Changing meanings of university teaching: the emotionalisation of academic culture in Russia, Israel and the US

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Julia Lerner Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel

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Claudia Zbenovich Hadassah Academic College, Israel

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Tamar Kaneh-Shalit University of Haifa, Israel

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In this study, we reflexively focus our gaze on the global shift toward the emotionalisation of academic culture, taking the perspective of a university institution and its staff. We argue that emotional consumerism is fundamental to the current condition of academic teaching; it is embedded in its institutional agenda and shapes faculty’s subjective experiences. Our ethnographic analysis reveals also that understanding emotional academic capitalism requires a cross-cultural lens. Thus, we probe the meanings of teaching in three academic contexts – Russia, Israel and the US – tracing how local neoliberalism, cultural emotional communicative scripts and educational traditions, as well as political cultures, shape the emotionalisation of university teaching differently. Academic teaching in the US appears as care combined with fear; teaching in Israel is articulated as a therapeutic power struggle; while in Russia, teaching is interpreted as a peculiar combination of authoritative impersonalised services. This juxtaposition exposes different local manifestations of neoliberal emotional university discourse that merges therapeutic logic and its emotional language, reconfigures hierarchical relations, and integrates national political ethos into the act of teaching.

Abstract

In this study, we reflexively focus our gaze on the global shift toward the emotionalisation of academic culture, taking the perspective of a university institution and its staff. We argue that emotional consumerism is fundamental to the current condition of academic teaching; it is embedded in its institutional agenda and shapes faculty’s subjective experiences. Our ethnographic analysis reveals also that understanding emotional academic capitalism requires a cross-cultural lens. Thus, we probe the meanings of teaching in three academic contexts – Russia, Israel and the US – tracing how local neoliberalism, cultural emotional communicative scripts and educational traditions, as well as political cultures, shape the emotionalisation of university teaching differently. Academic teaching in the US appears as care combined with fear; teaching in Israel is articulated as a therapeutic power struggle; while in Russia, teaching is interpreted as a peculiar combination of authoritative impersonalised services. This juxtaposition exposes different local manifestations of neoliberal emotional university discourse that merges therapeutic logic and its emotional language, reconfigures hierarchical relations, and integrates national political ethos into the act of teaching.

On learning of our research topic, Oleg Markovich,1 a young professor from a well-known institute of higher education in St Petersburg, remarked: “[G]raduate students say that they want to write a paper with you, but they really want you to help them find themselves”. Half a world away, at a train station in Tel Aviv, an advertisement for a university promises potential students that its lecturers are ‘more than professors, they are mentors’ who ‘lead [students] to success’. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, at a major university on the East Coast of the US, Professor Greenwald says of her relationship with her graduate students: “[I]f the sky is falling, they know where to find me […] they know I am available almost 24/7”. Apparently, wherever you are, teaching has become caring, coaching and containing. In this study, we decipher the changing meanings of academic teaching while interrogating the intensification of its emotional component. Using an ethnographic lens, we analyse the language used by university faculty and staff in and about university teaching in the context of the emerging institutional conditions that encourage it and the cultural trends that give it force.

The current university system is shaped by a neoliberal economic and cultural regime – specifically, the establishment of academic capitalism (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004). Scholars have shown that, perhaps unexpectedly and not without resistance, utilitarian attitudes now dominate university organisational culture, as well as teaching and learning approaches (Deem and Johnson, 2003; Brooks et al, 2016; Hyatt et al, 2015; Posecznick, 2017; Wright and Shore, 2017; Kanade and Curtis, 2019). Concomitantly, the marketisation and commercialisation of academia bring with them a powerful emotional aspect. As university teaching is commodified, the services become emotionalised (Hochschild, 2012) and the commercialised feelings become ‘emodities’ (Illouz, 2018). Moreover, feelings have become the major social form of governing morals and values in the institutional domain and the professional sphere, encouraging the emotionalisation of these public spheres (Illouz, 2018).

As a corollary to the interweaving of emotions and consumerism, we found that the meanings of academic teaching are also being shaped by the ongoing emotionalisation of university culture, in both the institutional agenda and the subjective experiences of academic faculty and staff. Unlike the prevailing view of contemporary higher education, which focuses on students as neoliberal subjects and sees universities as mostly responding to students’ consumerist demands (for example, Clark et al, 2015; Brooks et al, 2016; LaViolette, 2018), we seek to understand the emotionalisation of the academic culture as a deep and complex transformation in which administrative and academic staff play their own role. In this article, we examine how the meanings of teaching as an academic activity are embedded in a particular type of emotional discourse that merges consumerist and therapeutic languages. We show that teaching is articulated as a highly emotionalised practice: a service, relationship and knowledge transmission.

We probe the meanings of teaching in three different academic contexts – Russia, Israel and the US – and demonstrate that local academic traditions and emotional styles have crucial impacts on emerging academic cultures. Although they are undergoing similar processes of marketisation, the three countries present different manifestations of neoliberal emotional university discourse. Each incorporates therapeutic logic and its emotional language in different ways, reconfigures hierarchical relations within academic commercialisation, and integrates the national political ethos into the act of teaching.

Considering discursive linguistic forms of university talk as constitutive of emotional academic culture, we view language as a form of cultural behaviour. First of all we examine acts of academic interaction across three cultural and linguistic contexts, reflecting different communicative styles embedded in each culture. We pay particular attention to the way faculty and staff use discursive linguistic forms to articulate their university experiences, and we probe these forms as performative means of interaction that embody and construct the new emotional discourse. In our analysis we thus investigate patterns of discourse with an emphasis on the social use of language, similarly to conversational pragmatics (Grice, 1975) and speech act theory (Austin, 1962). We also explore the concrete local emotional linguistic scripts, including expressions, concepts and key words (Katriel, 1986; Wierzbicka, 2003), as markers that contextually generate the emotionalisation of university language.

In the following section, we present the setting of our study and unravel the aspects of academic emotionalisation common to the US, Israel and Russia. In three subsequent sections, we discuss the vernacular versions of the emotional neoliberal interplay in the three national contexts.

