between its use and misuse.

The wrong way to “care” for a person is to give the person something other than what is in his or her long-term best interest. This could look different, depending on the person. If my 2-year old son calls a rectangle a “square”, I affirm him — not because he’s right, but because he’s learning. That affirmation is the best thing for him long-term because it associates shape recognition with positive feelings. If my 5-year old did the same thing, though, I would correct her, because at her stage of growth, she needs to be identifying shapes correctly; the best thing for her long-term growth is guidance and explanation. (Done, of course, in a way that doesn’t deny her basic value as a person. I don’t think making people feel stupid on purpose serves anybody’s best interest, long- or short-term.)

Making the distinction between instantiations of caring according to different stages of development is critically important for educators — because a lot of learners never make that distinction. I’ve seen a college student point to an example where a professor went to the student’s dorm room and woke him up out of bed when he overslept for class, as an example of “caring”. But that’s not really an act of care at all! This just trains the student to rely on other people for basic personal management tasks that are clearly the student’s responsibility. In fact this is more like being uncaring, because the prof is making the student less ready for the world that is coming after college is over.

A variation on the “wake me up for class” misuse of the concept of caring is what Raphael points out — not telling the truth to undergraduates about their work. It is not an act of caring to see improvements that can be made in a student’s work and not pass them along. But not to offer criticisms at all when there is something substantive to mention — or, equivalently, to give high grades for less-than-excellent work — is basically lying, and there’s no way that lying to someone serves his or her long-term interests.

It’s part of the professor’s craft to learn how to give criticism that does not undermine the student’s basic value as a person. But avoiding it altogether is basically saying “I don’t care about you” to the student. I can tell you some things you are doing wrong and on which you can improve — but I’m not going to, for whatever reason. I don’t care about you.

So I guess you could say that being scrupulously truthful — while being at the same time totally mindful of each student’s inherent value as a person, and respectful of the student’s struggles to learn — is what “caring” means in the context of teaching.

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