Friday, September 01, 2006

The Use and Abuse of Paternalism

I had an interesting discussion today about the use and abuse of paternalism (or maternalism) in the classroom. The conversation, in the end, suggested to me profound differences in the way that female faculty interact with students vs. male faculty. Full disclosure for my Social Scientist readers: I am not running an experiment here, nor do I have data. This is just an observation being thrown out there in hopes of generating discussion.

At a liberal arts college, the expectation is (at least on the part of the paying parents) that students get far more interaction with faculty than at a State university. What does this mean? Does it mean that we invite our students to dinner? Does it mean we get to know their family? Does it mean that we open our doors and welcome them in when they are feeling blue, frustrated, or terrified? These are interesting questions, well at least to me.

We veered into a conversation about acceptable paternalism in the classroom. One of my colleagues finds attendance policies to be unacceptable paternalism. The idea is that these students are adults; they can succeed or fail all on their own. If they don't want to show up, so be it. Now, I am not much of a fan of the whole "rational actor" view of human nature. I also don't think that many of our students quite have the skills they need to succeed well in college. Or, some of them have such self-esteem issues that they have already decided that they aren't "good" students. But, having clear expectations for attendance and consequences for not showing up has proven to be a very successful policy for me. By penalizing students for not showing up, I get them there. And, they begin to realize the benefits of being in class for better understanding material. I am not sure that this works for or is necessary for every subject, but you simply cannot teach a good Philosophy class without having your students present, prepared and willing to debate. Philosophy, to my mind, should never be a lecture course.

I sometimes wonder if my colleagues who are anti-attendance policies came from State Universities. Surely when I was teaching at Stony Brook, I would have never bothered to take attendance. Hell, I didn't even know 2/3 of their names. Too many students. And, subsequently, you develop a "survival of the fittest" mentality about students in that context. It is just plain true that only students with a healthy dose of self-assertion and doggedness in their pursuit of an education will succeed. There is no way to bring everyone along in that environment. In a liberal arts college, however, you are paying for smaller classes, more faculty interaction, and hence, more attention to your student. In that vein, I craft my rather strict policies, hoping to develop an awareness in my students that preparedness and promptness actually are crucial to learning.

But, alas, colleagues differ. And, I have noticed that most of my colleagues--certainly not all--who differ are men. But, this distaste of paternalism in the classroom really rears its head when we talk about a different kind of concern and attention toward students. That is, whether or not we should care about the psychological well-being of our students. Let's say that you have a student who hasn't shown up for a week to class. Do you do something? Do you send an email asking if he or she is ok? Do you ask Academic Advising to look into this? Now, I would. I tend to wonder what is going on, for example, if as student regularly falls asleep in my class or disappears for a long period of time. I might even worry if they are having a hard time getting their work turned it. So, I find a way to get them to talk to me.

When I mentioned this to my male lunch companions, they both said: "I'm not their parents, their priest, or their counselor." I was taken aback. It seems just plain decent to be concerned about your students. But, my colleage PD said that he would be if he had some sort of friendship with the student, but not otherwise. Maynard seemed to be uninterested in what students are doing outside of the classroom. And, so I tried to argue this point with my colleagues, not so much to persuade them, but to get a richer sense of what they thought were proper uses of paternalism.

By the end of the conversation--particularly with PD--I decided that paternalism, perhaps, is the wrong word. What I am, sadly, is maternalistic. What I mean by that is I take, perhaps wrongly, a maternal concern about the students. I am Lakoff's classic nurturant parent. I worry about the well-being of my students on multiple levels and tend to not separate out their intellectual self from their personality and connectedness to the place.

I started then seeing how this nurturant parenting style really irritates male colleagues. And, in fact, I can't help but wonder if this style of teaching or being an administrator, for that mattter, is taken as a sign of not being a rigorous or competent professional. While us liberals are scrambling to make sense of the "strict father" appeal to Conservatives, aren't some us academics playing out these same "styles" in how we approach education? Why might we cringe at the simplistic narratives of Conservative politics, yet reject a more holistic interaction with students in the academy? Is it a backlash against critical movements in education? Or is it a kind of low level sexism?