Global emotionalisation of academic teaching

To some extent, our journeys and our interest in differences among academic cultures began years ago on entering academic settings new to each of us. Later, our studies were developed into a comparative analysis as part of a research project on the translation of therapeutic culture. Our fieldwork in the US and Israeli contexts was followed by field trips to Russia between the years 2017 and 2020. Conducting ethnographic work in the academic field ‘at home’ enabled us to reflexively include our own experiences in the data we collected. We then adopted a critical stance towards the university reality and continually interpreted both our comparative data and our individual experiences.

In the three contexts under study, we derived our insights from a diverse range of data and a variety of sources, including institutional and interpersonal narratives that comprise a university discourse on teaching. We conducted ethnographies to gain access to data that would reflect our interest in daily experience, communication and use of language. As in ethnographic research, we followed the discursive flows (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2003) of our fields and used a number of methods to collect our data, such as semi-structured individual and group interviews with faculty and staff (15 in the US, 17 in Russia, 16 in Israel) and participant observation in teacher training workshops. We also documented our own and other faculties’ communication with students on teaching-related topics. Finally, we collected documents of intra-institutional communication: correspondence between university personnel, advertisements for academic programmes and official rules documents of universities. In Russia, our fieldwork and data collection were conducted at several state institutions of higher education in Moscow and St Petersburg; in Israel, we targeted one university and one academic college; and in the US, mainly one large state university campus on the East Coast, supplemented with data from a private college in the same area and from another state university on the West Coast. Instead of focusing on institutions’ differences in academic domains, size, ranking and governance, we stuck to the principle of close analysis of our field sites. In this sense, our analysis presents a collective portrait of dominant trends in the meanings of academic teaching, which we identified in different institutional and geographical locations. This enables us to understand the emotionalisation of academic culture as a global shift.

Teaching as emotional service

In line with the literature on students’ consumerist attitudes, especially in the US and Europe (Clark et al, 2015; Brooks et al, 2016; LaViolette, 2018), faculty at all three sites under study described their work, whether neutrally or critically, as a service provision – and stated that their academic institutions and students perceived it in a similar way. In teaching evaluation questionnaires in the US, for example, students are asked by the institution to rate ‘the overall educational value of the course’ or ‘the overall effectiveness of the instructor’ (emphasis added). Following our pragmatic analysis, the use of the above concepts incorporates the sense of learning as an investment of resources, and teaching as service provision, which is then rated by the client. In Israeli universities, similar surveys are called sviuut ratson mehoraa, literally meaning ‘satisfaction from teaching’. This Hebrew notion of sviuut ratson is taken directly from the field of customer service, where it emphasises the aim of pleasing the customer and making her/him ‘feel good’. Accordingly, students are asked by the institutions to rate professors with regard to their accessibility and personal attitude towards students. Thus, the perception of teaching as providing knowledge as a resource or commodity is giving way to the perception of teaching as providing, perhaps primarily, an emotionalised service.

The notion of teaching as an emotional service is also exemplified in the intensification of the institutional discourse on ‘quality of teaching’ and its monitoring. One academic institution in Israel initiated a new teaching quality control programme that pairs faculty members who observe each other’s lectures and later offer feedback. In an email sent to all faculty members, the head of this programme stressed that the feedback should be ‘empathetic’: ‘non judgemental, based on mutual respect between the professors’ (emphasis added), also asking participants to be discreet and that ‘any information collected through this process will not be revealed or used by anyone’. Thus the emotional aspect of teaching evaluation expands from students’ feelings to those of professors. In the Russian context, the feeling of becoming a service provider was quite evident from the accounts we collected. Aleksander Nikolayevich, department head at a university in Moscow, reported that it ‘makes him shiver’ when students claim they were ‘given bad service’, since a student ‘will only be able to evaluate this service throughout his life and not at the moment’. Faculty told of their anxiety regarding a ‘red button’ that students can use to file a complaint directly via the university website. One of our interviewees attributed her recent resignation to recurring student complaints, which resulted in an unbearable work environment for her.

Furthermore, the emotionality of teaching – whether it is exciting or calming, entertaining or boring – appears to be a crucial dimension of its ‘quality’ from the student’s perspective (Gretzky and Lerner, 2020) and is embraced by academic institutions as well. First, the notion that good academic teaching entails emotional exchange appears in all our case studies, originating top-down from the institutions’ authorities and in horizontal interactions among the faculty. Teaching training workshops in Israel and the US focus on interpersonal interaction with students, and encourage professors not only to reflect on and manage their own feelings but also to become aware of the emotional needs of their students. Moreover, academic learning is advertised as an entertaining experience. In Israel, teaching workshops use role-playing, simulations and hackathons to teach professors how to convey excitement. Faculty have mostly – if ambivalently – adopted the attitude that good teaching includes an aspect of amusement. Uri, an Israeli professor, reflects on this trend: “I don’t think that it is about being an entertainer, it is just about being a better and interesting teacher.” On the contrary, Tatyana Sergeevna, a Russian professor, is more critical: “I am expected to constantly interest and motivate the students […] I feel that I am in a circus arena all evening.” While attitudes vary regarding practices of entertainment in teaching, the responsibility of a professor to raise interest, inspire and excite students is almost taken for granted.

Teaching as emotional relationship

The new emotionalised nature of academic teaching expresses itself in the reconfiguration of teaching as an interpersonal relationship. It extends professor-student relationships into personal spheres, institutionalising certain forms of relations as essential to academic professional interactions.

