Effect or affect? Pastoral care as part of what we do

download (1)For someone with hardly any teaching and no student-facing admin role, I seem to find myself talking quite a lot with students of late. In part, that’s because we’ve moved into our second semester, so there’s lots of catching up with tutees about the last semester, plus going through feedback with students from the modules that they now have final grades for (ahem).

It’s always something that I find stimulating (if not always pleasant), because it’s some of the more un-mediated contact I have with the key target group of my L&T work: if it’s not working for them, then it’s not working period.

Of course, there’s a particularly British bent to all this, because of the mixed educational economy that we operate, where pastoral care is largely still gate-kept by academic personal tutors: even if we are referring students to campus support services, we still represent much of the face of the university to our student body.

Which raises the question of what we are actually do for. I’ve found myself several times in the past week having to say that I can’t help with an issue, but that I know someone who can (or who probably can). That’s covered everything from academic appeals to health issues, problems with modules to financial matters. At some point I find myself wondering whether there is anything I can pronounce on.

Those things do – obviously – exist: general academic progress, panning for future study and post-study, providing references, offering guidance on some matter, or just listening to a student who needs to get stuff shared with someone.

All of that does matter, not only because those things have intrinsic importance, but also because they signal to the student that I and my colleagues are there for the student, to help make sense of it all.

One of the more interesting developments on our campus of late has been the effort to more precisely delimit what that tutoring role means in practice. ‘Being there’ is all good and noble, but it also opens up a world of issues, not least the danger of providing inappropriate or incorrect advice.

It;’s all too easy to get sucked into trying to be an ersatz-psychologist or counsellor to students, especially if they say that you’re the only one they can talk to. I myself, like most of you who have had personal tutees, have found myself trying to unpick personal issues that I had neither the training nor the experience to deal with, only belatedly bringing those with the requisite skills.

To be clear, this isn’t the same as saying that we shouldn’t get our hands dirty with student problems, but rather that we should keep a clear head about what we can and what we can’t do for students. Sometimes we have to go a bit further than normal to ascertain where that boundary lies, but that shouldn’t be at the expense of our reflection on what we are doing.

Personal tutoring is time-consuming and demanding, if we are genuinely committed to doing it well: at the same time, if we don’t do it well, we risk the entire support system that sustains students’ time at university falling apart. I’ve known very few students who have dropped out because of academic inability, but plenty who couldn’t juggle the various personal, social and economic demands made on them.

Thus we have to do tutoring well. And central to that is knowing our limits, whether we’re being a shoulder to (metaphorically or literally) cry on, or providing academic guidance.