Care as choreographed: what is the role of care in higher education teaching?

In this article I offer a small-scale review of literature surrounding the topic of care in higher education, which I undertook as part of my PGCert in Creative Education at University for the Creative Arts. This article seeks to investigate the role of ‘care’ in the increasingly marketized university, which has seen further turbulence in the last 12 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pedagogical care can take place at varying levels, from curriculum design to personal encounters. The literature is synonymous that care is an essential part of teaching and learning, yet through analysis it appears that what ‘care’ entails is very ambiguous. Care by its very nature is complex, and some argue that it sits in contrast to measurement or metrics. ‘Care as choreographed’ is a metaphor introduced in this article, which considers the movements, feelings, and resources that are mobilized as care work is carried out. The political dimensions of care, such as who gives and who receives it, is also explored with an emphasis on the gendered & feminised dimension of care work. Looking at pedagogical care through the lens of critical pedagogy and the neoliberal agenda, this article highlights the tensions that arise between students as partners and students as customers, as well as pointing toward further research needed around care within higher education contexts.

Written by Alexandra Davenport | PUBLISHED ON 7th December 2022 | Image by Alexandra Davenport


I am interested in the role of care in the modern, and increasingly marketized, university. Critical pedagogues such as bell hooks (2003) and Paolo Freire (2017) argue that care is an essential part of teaching practice, but what does ‘care’ looks like in the UK neoliberal university and how this has further shifted due to global COVID-19 pandemic? Care has potential to be powerful, and even radical; yet the emotional labour required seems to be consistently unrecognised and undervalued. I’m also acutely aware of the gendered nature of care as a historically feminised form of labour, and this will also underpin the article. If students are now ‘customers’ in HE, then what are tutors? Can ‘care’ fit into this service- based initiative, and if so, how do we make visible work associated with the feminine, which as a result, has remained invisible or severely underpaid. Thinking through the metaphor of ‘care as choreographed’ (Luttrell, 2019:567), in this article I aim to shift the emphasis from individual staff or students, and consider more holistically what the role of care is within higher education. Acknowledging the complexity of this subject, this article isn’t an attempt to ‘conquer’ a theory of caring, but instead make space for its complexities and contradictions.

I undertook this research as part of my PGCert in Creative Education at University for the Creative Arts. This article is by no means exhaustive and serves as a small-scale review of literature around this subject. As both an educator and artist practitioner, I am interested in the expansive possibilities of ‘choreography’, hence my interest in Wendy Luttrell’s ‘care as choreographed’ metaphor for this article. It is also important to note that I am white, cis, female-identifying member of 0.5 FTE academic staff at a UK HE Institution and this significantly shapes my perceptions and expectations around this subject. In other words, I acknowledge that care, and expectations of care, do not look the same to everyone.

A caring environment?

In a pedagogical sense ‘care’ can take place on varying different levels, this can be through course philosophy and design, the localised classroom level, habitually and personally (Bali, 2020). The UK Professional Standards Framework identifies components of successful teaching and learning, and although the term ‘care’ isn’t mentioned explicitly, this is inferred in the framework, in reference to both the learning environment and individual learners/learning communities: ‘develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and guidance ’and ‘respect individual learners and diverse learning communities’. (Advance HE, 2011)

On the one hand, an ‘effective learning environment’ is formed through a relational teacher-student partnership, however the environment (the university) in which the learning takes place, also heavily informs the teaching and learning. Many would argue that the environment for care is as important as the teacher–student relationship (Desierto and de Maio, 2020) (Ashencaen Crabtree and Shiel, 2019) (Luttrell, 2019) (Noddings, 2005), or in contrast, that caring is enacted through particular forms of relationships, that in turn lead to more effective learning environments than those validated by the institution (Walker and Gleaves, 2016).