University teaching today occurs within a new global discourse about sensitivity and high vulnerability (Eccelstone and Hayes, 2009; Campbell and Manning, 2018), in which providing a safe space while guarding personal boundaries is considered an individual right and collective obligation (Stengel, 2010; Campbell and Manning, 2018; Gerdes, 2019). In describing her relationships with her students, Sonya, an Israeli professor, stated that students expect her to make them feel “nice and pleasant”. Vadim Borisovich, a Russian professor, posted on Facebook that he faces student demands to make them ‘feel comfortable’. Larissa Nikolaevna, another senior Russian professor, described the strategies she had developed to evaluate students’ achievements in order “not to offend anybody” because “they are very sensitive today, this generation”. This approach towards students came to a head during the COVID-19 epidemic, when, for example, an Israeli department head sent out the following note to his faculty: ‘I urge everyone not to argue with students. We must all be forthcoming and helpful to every one of the students, regardless of what they do or do not do.’

Such sensitivity is part of the emotionalised service provided; it is accompanied by a paradox of increasing emotionalisation on the one hand, and strict control over personal boundaries – bodily, emotional and psychological – on the other. Thus, faculty and staff on US campuses are required to comply with the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which means, for example, that they are prohibited to discuss students’ grades with a third party. Debra, an academic adviser, interprets the law through an educational-therapeutic lens:

‘If students would like me to communicate with a family member, they have to sign off on forms saying they give me permission to […] I don’t want them to feel that I’ve said something to the parent that I wouldn’t say to them directly […] I want the student to be the decision maker.’

Some interviewees described this therapeutic turn with a certain ambivalence: some resist its obligatory status and others feel that they lack therapeutic competence. Galia, a professor at an Israeli university, spoke of a student who explained an absence as follows: “My doctor told me that it is important that I share it with my professors, it is part of my therapy. I have depression …”. Galia told us: “I was speechless actually. The student turned me into part of his treatment, and I had no alternative … but to collaborate with his therapist.” Professor Greenwald, the US professor mentioned earlier, who reported being available 24/7, said later in her interview:

‘Hold on, what are the rules here? If, God forbid, someone shares suicidal thoughts, what will I do? There are legal implications, too. Should I be asking straightforwardly: “Do you have suicidal thoughts?” Should I tell the department head? They did not teach me that in graduate school …’

Apart from such explicit mental health and legal aspects, teaching as an emotional relation appears in the incorporation of additional therapeutic formats of interaction: mentoring, semi-parenting and coaching. Academic education has always involved a certain element of personal spiritual and intellectual development. However, the contemporary regime of neoliberal personhood that merges consumerist attitudes with the discourse of self-realisation (Gershon, 2011) shapes teaching relations primarily as an arena for the meaningful experience (Urciuoli, 2018) of guided self-fulfilment. Consider, in this regard, how Elena Pavlovna, a Russian professor, presents her daily teaching practice:

‘The students, of course, constantly talk about problems in their personal lives. I tell them: “Close your eyes, imagine yourself in five years. How do you want your life to look like then?” And depending on how they paint their daily routine, I can tell them that such and such work won’t be good for them.’

If in the Russian academic context this therapeutic aspect takes the form of educational life-guidance, on campuses in the US the therapeutic relations take a parental pattern. Professor Nunez, who also serves as a dean of diversity and inclusion, perceives her role as a quasi-familial care-giver:

‘I am constantly interacting with the students and evaluating their emotional well-being […] an important piece of my work is to develop that kind of relationship with the students, that they feel comfortable and safe to share how they’re feeling […] When students share, you know, this is home. I have a cup and it says “Mom”.’

Professor Greenwald portrays the parental role even more explicitly: “If their world exploded, they know I am always available.” In Israeli universities, the familial attitude is further extended to students’ family affairs - weddings, divorces and even family trips abroad – that call for consideration and perhaps academic indulgence. Overall, in all three locations professors imagine their students and speak of them as needing protection, guidance, and a feeling of comfort. Furthermore, faculty now consider the content and language used in their classes as potential triggers for emotional discomfort.

From active shooter drills to trigger warnings: teaching as caring with fear in the US

Over the last couple of decades, universities in the US have become deeply invested in students’ emotional wellbeing (Downs et al, 2018). These efforts have intensified in recent years on meeting students from generation Z and their mostly middle-class parents (Hamilton, 2016). The local institutional style of care is so strongly linked to the proliferation of therapeutic viewing of the self and mental health (Cushman, 1995) that the US case serves almost as an archetype for emotionalised teaching. Below, we unravel the institutional and personal fears that accompany this well-established style of care. The fears of being hurt and of hurting others range from existential threats of violence to tensions around legal responsibilities to concerns about the consequences of students taking offence.

Just prior to our meeting, Lily, a long-time university employee, participated in an active-shooter drill on campus, in which she had to find shelter in her office, lock the doors and hide. “I can’t believe that now we have to protect ourselves and our students,” she mused. In such drills, actors pretend to be assailants and victims, while real police and other emergency personnel react to the scene. Universities send out online reminders urging their students and employees to formulate escape plans to be used in case of emergency. Across the continent, at Sunday brunch, Professor Stein told us that he is considering the purchase of a bulletproof vest to protect himself in case of a school shooting. Analysis of faculty experiences reveals a range of campus-based fears: fear of violence, fear for students’ lives and emotional wellbeing, and fear of the students themselves.

These fears are formally expressed in legislation, which features both fear and protection as organising agendas in the relations between the institutions and their members. For example, the Clery Act2 defines the university as liable for students’ wellbeing:

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (the Clery Act) is a federal consumer protection law that requires institutions of higher education […] to disclose information about certain crimes on campus […]. (Pennsylvania State University, University Police and Public Safety, 2015)

The US campuses in this fieldwork issued alerts frequently via email or text messages following events such as vandalism on and near campus, burglary and assaults. Alerts were detailed descriptions of the assailants and their crimes and often included a request for public assistance in tracing the offenders. ‘Always be alert to your surroundings,’ a warning appeared on every one of these messages, charging the everyday experience of both faculty and students with suspicion and fear.

