#alt-ac · collaboration · community · emotional labour · jobs · student engagement · transition

On Care and Connection as Guiding Principles

It’s almost six years later, and we’re still at it. Every three weeks we gather with wine, pounds of cheese, our laptops, a baby or a couple of cats for company, and we talk words. The prompt is usually simple: does this section make sense? is my tone consistent from the material you read last time? I need to cut this article down by half–help! By the end of the night, we’ve usually figured it out. The people whose writing we’ve critiqued feel heard, and talented, and like they know what to do next. But more importantly, we feel connected. We’ve caught up on all of the personal and departmental gossip. We’ve traded recipes. We’ve talked boyfriends and girlfriends and spouses and coming out stories and faculty crushes and teaching techniques and upcoming conferences and why today was a good day. We go home feeling a little glowy, a little giddy, and not all of it is from the wine.

Losing that connectedness was one of the things that I feared most about leaving the PhD, but it was also the thing I knew I didn’t have to fear at all.

Creating more of those connections–a community of care, of support, of mentorship, of collegiality–is one of the best parts of my administrative job. It’s also one of those that I’m most committed to. I was collaborating with one of our technology services people on a project today, and he asked me if my role was “student facing.” It took me a minute to get what he meant. When I did, my answer was that in the past it really hadn’t been, but that’s something I’ve been working to change. In the past, the person in my role would most often act as a liaison, or as an enforcer of procedure, or as a conduit for feedback coming from on high. I do those things, but I question the effectiveness of the arms-length approach. I prefer to work with students one-on-one, to coach and to guide and to support. In my portfolio of graduate professional development and the cultivation of our graduate research culture, I rely on graduate students as sources of knowledge about important skills, knowledge that can be shared with other students, and as examples for the rest of the university community of how dynamic and cutting edge graduate research can be.  I love talking to our students about their work. I love cultivating their involvement with the university. I love providing them with opportunities to do more, to do better. I love providing them with chances to create new communities. And I love when the barrier between me as an administrator, albeit one who is simultaneously a student, and them as a graduate student breaks down, and we talk to each other as people, as emergent scholars, as part of the community that shares a passion for ideas and discovery and knowledge.

I like to think that my work is fundamentally informed by an ethics of care. I worry that that’s a feminized approach to my job, that I’m falling into the trap of mothering my students, that care is a bad polestar to guide a career. But I got into graduate admin because I cared about the mental, financial, emotional health of grad students like me, who struggle with negotiating between what the academy thinks it is, thinks is happening for its students, and what the reality of life after the PhD looks like. I opened my office doors to any student who wants to see me because I believe that the personal should take precedence over the procedural. I focus my attention on initiatives that build community among graduate students, primarily because I know first hand what a difference it can make to know that someone cares who you are, how you are, how your work is going. I mentor. I coach. I cheerlead. I give tough love. It’s hard work, choosing the path toward the personal, the intimate, the connected. It takes more time, and energy (particularly emotional energy), and effort. It requires that more effort is focused on fewer people, that energy is concentrated rather than diffuse. It leaves you open to being disappointed, or frustrated, or angry.

But then I think back to the wine, and the cheese, and the babies, and the faces that have surrounded me since the day I stepped through the doors of my PhD orientation. I’ve been so very lucky, and I can’t help but believe that I have a responsibility to help others cultivate the community I’ve been so fortunate to have, to be a part of that community and invite others in. I don’t have to worry right now that my goals for my larger career and my goals for providing students with community, connection, care are in conflict; it might become an issue one day. But until then, I’m leaving my door open and letting care and community-building be my guide. I can’t help but hope it’ll do some good.

2 thoughts on “On Care and Connection as Guiding Principles

  1. Do you know about the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley College? It began as a place to harbor and train feminist psychologists, but has grown to encompass many fields, including teaching. There is also a fairly active Linked In group called “Education as Relational Practice” you might enjoy. There are a handful of scholars digging into the role of connection in learning, which (DUH) it turns out, is really important.

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  2. Thanks for the information! I had no idea, but now I really want to go check it out. Sounds right up my alley. And nice to know that there's research–as of course there should be–to back up what many of us instinctively feel to be the right orientation to teaching and work with students.

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