Measuring emotional work in college teaching

by Harry on June 19, 2020

My institution requires a Scholarly Activities Report every year, which includes subheadings for research, teaching, and service. There is no heading for pastoral work — indeed, pastoral work is so unrecognized officially that I don’t know if there is a word for it (“pastoral” is the word they use in Britain; I think ‘mentoring’ is the nearest equivalent in the US, but, for example, the only official recognition of ‘mentoring’ for undergraduates my institution has is an award for mentoring undergraduates specifically as researchers, which is not what I’m talking about here). But pastoral work is an essential component of keeping the enterprise moving — helping prevent students from dropping out, helping them deal with the stresses that inhibit their learning, or distract or demotivate them, and just sometimes being a friendly supportive presence at the edge of their lives.

Of course at American universities over time faculty outsourced a lot of pastoral work to student services professionals. And some of the work – mental health counseling, financial aid counseling, and some academic advising – is so specialized that it would be inefficient for faculty to learn the relevant knowledge and skills.[1] But faculty still have a lot of pastoral work to do – typically, on a residential campus, a teacher is the main adult that a student regularly interacts with, and is the best placed employee to notice if something is going wrong, at least when it is affecting academic performance. And teaching is an intimate activity: successful teaching requires a certain level of individualization and mind-reading that inevitably requires and results in getting to know the student somewhat, and in healthy relationships of that kind students are at least somewhat liable to seek support beyond the academic. If this wasn’t happening at all something would be seriously wrong. And if it is happening, it is time-consuming.

We all know that pastoral work is gendered. I’m not sure how we know it: I haven’t done a detailed search for studies, but it seems to be one of those things that we all know anecdotally. (If someone can give my some citations, I’d be grateful). But if we don’t recognize it as work, then it is just another unrecognized thing that women do more of than men. So how would you recognize it?
That’s quite hard to do, because a lot of pastoral work is private in nature. I am not going to list, on my Scholarly Activities Report, the names of students who have talked with me about problems they have to deal with, or calculate the amount of time we have spent talking together about them. I’m not even going to list their problems without their names. Even counting them – well, I can’t be bothered, though I am not sure that is generally the right attitude. And there’s a huge difference between chatting with an otherwise thriving student who has come from the careers office in tears because the careers officer was a jerk to her (why on earth did the careers officer do that? That was a weird one) and trying to convince a student who is addicted to alcohol, sex, and xanax, having undergone a serious trauma that other 19 year-olds aren’t especially well equipped to help her deal with, to see a proper professional (“If I wanted to see a counselor, why would I be here talking to you?”).

What I decided to do on my most recent report was specify the number of students for whom I have written letters of recommendation (for scholarships, internships, jobs, graduate school, professional schools, etc). I suspect that, at least at my university, where students have little sense of entitlement, and find it hard to ask for letters of recommendation, this would be a not-terrible proxy for the amount of pastoral work professors do. In order to ask you to write a letter most students have to have developed a level of comfort with you that would dispose them to approach you with their needs if they had them. It’s a signal of one’s emotional availability. (One former student said recently that she remembers having a moment of horror in which “I realized that if anything went seriously wrong you were the only person on campus I could come to; and then I realized that if anything went seriously wrong for my roommate [whom at that stage I hadn’t met] I’d have to make her come to you too, because she didn’t have anyone”. In the end I wrote letters of recommendation for both her and the roommate (after I got to know her, obviously)).

I strongly suspect that the letters of recommendation criterion would reflect the gendered division of pastoral work in universities: it would be very interesting if it doesn’t. The evidence for my conjecture is entirely anecdotal so maybe not at all reliable – I always ask students who their other letter writers are, and they are very disproportionately women [2] (Even the many students in STEM who ask me for letters for Medical School – there’s another story here about why it is so many of those students know professors outside their major better than professors inside their major).

I’ll add a coda. For people who think the student:teacher ratio make it unreasonable to expect faculty to do any of this emotional labour, take a look at the student:teacher ratio that your institution advertises. The ratio it specifies might be misleading about the actual student experience (during a class in which I mentioned the student:teacher ratio this last spring one of the students stared at me and exclaimed, referring to the teachers, “where are they all?”), but it’s not actually false.

[1] People sometimes observe that so many more of our students have mental health problems than in their day. To which the response in my head is i) “how do you know that; were you conducting high quality surveys of mental health when you were in college?” and ii) “if so maybe that’s because students with mental health problems don’t have to drop out now as they did in your day”.