Such fears and related legislation shape how university employees view their students and how they interpret their own roles. “I always thought, I want my daughters to go to a college and know that somebody’s there taking care of them, and that’s why I’m taking care of other people’s kids,” said Sofia, a lecturer and academic adviser. Other employees and faculty also spoke of their students as children, referring to them as ‘kids’. Extreme acts of violence, such as the Clery rape and murder or the Virginia Tech shooting, trigger a heightened concern for students’ wellbeing, as well as monitoring of their behaviour. This monitoring refers to both the university’s responsibility to protect students – as kids, patients or possible victims – as well as the surveillance of students as possible assailants. On the main US campus of this study, professors are expected to post a digital ‘red flag’ on a student’s file if s/he has missed classes or failed to submit an assignment. Once a red flag appears, the academic adviser must reach out to the student via phone or email; if the student does not respond, the adviser may report him or her to a campus care programme or, if a serious concern for the student arises, the adviser may involve a police officer. In our study, the category of academic advisers who assist students with academic and personal challenges, offer moral support, and provide professional guidance is unique to the US. We associate this type of sheltering with a parenting style referred to as ‘helicoptering’. Parents who exhibit this style ‘hover’ over their children, interfering mostly, but not exclusively, at school (Hamilton, 2016). In other words, we consider this close monitoring of students to be both a legally constituted act of institutional parental care and a surveillance of risk factors. Such institutionalised care for students’ wellbeing and fear of students’ actions shape the experience of teaching.

Moreover, the caring position of our interviewees goes beyond protection to ‘raising’ the students/kids. For some faculty and staff, this meant that the students needed the help of a responsible adult, namely, a university employee, in order to graduate or navigate conflicts. As an academic adviser put it: “[M]y sole responsibility is to make sure that I’m graduating students”. This creative use of the term ‘graduating’ – rather than the students graduating (independently and actively), she is graduating them – aptly captures the idea of students as ‘kids’.

Many university employees used therapeutic concepts to explain their students’ moods, qualities and behaviours. Phrases such as ‘lack of resilience’ and ‘immense dependence’ on others when making decisions such as choosing classes appeared repeatedly. Sarah, the director of a care programme on campus, stressed students’ inability to ‘regulate their emotions’: “They are a little bit afraid of being uncomfortable […] but I think they […] leap to seek help […] they just don’t know how to be in their own skin […] and self-regulate”.

At the main US campus in our study, a new, hospital-size building with more than a dozen trained psychologists provides students with different counselling services: one-on-one sessions, workshops, online chats, a mental-health mobile application, and a crisis hotline. Around exam week, faculty also report an increase in the number of letters they receive from the Office of Disabilities, often containing a new type of student request such as exemptions from ‘pop quizzes’. Professor Carr explained:

‘Office of Disabilities says “Don’t call on them in class” because this is anxiety, […] I require participation and I do empathise with them, it’s not easy … but I can’t accommodate that. Or they [students] might have trouble doing group presentations or any presentation, so you have to change that.’

Earlier in her interview, Professor Carr noted, “When you’re a professor you don’t know … who’s sitting in your new class, what’s happened in their lives. And so how do you know if you’re going to bring up a sensitive topic?” This professor’s solution is to give her students notice, also known as ‘trigger warning’, prior to teaching what she believes might be a sensitive topic such as extreme violence or death; recently, following student requests, she added bullying. However, she is ambivalent about this practice, both because it is impractical – since it is hard to say what would be considered sensitive – and because “I think that part of becoming an adult, is learning how to deal with those difficult emotions, and that they are going to learn to deal with things that come up.” In other words, Professor Carr, like other faculty and staff, utilised parental-therapeutic language when engaging with her students – in this case, the concept of ‘trigger warnings’, which stems from the therapeutic discourse on post-traumatic stress disorder. Additionally, her declared interest in exposing students to difficult topics in order to help them become emotionally mature is parental in tone. Many of our interviewees were critical of the use of trigger warnings, even while taking for granted the therapeutic attentivity of their teaching; they claim they never received any student complaints for not using them. Yet, when faculty used concepts that students found offensive or unsuitable, they or university staff became targets of student criticism.

The fear of hurting others’ feelings by using or avoiding certain language is part of a larger cultural context characterised by ‘manifest cheerfulness’ and niceness (Bramen, 2017) alongside particular speech politics. In it, words bear great power, and specific wording becomes not only a battlefield (Lakoff, 2000), but also a signifier of identity politics and political affiliation. Thus, in this cultural context, speakers are not only concerned that they may offend others, especially minority groups, by using certain phrases; they also fear being misclassified in a way that does not align with their views, thereby damaging their reputation. We suggest that the academic and public debate over the use of trigger warnings (for example, Lukianoff and Haidt, 2015; Campbell and Manning, 2018; Gerdes, 2019) is one prominent example3 of the discourse about the political emotionalisation of academic teaching; as such, it reflects the extent to which this emotionalisation has shaped the experience of teaching in the US. Moreover, the debate over trigger warnings allows us to demonstrate a significant tension in US academic teaching: the fear of offending students, combined with the fear of being wrongfully called out by students. These fears are part of a local speech politics that is accentuated in the generally progressive and liberal academic context.

The particularity of US academic emotionalisation appears in a mixture of caring for students combined with multiple fears: the deep institutionalisation of therapeutic logic has made it a part of teaching practice, while semi-parental attitudes towards students are formalised in legal responsibilities that link care with fear.

Who is in power? Therapeutic power struggles in Israeli university teaching

In September 2018, an Israeli college conducted an orientation day for its faculty that focused on pedagogy and the interaction between students and professors.

“We want to give you tools to cope with what you will face here. We want you to understand who our students are, where they come from. To feel their needs,” explained Oren, a college adviser and workshop moderator. The first issue he addressed in the context of teaching was ‘resistance’, and some faculty members immediately provided examples, which Oren wrote on the board: disregard, detachment, copying, disturbance. Others were surprised – “Is that really what happens?” they asked. Oren confirmed and added:

‘One student just sat in the classroom with his back to the lecturer […] They are now looking to challenge the authority of the lecturer in every way, looking for your mistakes with their phones […] And they have no problem appealing to the authority above. If they do not get a response, they turn directly to the head of the department, to the president of the college. We also had a case in which a student appealed to the Higher Education Council.’

