First Thought: On Generosity and Teaching

In the last week, I’ve heard a lot of staff and faculty talk about how hard it is going to be to teach and advise students in the near-term future, how much they now feel that they have to second-guess everything they might say and how much they feel a risk of whatever they say being misquoted or appropriated and misused.

Teaching and advising and counseling are all intimate practices if they’re done in the way that Swarthmore and other small liberal-arts colleges aspire to do them. Which means they involve vulnerability on all sides. It means that they can, potentially, take up as much emotional and intellectual energy as both teacher and student have to spare and then go well beyond that. One reason that I think committed scholars at large research universities were at least passively acquiescent in the gradual outsourcing of some undergraduate instruction to adjuncts and graduate students starting in the 1980s was simply that they were grateful to be relieved of the heavy emotional and temporal weight that committed face-to-face teaching and counseling places upon professionals.

That weight is harder and heavier to carry depending upon the way that students and colleagues read your identity and personality. A professor or administrator with an open emotional affect may find themselves with more clients than someone with a more forbidding or severe affect, which is no one’s fault: it’s just how we read people and how we present to be read. But that affect may not match up with we can actually provide to students and advisees either intellectually or emotionally: a severe-seeming person may connect in more ways with more people than someone who seems open and inviting.

More pressingly, students often make assumptions or demands for support, empathy and guidance from women, people of color, and GLBTQ faculty and staff that they don’t make from white male professionals. I’m really glad when I can mentor or connect with a student in a way that goes beyond the classroom. I’m also very aware that there are students who wouldn’t think to seek me out for that guidance but would make very strong demands from faculty or staff that they perceive as being closer to their own identities and backgrounds. As one of my colleagues likes to put it, “the students aren’t going to be in your office crying on your desk very often, but they’re there every day doing it to me.”

Even when students are right about their perceptions of a similarity of background, that means the work of teaching and advising is unevenly distributed (which a major reason why it is critical to pursue faculty diversity), and those faculty and staff thus have to do more to protect their time and their energy. And sometimes the students are wrong: some likenesses they imagine and bring into a teaching or counseling experience are not there at all. Which puts that teacher or advisor in a very complicated position, not wanting to spurn or turn away from the responsibilities of the job, needing somehow to get things clear at the start, but also not wanting to have to spend the rest of their professional lives condemned to recount deeply personal histories of their own lives every September to a student who is seeking somebody or something to hold onto. That’s my privilege, to not face that dilemma. It’s also a place where students need somehow to find more places to put their trust, to take more chances, while also to be themselves more heedful and self-aware about what they’re asking of the teachers and advisors they turn to preferentially.

Trust is the big word here. You cannot trust again and again when your trust is always broken, never returned. I know that. But teaching and counseling, if they’re going to be small and focused and human and intimate, can’t happen in the absence of generosity. Generosity that leads to creativity, to taking chances, that produces a diversity of models and practices. This week has reminded me yet again that Swarthmore and places like it have badly oversold themselves as bubble utopias, but even if we finally gave that pretense up, our remaining distinction will rest on practices that require this special kind of generosity, one that is increasingly in short supply in the world around us. If we can’t manage that much, we might as well come out with our hands up and surrender to the MOOC.


I’ve been married for almost 27 years. When I was dating my wife in college, I was the child of an upper middle-class professional family and she was from a working-class background. I did a lot of what would now be called “microaggression” early in our relationship, around social class. Obviously I was forgiven or tolerated for it, for which I’m very grateful. Life and time and experience and my wife taught me lessons that my undergraduate courses couldn’t. I’m still learning. But we also both know that even after 27 years and knowing each other better than anyone else, we often still don’t know exactly what the other person needs that day, is feeling or thinking. Sometimes we guess wrongly, occasionally profoundly so. I sometimes think, given that families and partners and long-time friends often get that kind of thing wrong, how can I or anyone else hope to get it right with a student that we’ve only known for a few weeks or at best a few years?

Good teaching and advising (and learning and being advised) require the freedom to experiment, to come at matters from several angles, to throw things at the wall and see what sticks. Which means they also require making mistakes and courting misrecognition. There is an irreducible element of risk. No amount of sensitivity training can get away from that risk. The only way to avoid it is to brutally standardize all moments of human interaction, to create a technocratic infrastructure that regulates and records anything that might involve the risk of getting it wrong. The history of the last century shows that in complex modern institutions, if you invite that technocracy in the door, it rarely needs a second invitation, and it never departs until it manages to thoroughly hollow out and distort the host institution.

Doing what we do right–in a human way, without technocracy–does involve taking responsibility for mistakes, both individually and institutionally. Generosity in teaching and advising requires honesty and transparency to work, and a strong measure of humility as well, on all sides. That much needs a good deal of repair and rethinking at Swarthmore and institutions like it, plainly. Nor should anyone call systematic forms of racism or discrimination a “mistake”. The security guards that Seema Jilani describes at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner weren’t making a mistake, weren’t engaged in ordinary oversight or misrecognition. Whomever is pissing on the Intercultural Center isn’t just “Whoops, I didn’t get that this bothers you”. Sexual assault isn’t a case of “oh, I didn’t realize that wasn’t consensual”.

But if there isn’t other space left in most of what we do as teachers, advisors and community members to make mistakes, space left to misunderstand, space left to not give in all cases what someone needs or wants, space left to talk past or not hear, space left to try things, space left to give what we individually know how to give and refuse what we individually aren’t able to provide, we’re pretty well done. All the creative, generative possibilities for the future of a liberal arts education depend upon that.

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