[2] Looking at my list of letters I see they are disproportionately for female students, which doesn’t surprise me given who takes my classes. Maybe male students ask men, and female students ask women, but i) we have considerably more female students than male students and ii) the men who ask me also report having mainly asked women.



Kenny Easwaran 06.19.20 at 7:15 pm

I don’t specifically recall noting the gender ratio among authors of recommendation letters I read while on graduate admissions committees, but it seems like a natural place to check for this hypothesis. Just looking through five applications from the last year I saw 4 letters by women and 11 by men, which isn’t obviously different from the gender ratio among philosophy faculty.


Alan White 06.19.20 at 8:45 pm

“Pastoral” is exactly the word needed here. In my career at my own UW small campus, such work certainly encompassed writing all sorts of recommendations–for work, for scholarships and fellowships, admission to grad programs (mostly law and medicine for me), and so on–but my institution encouraged reporting the number every year on my Faculty Activity Report. I know I wrote on average about a half-dozen a year (looking back on my last 10 FARs), so that adds up across a near 40 year career. I always made myself available, and frequently mentioned to my best students (and not only the best academically but hard workers) that they could count on me for that. As for gender? Only the standouts come to mind (who I know went on to career excellence), and most of those were women.

But I’d also wish to chime in that I think a professor’s role is pastoral in those wider emotional ways your OP mentions. Developing a rapport is easy enough for really talented students, but the real challenge is doing that with those who demonstrate in one way or another that they have struggles that adversely affect their education. Sometimes your own encouragement is enough; sometimes encouraging them to seek further counseling is necessary. And it takes lots of experience and reflection to develop such counseling skills. For me I had a start in my undergrad training when I was literally going to become a pastor–before philosophy grabbed me and superseded any concern about there really being a caring god to represent. Now fortunately there are training programs for faculty to help them recognize and respond to the emotional difficulties their students face. I strongly urge faculty to take as much advantage of those as they can.

And may I say Harry that I deeply appreciate your work on topics like these that many might take as peripheral to pedagogy, but you clearly see as part of its nucleus.


M Caswell 06.19.20 at 10:50 pm

“If this wasn’t happening at all something would be seriously wrong.”

Strikes me that some, but not all students might benefit from discussing personal issues with a faculty member, but that all students can benefit from contact with faculty outside of class hours. The stat I’d like to see is non-class contact hours, per student and per faculty member. Only some of this time, of course, would count as pastoral.


ph 06.19.20 at 11:04 pm

Hi Harry, while I generally agree with you in principle, you make no distinction between faculty who do the majority of the teaching in most institutions – adjuncts – those who do far less. I teach the fewest number of classes I’ve ever taught this term – 14 ninety-minute classes with no TA, and do all the admin. etc.

You raise a great point re counsellors sometimes not doing a good job. Perhaps because student services has become a career path for racial justice hacks who are well-trained in raising student awareness of systemic racism, and perhaps less-skilled in psychology, psychological assessment, and therapy.

My own position is that efforts to eradicate sin (the current one being R-ism) are having the usual and entirely predictable effects – alienation, guilt, shame, isolation, and the sense that one’s problems/imperfections are overwhelming, proof of mortal sin, and in most cases curable only with a prolonged series of therapeutic personality reconstruction interventions. See ‘gay-therapy’ etc. etc. etc.

I was first drawn to the great work done at CT when I became aware of the efforts of David Horowitz of FrontPage infamy to get Michael Berube and others fired from their jobs for teaching ‘bad ideas.’ You’ve been on that list, too, Harry, I believe. Guilty of promoting thought crime. Henry did exactly the right thing when he stood up for the right of Glenn Reynolds (et al) to publish what he likes with no threat to his academic career.

The atmosphere created in colleges over the last decade is a petrie dish for mental illnesses of various kinds – for professors, as much as students. Those with strong social networks and belief systems can normally survive.

Moreover, the legacy news media and social media has subjected the public to four years of constant crisis ‘we’re living in a state of fascism’; ‘climate change will kill us all’; ‘silence is violence’; ‘our president is a Russian agent’; ‘only the CIA and FBI can save us’; ‘ten-year olds are guilty of systemic racism’ with the result that those who imbibe this poison feel understandably stressed and unhappy.

Rather than question the veracity of these claims, in many cases university professors and administrations blithely and uncritically parrot these questionable and highly contentious assertions as fact, and ‘settled’ science. Those who do dissent too often understand they’ll be punished, shamed, at the very least.

Dissent is regarded as proof of racism and/or mental illness. Now, with all sincere respect, you suggest that already overburdened instructors are expected to somehow make sense of all this for students in addition to teaching 14 classes a week? I have to say that takes rare nerve and a very un-Harry Brighouse insensitivity to both detail and the facts on the ground. Given the level of moral guilt and shame being heaped on teacher and student alike these days I’m amazed so many retain their equanimity.