Oren then offered a list of things that annoy today’s students: teachers who are boring, associative, cynical, late to class, careless, grade unfairly, or make students stay after class. In short, said Oren, “everything annoys them” and “you can never satisfy them. Whatever you do, they will complain.”

Next, participants learned how to process problematic topics in class via role play, in which one participant was a ‘lecturer’ and professional actors were ‘students’. In the first scene, students walked out of class, refused to cooperate with the lecturer, and related rudely to each other. In the second, Arab and Jewish students were engaged in a hostile debate that escalated to the use of aggressive, racist expressions. Some professors in the audience laughed, while others experienced deep identification; one exclaimed: “It’s very difficult when you prepare for teaching, and then encounter an intifada in your class.” The reference to intifada – a Palestinian resistance movement – as an analogy for student-professor interaction evokes clear connotations of violent power struggle and military force. Rafi, a lecturer, expressed his anger along the same lines: “If it were me, I would take someone and bang his head on the wall, I don’t know what I would do to him ...”. Other participants joined the discussion: “Agree, but I would be careful […] don’t use the final weapon right away, I learned that in the army”; “It was hard to watch … I kept wondering who would attack first …” Others suggested more therapeutic attitudes: “In such a situation, you have to stop and relate to what is going on, maybe open a reflexive process with them, ask them: ‘What is happening to you?!’”; “Yes, and after all, most of our students have ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] and they have difficulties.” Finally, Oren offered a compromise that bridged the authoritative and therapeutic responses: “People need boundaries! Don’t think you’re bad if you are an authority […] if you aren’t able to define clear boundaries you will be beaten.”

The workshop shows an exaggerated expression of the imagined reality of teaching in Israel. Its discourse is shaped by the cultural context of a public college where the culture of organisational communication generally differs from that of a research university. However, in an accentuated manner, this event raises a typical institutional perception of teaching and of faculty discourse that we also find in other academic institutions: teaching in Israel is a never-ending power struggle, a sometimes friendly and civilised, sometimes brutal negotiation.

Managing intifada in my class: how not to annoy students

The discourse of the workshop also embeds the language of therapeutic attentivity within the language of power struggle and the constant threat of ‘breaking the rules’: ‘not to annoy’ but to assert authority in a moment of need. We see references to students as consumers of academic teaching, implying that the teaching should meet their needs. In that light, the workshop provided professors with tools to avoid ‘annoying’ (leazben) their students.

Most Israeli students complete mandatory army service prior to beginning university studies, thus, they are usually older than US undergraduates (ages 23–27). Nonetheless, much as in the US case, they are described as vulnerable, stressed and requiring restraint. The behaviours that challenge professors’ authority – namely, rudeness and aggressivity – are presented as manifestations of resistance that should be treated with sensitivity. However, as opposed to the US agenda of ‘not to offend’ or ‘not to traumatise’ the students, the Israeli notion of lo leazben (not to annoy) assumes shaky power relations between professors and students that can easily be upended. The expression lo leazben exposes the institutional perception of students as ‘wild’ subjects to be controlled and restrained.

The directness and bluntness of communication in the Israeli classroom is related to the discursive culture in Israel, which is characterised by informality and an absence of hierarchies (Katriel, 1986; Kaneh-Shalit, 2017). This style has traditionally been attributed to the historical continuity of straightforward, assertive communication – dugri (Katriel, 1986). In the context of higher education, the style finds expression in the expectation that professors will be addressed by their first names. Such communication is linked to imagined family relations within the Israeli nation: closeness, brotherhood and patriarchal authority (Fogiel-Bijaoui, 2002). In this style, assertions of power and aggression are perceived as proof of authentic, empathetic caring marked by the expression of blunt criticism (Kaneh-Shalit, 2017). Moreover, because army service plays an important part in the life of most Israelis, men and women alike, Israeli communication style is shaped by the dominance of military discourse (Rosenthal, 2019). Thus, we observe the performance of aggressive yet symmetrical interaction even in the setting of academic teaching.

Concomitantly, the communication style in Israel has undergone a process of psychologisation as neoliberal management practices and therapeutic approaches have become prevalent in private and public areas of life (Lahad and Shoshana, 2015; Friedman-Peleg, 2017). The language of emotional reasoning and psychological terminology has become a prominent, even dominant, discursive pattern. Moreover, therapeutic education and emotion-laden teaching, as well as the perception of learning as a stressor, have expanded into the university framework.

Attentivity as a power strategy

One of the key emotional discursive means in Israeli academic interaction is the term hitkhashvut – attentivity to a student’s personal circumstances and moods, giving them priority, while often compromising bureaucratic norms and procedures. The pragmatic use of this term brings together many elements of the Israeli emotional power struggle. Anchored in the culture of care and hovering over the model of humanistic education, hitkhashvut is experienced by our respondents as a tool for manoeuvring in a field of power and hierarchies. Professors described requests to perform hitkhashvut, both from students and from the university administration, as a challenge to their authority in managing the teaching process. Yet the professors themselves use the discourse of hitkhashvut as a tool to reestablish and protect their position of power. Below, a geography professor responds to a student’s letter where the discourse of hitkhashvut is inseparable from the power struggle and negotiation of authority:

Dear Smadar: While you have chosen to send your letter to the teaching assistants, most of your complaints relate to me personally, and what happens in the course is in any case my responsibility […] I have responded in detail to all relevant points I found in your letter, but on second thought, I choose not to send my response in writing, and get into the ‘legal issues’, but to invite you to a dialogue, where you will receive a detailed explanation for everything you have written here […] in the meantime, and in a nutshell, I very much agree with your comment ‘One who wants respect, must be the first to give it.’ As for your complaints pertaining to academic issues, as you know, this is the ninth year I have taught this course at this university (I believe that the course is […] much easier than it was nine years ago). This experience allows me to relate in proper proportion to the emotions that arise from your letter, and to balance them with some solid evidence such as the distributions of the grades in this course in the past. It is possible to compare and see if certain problems arise from the material, the lecturer, the TAs [teaching assistants], or perhaps the student population […] I guess this is not the answer you were expecting, nor that you hoped for, but I still believe that attentive dialogue is the best way to solve problems. You’re invited [to talk to me] and – who knows – you might be surprised. Regards, Gabi.

