Who Cares? Student-Faculty Interaction at a Research University
Smith, Margaret Austin
Collins, Patricia H
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High quality interaction with faculty is central to undergraduate student success (Kuh et al. 2010). A wealth of existing research uses students' ratings of quality of interaction with faculty to analyze undergraduates' engagement in educationally purposive activities. But how do students actually make meaning of the interactions that inform their ratings? What do undergraduates at a public research institution in the early 21st century United States count as high quality interaction with faculty? For Becker and colleagues (1968), a "GPA perspective" provided the lens through which all undergraduates made meaning of interaction with faculty. But do such generalizations adequately explain how students make meaning of quality of interaction with faculty now? The answer is: it's complicated. Specifically, I find that from students' perspectives, high quality interaction happens when faculty care. Caring, in the view of undergraduates participating in this study, means supporting students in embodying or coming to embody perceived institutional ideals. But students' perceptions of institutional ideals are not uniform. In an ethnographic study involving 35 voluntary undergraduate participants for three years in in-depth interviews and participant observation, as well as a content analysis of an instructor-reviewing web site, I analyze students' perceptions of institutional ideals, how they see themselves in relation to those ideals, and these understandings shape their approaches to with faculty. Specifically, I find two evaluative stories for what counts as care in interaction with faculty, with social class strongly shaping - but not determining - meanings made and interactions elicited. In the first, care entails "remaking the grading." In the second, care both produces and is produced by educationally purposive practices. I find that the institution, in spite of its stated ideals and stated commitment to student engagement, tends to reward the former understanding of care much more directly than the latter.