I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend (Unless I Do): Emotional Labour in University Teaching

Some friends of mine do a podcast called Witch Please, about the world of Harry Potter. They are scholars out of the University of Alberta and much of what they end up talking about it related to teaching and pedagogy at Hogwarts. I often completely agree with them (for instance, that Hufflepuff is the only house that really values education); I often completely disagree with them (honestly, I may be a monster, but Cedric Diggory’s death was just SO contrived). Nevertheless, they have recently been talking about emotional labour in their podcasts and somehow it has got into the back of my head.

Seriously, go check it out.  I’ll wait.

Emotional labour is one of those feminist issues that I’ve never really dug into before. No real reason I guess, just never really thought too much about it. Over the past few weeks, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about assessment, universal course design, students with disabilities, and my increasing sense of frustration and exhaustion and I’m wondering if the concept of emotional labour might help me to articulate what it is I’m feeling regarding teaching.

“That is, when a professor’s ability to assess a student’s capacity to participate in the discourse or discipline is removed or hindered by the administration in a misguided (mis-)application of universal instruction design — in other words, passing a student because the student will be emotionally traumatized by failure — the course ceases to be about participating in a discourse or discipline and becomes instead infantilizing, othering, and disenfranchising.”


In some of the studies I’ve been reading regarding education and working with students with learning disabilities, I’m not surprised to see that students who feel that their instructor is empathetic and approachable end up doing better. For instance, 

  • Ouellett (“Faculty Development and Universal Instruction Design” in Equity and Excellence in Education 2004) notes that there are many advantages to profs knowing their students, not least of which is tailoring appropriate supports to students who may need extra help.
  • Rose and Meyer (Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age 2002) argue that “affective networks” are necessary for engaging and motivating students, especially students with disabilities. Getting to know your students allows you to communicate your passion for the material and thereby motivate them to do well.
  • Another study (Elacqua et al Perceptions of Classroom Accommodations Among College Students with Disabilities 1996) came to the somewhat unsurprising conclusion that, for students with disabilities, the experience of asking for accommodations can be stressful. Such stress is reduced when students feel that the professor is empathetic and supportive.


I know, none of this is terribly surprising to me, either. Teaching is a very personal thing, predicated on individual relationships that sometimes last an entire lifetime. 

There’s a big distinction in my mind (at least at the moment) regarding setting up a classroom in which everyone is respected and reasonable accommodations are met for a wide range of disabilities and setting up a classroom in which the professor is asked tacitly or explicitly to take on the emotional labour of the students. I worry that the latter is the conclusion that some university and school board administrations are coming to from studies like the ones I just quoted (and others). That is, when a professor’s ability to assess a student’s capacity to participate in the discourse or discipline is removed or hindered by the administration in a misguided (mis-)application of universal instruction design — in other words, passing a student because the student will be emotionally traumatized by failure — the course ceases to be about participating in a discourse or discipline and becomes instead infantilizing, othering, and disenfranchising.



Students with strong social networks and well-developed relationships with professors will tend to do better in classes, this is true. It’s one of the reasons why I give my students access to my Facebook, my Twitter, my YouTube, and whatever other social media I belong to. I want students to use me as a resource. If you want to learn about Shakespeare or poetry or theatre or what have you… I’m here to help!

That said, I can’t be anyone’s friend while they are my student.  Obviously. 

Montaigne probably put it best. One cannot be friends with someone who has power over you because you will always be beholden unto that person. Students want something from professors – to pass the course. It is perverse to demand both a hierarchical organization of power and a distributed organization at the same time about the same topic. It’s not that professors are like princes were to Montaigne – better than their subjects. It’s that when it comes to the particular topic at hand (for me, Shakespeare), the professor is the expert in the discipline who is judging the student’s capacity to participate in that discourse. Yes, I’m always judging you. That’s my job.



Further, I maintain the right to choose my friends based on my own personal inclinations and desires. I don`t think anyone will judge me too harshly for keeping that right to myself.  Friends do emotional labour for other friends. We cry on each other`s shoulders and we get drunk with each other when one of us goes through a break up. It`s a labour that is unpaid, that is shitty, that is hard, and it is incredibly difficult. You can`t pay people enough for genuine emotional labour. It has to come from a choice.