This professor invests a great deal of emotional work in saying ‘no’ to the student’s request; his polite language conceals an emotional power struggle. The professor establishes his authority in various ways: he takes full responsibility for what happens in the course and therefore declares himself the ultimate authority in that sphere. Additionally, he challenges the conspicuous emotional discourse in the student’s letter by setting it against his expertise and professional confidence. He further implies that the problem may not be in the course but rather in the student’s abilities. At the same time, the professor seeks to avoid authoritative institutional discourse, and invites the student to a symmetrical dialogue through which she might lay out her arguments and express her feelings. He concludes by noting his awareness that the student may be disappointed with his response, thus supposedly demonstrating a caring attitude towards her while revealing that he himself felt hurt. By placing the student’s original statement in a new context of mutual respect, the professor implies that this student is not living up to her own ideals.

Therapeutic power struggles take into consideration the particular needs and sensitivities of various ethnic, religious, cultural and political groups. In this context, the particular Israeli implications of the hitkhashvut attitude appears when teaching touches national political ground that can make students feel uncomfortable. In Israel, as in US campus discourse, linguistic expressions connected to ethno-national, religious and political identities – Jews, Arabs and Palestinians, as well as Russian speaking immigrants, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi and ultra-Orthodox Jews – are highly emotionalised. Sonya, a professor of anthropology, was asked by students to refrain from using the term ‘immigrants’ while teaching about Jewish returnees to Israel, and ‘Palestinians’ while speaking about Israeli citizens of Arab origin. In the context of the aforementioned institutional agenda of ‘not to annoy’ (lo leazben), the meaning of consideration is redoubled, as professors are asked to perform hitkhashvut not only to students’ personal feelings but also to collective national emotions, religious feelings and sensitivities. We thus discover that discourse of hitkhashvut serves all parties – students, professors and university authorities – as a communicative act of demanding a position of power and a claim for authority shaped in an attitude of care and containment.

Alongside the therapeutic imperative to filter or soften political expressions, in the past decade there were struggles for ideological control over the politicisation of university teaching initiated by non-govermental associations as well as by ministerial initiatives.4 In spite of the fact that Israeli professors rarely feel threatened by complaints regarding political expressions, in contrast to the US faculty we interviewed, professors describe acts of self-censorship, always conscious of what is thinkable, possible or forbidden in the political areas of teaching: “I watch my language when talking in class. If you are tenured you can ignore this, as you can generally ignore the teaching evaluation report,” says Ron. If some professors watch their language when speaking about heated political issues, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, others, on the contrary, use political terms to provoke political discourse and uncover power relations within the classroom, and even seek to annoy (leazben) provoking pedagogical discomfort (Boler and Zembylas, 2003). Thus, the hyper-legitimation of emotional expression functions both to express political feelings and to conceal, manage and depoliticise content.

On Israeli campuses, the pattern of academic teaching is at once a therapeutic encounter and a power struggle. Marked by high emotionality and symmetrical closeness between professors and students, teaching appears to be a constant negotiation of power, boundaries and hierarchies processed by therapeutic-emotional means.

University teaching in Russia as authoritative impersonalised services

The contemporary Russian condition of university teaching presents a complex amalgam of long-held and new discourses, as seen in the Facebook post of Vadim Borisovich, a middle-aged professor of literature in St Petersburg:

Students, some of them tacitly and some not so, require ‘emotional comfort’ in communicating with me […] The teacher’s qualifications are not so significant anymore […] it’s much more important that students feel good, nice and calm. They don’t even consider that in real life people aren’t always willing to meet their expectations; on the contrary, many people will seek to tear them down teaching them a good lesson [budut vozit’ mordoy po stolu]. A comfortable environment can only be required from a loved one or a waiter. And to be honest, I also want a comfortable environment in my class. But who cares if our perceptions about comfort are diametrically opposed? And as a result, I always feel I owe people something.

Vadim Borisovich experiences a deep mismatch between the attitude he encounters in students’ expressions of their emotional needs and his understanding of professor-student relationships. In his view, the new model of interaction does not suit university teaching; rather, it is appropriate to intimate relationships or the provision of a service. Moreover, he feels that professors’ professional expertise is superseded by the personal emotional skills demanded of them. Vadim Borisovich views students’ demands to have their emotional needs satisfied not only as unjustified but as potentially harmful to them in the future. Referring to what is valuable ‘in real life’, the professor emblematises the educational stance typical of Russian educational discourse and attitude. However, the reflexive passage also reveals his ambivalence toward the emerging attentivity to personal needs: he simultaneously censures the emotional therapeutic agenda5 and adopts it in articulating his own emotional needs.

The current teaching regime of the Russian university is highly complex. Traditionally, an asymmetrical and interdependent Soviet-Russian system of patronage relations (Willerton, 1992; Ledeneva, 1998; Sokolov et al, 2015) has operated in the academic domain. This system rests on hierarchical distance between the parties – professors’ unquestioned power, students’ strong dependence on teachers and on professors’ custody over the students, which has facilitated quasi-parental relations.

The new meaning of teaching as a service subverts both dimensions of the existing professor-student relationship – authority and hierarchical dependency – as well as transparency of personal boundaries. It also enables the translation of the familiar model into the emerging emotional culture of Russia’s new neoliberal academic patronage: the authority of the educational stance, impersonalised care and hierarchical solidarity.

Authority of Russian-Soviet educational discourse: the neoliberal version

Educational discourse as a crucial dimension of teaching appears often in our interviews with Russian professors. The Soviet-Russian educational culture, which has traditionally embodied the communicative act of education (vospitanie) in institutional as well as family settings, valorises the fulfilment of moral and social responsibilities, cultivates self-discipline, and instils the importance of work (trud).6 As our observations and interviews show, educational discourse continues to shape the meanings of university teaching in the contemporary culture of academic knowledge; to some extent, it is an alternative to the processes of emotionalisation of teaching that we describe as global. In the new condition, the educational discursive constants remain central, but they acquire new meanings within the process of academic emotionalisation.