Care as an essential part of teaching and learning

It has been noted by much of the literature around the subject that care is an essential part of teaching and learning (Walker and Gleaves, 2016) (Desierto and de Maio, 2020) (Ashencaen Crabtree and Shiel, 2019) (Luttrell, 2019) (Hutchison, 2021) (Noddings, 2005), but also that it is multifaceted, complex and difficult to define or measure (Walker and Gleaves, 2016) (Luttrell, 2019) (Hutchison, 2021) (Weiner and Auster, 2007) (Noddings, 2005). It is interesting here that these 2 key themes seem to contrast with one another. Care is an integral part of pedagogy, yet it is ambiguous.

In a 2016 study, Walker and Gleaves attempt to theorise ‘the caring teacher’ in the context of the higher education environment. This paper identifies ‘exemplifiers’ of ‘caring teachers’ from the perspective of students which it uses as the grounding for the study. The small sample size of 6 teachers, all from within a Faculty of Social Sciences at a large university in the North of England limits the potential for more diverse perspectives, however the 4 emergent categories, in particular – ‘caring as less than’, offers an interesting insight into the perceived role of caring in higher education. This overarching sense of hierarchy is suggestive that ‘care’ is undervalued and in some instances, selective i.e., only for so called ‘high achievers.’ This brings in the political dimension of care, whereby a judgement is made about who is worthy of care, as well as those expected to perform it (Luttrell, 2019)

Care as complex, care as gendered

This attempt to theorise care through traditional ‘scientific’ means sits in contrast to Luttrell (2019:564) who argues that care cannot be ‘rendered as neutral data points.’ The more I think about care in the context of the neoliberalist agenda, the more I realise they are ideologically very opposed. Caring as in contrast, or in resistance to, neoliberal individualism (Walker and Gleaves, 2016) (Desierto and de Maio, 2020) (Ashencaen Crabtree and Shiel, 2019) (Luttrell, 2019) (Noddings, 2005) (hooks, 2003). Care as mutuality, as partnership, and as a sustained, 2-way relational process and not a one-off action (Walker and Gleaves, 2016) (Desierto and de Maio, 2020) (Luttrell, 2019) (Weiner and Auster, 2007) (Noddings, 2005) (hooks, 1994) (Morrish, 2019).

The gendered nature of care is picked up by Walker and Gleaves (2016), Luttrell (2019) and Ashencaen Crabtree and Shiel (2019), with the latter linking academic tasks and pastoral care to feminised duties of “housekeeping” and “mothering”. With higher rates of women at the ‘lower ends’ of the academic hierarchy, and an acknowledgement that these essential academic tasks are allocated primarily to women academics, this is quite revealing when linked to Walker and Gleaves category of ‘care as less than.’ Care work has historically been associated with the feminine, and therefore either remained invisible or severely underpaid. Care as devalued is also noted by hooks ‘at its best, teaching is a caring profession. But in our society all caring professions are devalued ’(hooks, 2003:86).

It is important to remain critical of gender here as one-dimensional. As noted previously, Walker and Gleaves small study sample size is problematic in terms of representation, and in addition, although participants in the Ashencaen Crabtree and Shiel (2019) qualitative study of women academics across discipline groups from WAN (Women’s Academic Network) at a British post-1992 corporate university ranged from full professors to demonstrators and included a of mix ethnicities and nationalities, no African Caribbean participants volunteered to be involved in the study. It was unclear why this was the case; however low numbers institutionally are noted as a factor in terms of selection.

It is crucial that we don’t centre a white and/or western female perspective in these conversations about navigating institutional structures and inequalities. This is threaded throughout Luttrell’s paper, acknowledging an intersectional approach to care practices, and offering alternative models to ‘re-affect’ knowledge production. Although care has seen many conceptualisations, Luttrell brings attention to critical race and black feminist scholarship that challenges the white, “colour-blind” theories and practices of care. Feminist of colour have also called for an ethic of care ‘that ties an individual’s survival and success to the survival and success of one’s community’ (2019:566).