In the attempt to set up a classroom that is empathetic and supportive, I worry that it is too easy for those terms to slip over into emotional labour. It isn’t always the case, but it can certainly happen that administrators and even professors themselves can start to see themselves more as the student’s advocate and friend than as the person who is assessing them. A professor can be a part of a student`s “affective network” – but only so much. At some point we have to step back. We have to assess them, after all. We have to say, “Yes, you have mastered this discourse,” or “No, you have not the skill yet.” 

This is further complicated by the fact that, for many students, failure to master the material in a course or to satisfactorily participate in a discourse represents a statement about their personal self-worth as a human being. Obviously this too is not true. I mean, I’m only telling a student that they did poorly in Shakespeare – I have no idea if they are a decent human being or not!

“Friends do emotional labour for other friends. We cry on each other`s shoulders and we get drunk with each other when one of us goes through a break up. It`s a labour that is unpaid, that is shitty, that is hard, and it is incredibly difficult. You can`t pay people enough for genuine emotional labour. It has to come from a choice.”


Nevertheless, I worry that the 20+ years of educational theory’s focus on changing the role of the professor away from the “sage on the stage” and towards being a part of an “affective network” can be (mis-)understood as being the role of the professor to be the friend of the student as the student sees their academic worth as being inexorably tied to their self-worth as a person. Friends worry about friends’ self-worth as persons. As a professor, I’m only paid to worry about a student’s capacity to participate in a discourse. To ask more of me is to ask me to engage in emotional labour for free.

It’s something of a two-pronged problem. On the one hand, students are brought up with an expectation of their own academic sufficiency such that failure to navigate the terms of a discipline is met with overwhelming emotional distress — just look at the droves of students who are being treated for anxiety disorders.  On the other hand professors are being encouraged to take on a culturally feminized position of caregiver and friend, while not being compensated for the emotional labour that position entails.



Please note, I’m not of the Snape school of pedagogy. I’m not saying that the other role that is available to teachers is to start humiliating our students and belittling them, like Snape does to Harry Potter. Rather, what I think I am saying is that we have to, of course, 

  1. create syllabi that are universal in design; 
  2. help our students to recognize that failure is always an option and that doesn’t mean the end of the world, and; 
  3. protect ourselves from being forced into emotional labour that we don’t want to do, in the name of a job that doesn’t repay us for such labour.


In the end, I’ve made friends with many of my former students. Some are quite close friends now (though I haven’t cried on any of their shoulders, that may say more about my propensity to cry in general). That said, I like to think we chose our friendship, rather than having such a relationship forced upon us by the mandarins of educational theory.

I don’t know – maybe I’m just sour at the moment. I’m certainly open to having my mind changed. What do you think? Am I just being a privileged, white, male prick/Snape-wannabe? Or am I missing something altogether from my reading of the problem? Please let me know in the comments.

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One thought on “I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend (Unless I Do): Emotional Labour in University Teaching

  1. There is no possible way for a professor to connect and be emotional caregiver for each and every one of their students. There's not enough time in the day, and not enough emotional energy in a person. No school should ever expect that from a prof; there is a difference between being there for your students in an academic capacity, and an emotional one. A teacher is meant to teach, not babysit. I think that good students do better with approachable and friendly teachers because they see their passion for what they teach, and try harder out of respect, or because they've also gained a passion for the subject. But they should never expect not to be failed, or to be given good grades, without putting in time and understanding the material.

    That said, it's a difficult line to find between being a student's friend, and being friendLY. Being kind and open to students in an educational manner (not a personal one) should be a requirement for teachers, as long as they're dealing with a student who is being polite and respectful. I feel like emotional labour is only labour when a student feels entitled to it, it becomes coddling. I don't think you can be FORCED to feel concern for a student passing or failing. You can only do so for a student that you care about as a person through organic interaction.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that caring is inherent in teaching, for certain profs. There are a lot of people, myself included, that can't get to know a person without beginning to care about their well being (to put it bluntly, as long as they're not a dick). Without fixing the issue of students stressing out about failure's imagined impact on their self-worth, there will always be struggle in helping them cope, if you care. There is no way for someone to force that emotion on to you.

    Unless you think otherwise? What is emotional labour to you?

    Like

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