First, overall, professorial authority remained intact among our interviewees, and they made direct demands of their students to fulfil their obligations. Take, for example, Igor Vadimovich, who told his students in Moscow: “You’ve taken on a scientific project, so you need to do it.” This professor further mentioned his stance, basic to Soviet-Russian educational discourse, that a student should “get what he deserves” as a result of “working hard for a grade”, and that the teacher’s assessment is non-negotiable.

Our interviewees often brought up the idea of interes (interest), the meanings of which link the Soviet-Russian educational discourse with the new emotional mode of teaching. For example, Tatyana Sergeyevna, a professor at a university in St Petersburg, challenges the obvious dichotomy between ‘interesting’ and ‘boring’. Responding to students’ complaints about the assigned reading, she exclaimed: “Boring? It will not be boring when you will acquire this knowledge; then, it will be interesting to you. You cannot feel fascinated without reading it.” Tatyana Sergeyevna thus transfers the origin of the emotion from the content to students’ experience, and yokes it to their own responsibility.

She also applies the practices of monitoring students’ discipline using a playful throwback to the authoritative style that marks secondary school: “When students come late to class, I have them recite poetry in front of the whole group.” This scenario would be difficult to picture in an Israeli or US university context. The fact that Tatyana Sergeyevna can put this kind of ‘punishment’ into practice underscores the acceptance of her authority.

Impersonal respect in university interactions

A further meaning of teaching that we uncovered in Russian faculty accounts concerns professors’ reference to themselves as ‘service providers’. Older faculty members noted the impersonal form of address used by students today, different from a respectful personal mode obligatory in the past. Larissa Nikolayevna, a senior professor of communication at a Moscow university, shared that students often exclaim Zdrasste (the shortened colloquial form of a habitual polite greeting, zdravstvuite, equivalent to ‘Hi!’) when seeing her in the university corridor. In contrast with English and Hebrew absence of linguistic markers for respect, Russian society has long used the formal and informal forms of ‘you’, as well as the name and patronymic name, in workplaces and in all interpersonal relations between generations. Our interlocutors associated the new meaning of teaching as a form of service in Russia with the loss of this discursive component of personal respect and acknowledgement of their status as professors – uvazhenie. In their view, this turns the position of a university professor into that of an impersonal service provider and resource. As Larissa Nikolaevna put it: “Today they don’t even know my name, just because they don’t need my name anymore” – meaning, the students do not bother to learn the professor’s name, as they no longer depend on her personal attitude towards them. Larissa Nikolayevna further accentuated this impersonal attitude, describing email correspondence with students: “Sometimes they just attach their assignments, with no accompanying letter at all. It really offends me.” Multiple generations of professors with whom we spoke experienced this discursive erasure of the professor’s role and personality. We suggest seeing this development as the implication of a new paradigm of teaching as service and a paradoxical outcome of the emotionalisation process.

The increased emotionality in teaching is accompanied by a shift in hierarchical relations. Our pragmatic analysis revealed that the traditional patronising attitude towards students allowed professors to address students as ‘kids’ (rebiata), expressing friendliness while highlighting their inferior status. Reflecting today’s tendency towards discursive democratisation, some professors address their students as ‘colleagues’, stressing the role of the latter as a partner in mutual academic work. Oleg Antonovich, who teaches media at a university in Moscow, deals with students’ distraction by saying: “Colleagues, […] if you are not at all interested, you can leave the class with no penalty.” By symbolically asserting equality in the status of students and professors, this professor attempts to elevate the students’ awareness of shared educational interests and objectives, and create a sense of solidarity between himself and them. At the same time, however, he paradoxically treats the students as ‘kids’, while attaching a potential punishment to seemingly symmetrical relations.

An additional expression of these new relations is associated with the culture of care. In a way that differs dramatically from Soviet-Russian educational discourse, where criticism is the default mode, contemporary professors speak in terms of students’ needs, accept these as legitimate, and express a willingness to satisfy them. For example, Marianna Andreyevna, the professor from St Petersburg, begins the school year with the following announcement: “All of you are very smart and very interesting, and I wonder what part of your unique experience you will share with this class.” Another professor, Olga Semenovna, takes care not to hurt a student’s feelings when she offers a critique, because “someone can sob later for a while […] I don’t want to hurt anybody”.

At the same time, professors claim that while relationships with students have become more emotional, and by this they echo patronage relations, they have also become less intimate and more impersonal. The impersonal emotionality is experienced as alien in Russia, where the previous model of patronage relations in various spheres of public service implied hierarchical or even authoritative relations combined with verbal expressions of care and intimacy (Rivkin-Fish, 2005).

Professors vis-à-vis authorities

As discussed in our analysis of the US and Israeli contexts, we find a particular indicator of academic emotionalisation in the subtle relationships between teaching and national political discourse. Our Russian material did not demonstrate an overlap between the emotionalisation of teaching and its (de)politicisation: the interviewees rarely raised the issue of political constraints on their teaching; when asked directly, most of them denied self-censoring. This is interesting and even unexpected in light of the political climate in Russia, which would suggest greater control and censorship over the content of teaching. One professor’s strategy for a critical but safe way to discuss controversial public and political issues with students is the deployment of an analytical approach and the use of decontextualised conceptual language – for example, avtoritarnye politicheskiye sistemy (political authoritative systems) and diktatorskiye rezhymy (dictatorial regimes) – in order to distance their personal and emotional attitudes from current political realities. Hence, while in Israel and in the US the emotional culture of teaching is interlaced with politics and emotions, the new Russian academic culture attests to a disconnect between these perspectives. Olga Semenovna said that she asks students to separate emotions from their research in general and from their analysis of political issues in particular. She explained that political views are tied up with moral positions and therefore cannot be demonstrated by the professor in class: “This is not even a directive from above. It’s me who believes that is just not right.”

