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The Relationship in Academia

Posted on 12 May | 1 comment
Photo by Tulane Public Relations.
Photo by Tulane Public Relations.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on May 6, 2014 reported on recent research suggesting that a connection with a caring professor may be an important contributing factor to college success (Carlson, 2014). For existential psychologists, this is not surprising. There is a preponderance of evidence suggesting that it is the relationship that heals in therapy (Elkins, 2009; Wampold, 2001). It is not surprising that the same is true in academia.

Yet, this is not as simple as just telling professors to be kind and caring. The article states, “College graduates… had double the changes of being engaged in their work and were three times as likely to be thriving in their well-being if they connected with a professor on campus who stimulated them, cared about them, and encouraged their hopes and dreams” ( 1). This suggests that the relationship is also about shared interest and a goodness of fit.

While I think this research is very important, I worry that colleges and universities could quickly try to implement this without really understanding what it entails to cultivate an academic environment where these relationships are common. Some colleges will likely translate this into being nice or “providing good customer service.” But a true, caring relationship is about more than just being nice or saying the right words; it is about cultivating the right type of relationship. In this blog, I’d like to discuss what building this environment really means.

A Time Commitment
Building caring relationships between professors and students takes time. In the past 10-years, I have been deeply bothered by how often I hear students say to professors, including myself, “I’m sorry, I know you are very busy.” Most of the time, the conversation that ensues is connected to why most of us are in academia. This is the good stuff. Yet, students too often worry about asking for anything from professors because they know how overworked and stressed out we are. This is a systemic problem within universities and academia in general.

If universities want professors to build healthy, nurturing relationships with students, it is imperative that they be given the time and support to do this. Being overworked and overloaded is now synonymous with the professors’ job description, and it is getting worse. Yet, it is common for these overworked professors to be blamed when students provide feedback that they do not have access to professors. Although sometimes professors do not make themselves available, more commonly this is a systemic problem in which professors are struggling to have time and energy for students. The two most common complaints I hear from fellow professors is that they do not have more time for students and that they do not have more time for professional development and writing.

A Commitment to the Right Type of Student Recruitment
Good relationships between students and professors emerge more readily when students are recruited and accepted into programs that are a good fit. Unfortunately, students tend to choose universities more due to marketing and convenience (primarily location) more so than a goodness of fit. Similarly, most universities do not focus on marketing in a way that brings in students that are a good fit. Rather, they focus on bringing in students who meet the requirements, can pay or receive financial aid, or look good for the university.

Students need to be encouraged to find the right program for them based upon their professional interests. When this occurs, they are more likely to have professors who share their passions and are able to stimulate their interests. When students choose a school because of a good marketing effort or convenience, too often they are just focused on obtaining the degree instead of building a passion about their professional interests and career trajectory.

Most colleges and universities are competing for students and thus reluctant to turn away qualified students, even if the fit isn’t the best. Yet, this is a big mistake. Students who are not a good fit are often less motivated, more likely to struggle, and require more time and energy from professors, which in turn takes away the professors’ time from working with students who are a better fit. It is not necessarily that the students are not able to be good students, but rather that they are not likely to thrive in a program that is not a good fit. Thus, the learning journey feels like a burden to the student and professor.

A Commitment to Stability
Too often universities see professors as easily replaceable. There are plenty of people looking for teaching positions, and often there are several good candidates applying for any given teaching position. However, good professors are not easily replaced even when there are other equally qualified and equally talented professors ready to step in.

Bringing on a new faculty member is a big investment of time and energy. It often takes two years or more for a professor to really hit their stride at a new school. They have to learn the system, the structure, their colleauges, and students before they thrive to the best of their ability. Additionally, when a professor leaves, this has a big negative impact upon students, especially if they chose the college or university to work with this professor.

If colleges and universities want to encourage good relationships between faculty and students, working hard to try to assure faculty stability is key. This means providing job security, competitive pay and benefits, a reasonable workload, and showing appreciation for the work the professors provide. If I were advising a student searching for a college or university, this is one of the key factors I would really encourage them to explore as they consider different schools. It is best to avoid colleges and universities with high faculty turnover rates. There typically is a reason for the turnover, and there is an increased chance that they, too, may experience faculty they are working with transitioning on.

Price
It costs more money to invest in the faculty-student relationship. At many schools, the faculty to student ratio is growing larger while professors are asked to take on more diverse roles and responsibilities within the university. As noted before, if universities are really committed to their faculty including faculty-student relationships, then they will protect the faculty members’ time and workload. Yet, financial considerations guide the reasons why faculty workloads are growing and they are asked to take on more tasks. Thus, it often comes with a financial cost when universities invest in the faculty-student relationships.

Conclusion
I have been teaching fulltime for well over 10 years now. Without a doubt, the part of my job that I value the most is the relationships I develop with students. I enjoy writing, teaching, training, and attending conferences, but what keeps me teaching at the graduate school level is the relationships. I have been blessed with many, many amazing students. Yet, I rarely have I felt that the universities I work at really value faculty building good mentoring relationships with students of the variety discussed in Carlson’s (2014) article. The concern normally is about good course evaluations and good student satisfaction surveys, especially on the years leading up to an accreditation visit.

My definition is different. I have taken students on trips to conferences and other countries. I have made a deep commitment to mentoring students in scholarly writing, including helping more than 100-students co-author conference papers, journal articles, and book chapters. I continue to stay in contact with and collaborate with many former students. Much of this, it seems, is beyond what most universities are interested in these days.

I am very pleased that Saybrook University, where I teach, values the faculty-student relationship. Yet, even with our deep valuing of these relationships, it is often difficult to balance the economic cost of investing in these relationships. I am hopeful that there will be a cultural shift across the academy toward valuing the relationship. It is vital that we commit to creating the opportunity for students to experience caring, mentoring relationships with faculty if we are to keep academia strong.

References
Carlson, S. (2014, May 6). A caring professor may be the key in how a graduate thrives. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/A-Caring-Professor-May-Be-Key/146409/.

Elkins, D. N. (2009). Humanistic psychology: A clinical manifesto. A critique of clinical psychology and the need for progressive alternatives. Colorado Springs, CO: University of the Rockies Press.

Wampold, B. E. (2001). The great psychotherapy debate: Models, methods, and findings. New York, NY: Routledge.

-- Louis Hoffman

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Comments and Discussions

Thank you for this, Louis. I

Thank you for this, Louis. I was particularly interested to see the parallels with my field of work (aged care). Person-centred approaches to care are about putting relationship at the heart of aged care work. Yet here, as in academia, many of the difficulties of working in this way arise from the lack of support from the system, the organisation as a whole. Furthermore, again similar to academia, it is the lack of value given to relationships which means that inevitably relationship is seen as an optional extra (if required at all). This would seem to point to the values and beliefs in our society generally. When education and health become businesses; students and patients consumers; and outcomes the measure of the work, what role is there left for relationship?

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