Perhaps because many of us just see much of they current zeitgeist as silliness, a grift. Perhaps we just get along until we can escape the clutches of the institutional preachers spreading the shame.

As we discussed in our last exchange and in your OP here. Treating students as people from the outset helps make everything better. Providing students with professionally equipped and trained mental health counsellors who can help students feel better about their successes and the advantages they possess, instead of an indoctrination and ‘pastoral preachers’ doing the opposite, might be a good place to start.

We’ve never lived at at time where so few live in poverty, and where so many have the agency and resources to build great lives for themselves and the communities we share. Maybe focusing on the good we all do – all of us – and making that the staple of the shared university experience might help all of us, students and faculty especially, feel better about the world we share.


Donald A. Coffin 06.20.20 at 12:55 am

I would add that there’s a lot of similar work being done in high schools (I’m particularly close to 2 HS teachers–a cousin who teaches Latin and a very dear friend who teaches HS courses in a number of “business” topics) and elementary schools. And little or none of that activity really gets counted as of value.


PatinIowa 06.20.20 at 1:01 am

Just came in from a memorial service for a former student who was three hours from graduation when they died. I was there as much for the other students in our relatively small major as I was for them or for my personal sorrow. Several of my colleagues showed, I’m proud to say.

We’re a Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies/Social Justice department. Often, when I’m talking to a student, we’re talking about “pastoral” stuff, their struggles with … well … all of it. At the very same time, we’re talking about systems and institutions and cultures of oppression, and the intellectual work of what they’ve chosen to study has a very direct and immediate connection with the financial, psychological, institutional (and on and on) barriers they’re encountering.

So, the answer that may be in front of us when we ask the question, “Why would the careers officer treat you so badly?” is sometimes, “Probably because I’m a Black, queer, and a woman.” And the next step may be, “You know anyone who is running you down that way is full of shit, right?” Or it might be, “Let’s see how Audre Lorde described what just happened?”

In these moments it’s hard work to disentangle the work of nurture and support from the intellectual work of abstraction and analysis. That said, sometimes it leads to brilliant insights (theirs) and transformative learning (theirs and mine). While it’s exhausting, especially for young, pre-tenure folk, it seems to me there’s less of a sense of alienation involved in that kind of work, and alienation strikes me as another kind of emotional labor altogether.

I suspect this is true in other humanities departments, especially things like literature and creative writing, to say nothing of African-American Studies, Latinx Studies, and others.

I’d like to see more recognition in P&T for my pre-tenure colleagues for this labor, and a better administrative understanding of how it intertwines with the critical and theoretical aims of university education, especially for undergrads.


John Quiggin 06.20.20 at 3:34 am

It would be interesting to find out what the advertised student:teacher ratios are in US institutions. My impression is that there is a big range as you go from Ivies to community colleges.

University of Queensland advertises 24:1, which translates into mean class sizes approaching 100, after taking account of tutorials and lectures. I have a research fellowship, so I only teach occasional courses, but I know that courses with less than 50 students enrolled are vulnerable to being shut down.

It’s not ideal, but with the funding we have it’s hard to see how else we can teach 40 per cent of the age cohort.


Kevin 06.20.20 at 3:46 am

I’m not sure this is actually true in general. I certainly haven’t noticed an abundance of female letter-writers on the admissions and hiring committees I’ve been on. There are a handful of studies which look at non-core activities in the university, and they do not in fact suggest that women are taking more of the burden here. For instance, a large study of refereeing found that women are more likely to turn down requests to referee, and to do less refereeing overall, than men (the emphasis of this news article is not on those facts, but they can be easily read: From what I have observed, women are also much more likely to turn down conference invites and on-campus speaker invitations.

I would be interested in more studies of advising, refereeing, and other non-core activities, but I think the “everyone just knows it” idea is wrong, or at the very least needs to be caveated by field. Suffice to say, some of the conversations you describe above…well, students in the humanities and adjacent fields are much more likely to bring those types of concerns to the faculty. I suspect the average physicist or b-school professor, male or female, has never had a student come to them on those grounds.


Neville Morley 06.20.20 at 6:45 am

As you say, in the UK this sort of thing is recognised as part of core academic duties, and generally (exceptions for those with really big admin roles) will be designated ‘personal tutor’ for a group of students; they’re encouraged to think of us as main point of contact for queries, concerns or advice, we offer regular “consultation hours” when they can just call in to chat, and organise group and individual meetings over the course of the year.