The professors’ relation to the academic institutional authority is expressed in how they perceive themselves: as professionals who perform a function in the system, or as individuals vis-à-vis the powerful system. This relation is reflected in a resignation letter penned by Ivan Andreyevich, who was pained by the new university realities: ‘Why am I leaving? I feel lack of competency. The university teacher today is increasingly turning into a strange hybrid: a cross between a bureaucratic official and a coach for personal growth. I have no desire to be either of those.’ The educational system is adopting a new perception of teaching, while professors learn the emotional logic at their own pace, or even step down as a consequence.

Contemporary accounts of university teaching in Russia thus draw a mixed picture, in which Soviet-Russian academic patronage relations are translated into authoritative service of impersonalised care, and the moral discourse of education is translated into a neoliberal life-guiding service and the provision of useful skills.

Discussion: cross-cultural emotionalisation of academic teaching

Our analysis of the changing meanings of university teaching has revealed that the contemporary university is best understood by combining the concepts of academic capitalism, understood as incorporation of market and business logic in university life, with the idea of ‘emotional capitalism’. This notion offers a critical perspective on how consumerist practices and emotional life have become inseparably entwined (Illouz, 2018). In this joint space, relationships, services and communication patterns take on explicitly heightened emotionality, while emotions are subjected to a rational logic and are monitored, bureaucratised, and ‘colder’ (Illouz, 2007).

In the university, the duality and proximity of commercialisation and emotionality are present in the very overlap of neoliberal and therapeutic logic. Emotional consumerism translates academic teaching into a format of service, encoded by psycho-managerial formulas. Teaching is perceived both as emotional labour necessary for ‘personalised’ pedagogy and as an emotional service crucial to client satisfaction. Such a perception alters faculties’ perceptions of their tasks and experiences, and reconfigures relations between professors and students. Teaching appears as a therapeutic interaction, and the transmission of knowledge is supposed to be at once comforting and emotionally engaging. The legitimacy and even imperative of emotional expressions in interaction with students are viewed as a basis for care and are consistent with ‘best practices’ (Eccelstone and Hayes, 2009).

We explain this emotionalisation as translation of therapeutic logic about the self and relationships into the academic domain, where psychological language serves to describe, navigate and also manage teaching relations. The psycho-managerial logic encourages emotional articulations, but also controls and limits them, so that they include only rational, positive, effective and functional expressions, which uphold personal boundaries.

Nonetheless, emotional consumerism in the academic field does not speak the same language everywhere. Local neoliberalism, cultural emotional styles and educational traditions, as well as political cultures, shape the emotionalisation of university teaching differently in Russia, Israel and the US. Each of these locations is also differently positioned vis- à -vis psychological knowledge and language, as well as the institutionalisation of the practices of therapeutic culture. The communication styles of the three cultural contexts underlie the types of discourse that the Russian, Hebrew and US-English languages make possible, comprehensible and legitimate in the academic setting. Particular configurations of emotionalised teaching are emerging in these arenas: academic teaching in the US appears as care combined with fear; teaching in Israel is articulated as a therapeutic power struggle; while in Russia, teaching is interpreted as a peculiar combination of authoritative impersonalised services.

We find, therefore, that understanding the neoliberal therapeutic condition of university teaching through a cross-cultural lens highlights the configuration of its global translation. We showed how emotional capitalism is moulded by cultural and linguistic scripts in the US, Israel and Russia, and how it modifies the emotionalisation of academic culture through particular kinds of ‘emotion talk’ in and about teaching. By means of a communicative emotional style, social relationships are imagined and enacted in speech. These different styles make up part of local cultural and academic traditions, but also of contemporary political discourses and ideological trends that lend concrete meaning to the emotionalisation of academic culture in each national context.

Reflecting on these three national versions of academic teaching through both their common features and their specific cultural characteristics, we observe the predominance of change in academic culture in the neoliberal therapeutic age. In critical analysis of recent trends in higher education, this change is linked to a regime of neoliberal subject or personhood – its emotional pragmatic attitude to formal and informal interpersonal relations, and its evaluation of experience (Gershon, 2011; Scharff, 2016). This type of subjectivity is usually attributed to students, as though they were the ones bringing this neoliberal attitude into the academic field. Shifting the gaze from students’ demands to the context of multilayered changes in academic education (for example, Handler, 2018), we argue that emotional consumerism is fundamental to the current condition of academic teaching: it colours how it is imagined by the university institution and experienced by its staff. Therefore, we suggest interpreting the neoliberalisation, accompanied by the emotionalisation of academic culture, as an all-encompassing and profound transformation of the academic institution, the relationships within it, and its culture of knowledge.

Notes

1

All the names, affiliations and fields of expertise in this article are fictional. In changing them for the purpose of anonymity, we strove to stay close to the professors’ original fields, and used the forms of address that are conventional in US, Israeli and Russian academic contexts. In Russia, professors are addressed by both their first name and patronymic.

2

For the details of Jeanne Clery’s case and the Clery Act, signed in 1990, see Fisher et al, 2002.

3

For additional debates over speech practices see Boler, 2004.

4

See, for example, Im Tirzu, the report on curriculum monitoring by neo-Zionist NGO (in 2008 and 2011), and the ethical code of political expression in the classroom launched by the Ministry of Education in 2016.

5

Since Western psychological perceptions and discourse never shaped social relations in Soviet culture, the wide public use of psychological language is a recent phenomenon in Russia (Matza, 2018).

6

The principles of Soviet-Russian educational discourse are identified with the pedagogical approach of A. Makarenko, developed during the 1920s and 1930s.

Funding

This study is supported by the Israeli Science Foundation (Grant no. 496/16).

Acknowledgements

Each author contributed equally to this article.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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Julia Lerner Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel

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Claudia Zbenovich Hadassah Academic College, Israel

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Tamar Kaneh-Shalit University of Haifa, Israel

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