Part of the idea is to spread the load fairly across the department, rather than a few more sympathetic/approachable colleagues shouldering most of the burden. It doesn’t quite work – I may not teach most of my tutees at all (indeed, it is occasionally an advantage that they have someone to complain to about their teachers), but generally they do tend to approach people they see regularly in class – and at that point, yes, a clear gender divide emerges. There’s also something of an age divide; again, anecdotal evidence only, but my sense is that students are much more likely to feel comfortable approaching younger colleagues, even when they are only temporary and not paid for this sort of thing (I tell students not to contact my postgrad assistants with anything other than specific academic questions, but they don’t necessarily take any notice).


oldster 06.20.20 at 5:05 pm

I’d recommend that you disaggregate your hypotheses.

H1, that women in higher education do a disproportionate amount of the emotional/pastoral labour, is something that many my colleagues used to say to me (used to, ie before I retired). And I believe them.

H2, that letter-writing is a proxy measure for pastoral labour, seems at first plausible enough.

But when aggregated, they yield the readily falsifiable
H3, that recommendation letters are disproportionately written by women.

It’s H2 that is leading you astray about the typical distribution of pastoral and letter-writing duties.

Most students approach faculty with the gender biases they grew up with: mommy will take care of me, but daddy has the power. Mommy can help me inside my current environment, but daddy can help me in the larger world.

So the same students who love and depend on Professor Kindness will snub her letters, believing that her word will not carry weight in the outside world. And the same students who would never dream of crying in Professor Manly’s office, still seek him out for letters when they want to get the next job or degree.

You are a rara avis in seeming both sympathetic and authoritative, and you deserve praise for it. But in the view of most students, pastoral care-givers do not produce credible letters. They have imbibed and now reproduce the gender biases they see in the world.

Reject H2.


bad Jim 06.21.20 at 6:52 am

If I’m any sort of an example, students are a major impediment to mentoring. I well recall certain aspects of my first encounter with my faculty advisor, Berkeley, 1968, Department of Physics, LeConte Hall. I was 17, clad from head to toe in denim, anxious of course. The professor’s office number was on the fourth floor, but the elevators only went up to three.

I was furious, certain I was the victim of a prank, and ran outside. Looking up, I saw that there were dormer windows on the roof. There is a fourth floor! Realizing that I was wrong was a relief, and a laugh, but now I was sweating and running late and had a puzzle to solve. About the only thing I can recall about the meeting was envy of the nearly magical space he occupied.

That set the pattern for all my subsequent encounters with my faculty adviser: just give me a signature. A richer, deeper academic experience was always within my reach, but I always chose the easier alternatives of rioting, tear gas, drugs, and rock and roll, and wound up an engineer.


Emma P 06.22.20 at 4:21 am

Harry, I laughed out loud at “where are they all?”!

I suspect your hypothesis that letters are a not-terrible proxy for pastoral labor is right in certain contexts. Above, Kenny suggests looking at who writes the letters is a place to start testing the hypothesis, but it won’t give us the whole story. I would guess, for example, that looking through letters of recommendation for philosophy PhD applicants would not tell us who is doing most of the pastoral labor in philosophy or the extent to which that labor is gendered in philosophy, because a lot of philosophy applicants have heard that the prestige of the person writing the letter is important, and that influences who they ask. But applicants for many sorts of programs are told to privilege how well the letter writer knows them. What we need to know is why are students asking us to write the letters rather than someone else.

I’ll add my anecdotes. I’m a woman college teacher and a graduate student. I have students ask me to write letters or serve as a reference frequently. They’ve advanced to law school and MA programs, but I always worry that my letter will appear weak because of my title. So I usually encourage students (after first saying I’m happy to do it!) to think about asking someone who has the title of professor rather than me. I successfully talked a student out of having me write the letter (even though he was one of my favorite students ever) because he was applying for a highly competitive PhD program outside of my discipline. He asked me early enough that I could talk to him about how to cultivate a relationship with a different letter writer. But I’ve had a few students tell me that according to their advisors (and because of the norms of whatever they’re applying for) it’s most important that the letter writer knows them personally, and I’m it. These students don’t have another teacher who they think knows them well enough to write them a letter, and depressingly these are sometimes students in my classes of 80 in which I have much less interaction with each individual student compared to my classes of ~20. (Depressing because I hope that after ~3-4 years these students would have found themselves in a few small-ish classes with professors–not just grad students–who tried to get to know them… like, “where are they all”?) And I have roughly even numbers of men and women ask me to write letters for them.

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