Care as choreographed

Luttrell’s metaphor ‘care as choreographed’ considers the movement, feelings, and resources, that are mobilized as people do the work of care. Helping to envision groups, not just individuals ‘bumping up against national borders and boundaries, and/or encoun$tering the forceful edges of discrimination, exploitation and oppression as part of the experience of caring and being cared for.’ (2019:567) There is often a presumption that care is a given, or in some instances (through a gendered lens) ‘innate’, but as has been clearly outlined by Noddings (2005), a ‘caring relation’ is simply a starting point and an invitation for tutors to gain greater competence, helping students discover what they need rather than what we want to give. Choreography refers to the designing of sequences of movement, and so as well as shifting from the individual, the metaphor of ‘care as choreographed’ also reminds us that care is not something that just happens – caring relations are crafted.

Care, critical pedagogy, and the neoliberal institution

In ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, Paulo Freire introduces us to two key concepts of critical pedagogy, ‘Banking’ and ‘Problem-posing’. The banking concept, often referred to as a ‘traditional’ pedagogic approach, is described by Freire as ‘the score of action allowed to the student extends only as far as receiving.’ (Freire, 2017:45) In other words, the teacher or “professor” is all knowing, and the student knows nothing. In this dichotomous model, students are passive objects, ‘receptacles’ to who are filled with knowledge by the teacher (Freire, 2017:45). The banking model is a 1-way relationship where the student is treated as object, receiving, filling, and storing, the oppressed, as objects, as “things,” have no purpose except those their oppressors prescribe for them’ (2017:34). Freire argues that in this model, students are deprived of the transformational potentials of education and are therefore ‘dehumanized’— ‘negating education as a ‘process of inquiry.’ (2017:45).

The increasing marketization of HE is also controversial in terms of how it repositions teaching and learning from collaborative to transactional. With often depleted resources (cognitively, physically, emotionally), where does this leave space for ‘care’? You might even argue that this service model of higher education encourages a ‘banking’ approach to education. As noted by Desierto and de Maio (2020), there’s an increasing pressure for academics to conform to this neoliberal model which is driven by profits and “audit culture” (NSS, REF, and TEF are named and shamed). This, partnered with the increasing casualisation of work, precarious teaching contracts, and workplace exploitation has increased stress and anxiety and severely impacted staff welfare.

Similarly, the increase in student debt and the anxiety to be ‘employable’ after graduating places a high-level of stress on students. Increasing student fees and living costs which come conjoined with capitalist and neoliberal agendas also act as barriers for underprivileged students, further marginalising those who historically, have been underrepresented in these spaces. Arguably, this shift shuts down the lifelong, transformative, and liberating possibilities of education, which are key principles of critical pedagogical approach.

Freire’s suggestion to abandon an ‘educational goal of deposit-making’ (2017:52) is ‘problem-posing’. In this model, the emphasis is less on the transferral of information, and instead, the teacher and student are jointly responsible for a process in which they all grow (2017). This partnership, or ‘co-investigation’ embraces dialogue, and communication acts as the foundation for uncovering and sharing knowledge:

‘In problem-posing education, people develop their powers to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as reality in process, in transformation.’ (Freire, 2017:56)

The banking model is 1-way and non-negotiable. Problem-posing on the other hand sees the teachers as learners and learners as teachers, it is a 2-way dialogical process which Freire argues leads to critical consciousness, or conscientização. This engagement in praxis, which involves students both reflecting and acting on their social reality, utilises dialogue to identify contradictions and ‘transform’ the world.

Care as partnership

Thinking through the literature of care with this concept of critical pedagogy, it is clear there are crossovers with ideas of pedagogical care. Caring, as outlined by Noddings (2005) is also a 2-way process. Caring relations help us to discover what students need, rather than what teachers feel they need to give. Caring relations are about sharing – it is a relational, 2-way partnership. Students as ‘partners’ in teaching and learning has also been noted by Desierto and de Maio (2020:155) as ‘counter-narrative to the consumer model.’ The choice to work against the grain of many educational institutions that are invested in the banking system, is to challenge the status quo (hooks, 1994:203). Noddings also proposes that caring relations can provide the best foundation for ‘moral education’, also alluded to by Freire with his ideas of critical consciousness: ‘Teachers show students how to care, engage them in dialogue about moral life, supervise their practice in caring, and confirm them in developing their best selves.’ (2005) This is echoed by hooks, who notes that the act of serving students well (emphasis mine) can be a critical resistance to the banking model:

‘Committed acts of caring let all students know that the purpose of education is not to dominate, or prepare them to be dominators, but rather to create the conditions for freedom. Caring educators open the mind, allowing students to embrace a world of knowing that is always subject to change and challenge.’ (hooks, 2003:91)

A pedagogy of care could perhaps reclaim the transformative potentials of teaching and learning discussed by Freire & hooks, moving away from conventional pedagogical approaches whereby the student ‘serves’ the teacher’s needs (hooks, 2003), and also personal blame which is dominant in neoliberal discourse (Luttrell, 2019). As reiterated by Morrish,‘care is about mutuality as opposed to the individuating, blame-allocating ‘resilience.’ (2019:52) This proposed caring partnership and its transformative potentials does not eliminate the arduous and exhausting nature of the work involved. Acknowledging the dual capacity of care as both burdensome and transformative, Robertson notes:

When we discuss modern work, we cannot lose sight of the vast amounts of material labour that is performed. We need, particularly, to pay attention to the labour of care. This is as true within the sphere of education as anywhere else. (2019:218)

Speaking of care in the context of technological unemployment, Robertson acknowledges the importance of not ‘romanticising’ care. Although care is embedded into the very fabric of humanity, Robertson notes that we must demand more, ensuring care is properly accounted for in the most ‘equitable and liberatory a manner as possible’ (2019:218). In the context of higher education, this might involve firstly acknowledging what care work actually looks like in higher education, what is expected, and who currently performs and receives it.

Additionally, if education as a practice of freedom involves the ability to intervene, then there is a clear tension between students as partners and students as consumers. What if what the student needs goes against the neoliberal university model? For example, the student is struggling to balance caring responsibilities and coursework and would benefit from deferring a year, or the student would like to switch to another university to be physically closer to home. As educators we have a duty of care towards our students, an ethical responsibility to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our students and to act appropriately in their best interests. The university might not look favourably upon a recommendation of a deferral or switching to another institution, and so here lies the tension between what the student needs vs what the university wants. This in turn can put a strain on teachers as partners in learning when required to act in the ‘best interest’ of both the student and the university.


The role of higher education teaching has been highlighted as both essential to teaching and learning, but also ambiguous. By its very nature, care is difficult to measure and works in resistance to neoliberal individualism. A ‘choreography of care’ invites us to envision groups rather than individuals, as well as the movement, feelings, and resources required. When universities profess that they ‘care’ for their students, teachers and students alike often roll their eyes. Although care might be fundamentally against measurement and ‘data points’, from the literature explored it is clear there needs to be some dialogue around what we mean when we talk about ‘care’, acknowledging both its complexities and its intersectionality. Care practices within the university need to be made visible, but as the mutuality of care acts in resistance to the neoliberal university model, this perhaps cannot be through ‘traditional’ means. As suggested by Luttrell (2019), perhaps we need to do more than just expose the hidden dimensions of care, but utilise different approaches outside of the conventional model to change the way we see, value, and generate care.

Offering philosophies of Vygotsky (Social Constructivism) and Freire (Pedagogy of the Heart) as strategies to help educators provide care and support for students, Desierto and de Maio note that further research should be conducted into how educators might be ‘sustained in their endeavour to support students in face of extreme financial, psychological and personal pressure’ (2020:156). Additionally, some of the literature reviewed that researched care and the university fell short on both representation and sample size, and so further research must take this into consideration.


Advance HE (2011) The UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education. Available at: hub/uk-professional-standards-framework-ukpsf.

Ashencaen Crabtree, S. and Shiel, C. (2019) ‘“Playing Mother”: Channelled Careers and the Construction of Gender in Academia’, SAGE Open, 9(3), p. 215824401987628. doi: 10.1177/2158244019876285.

Bali, M. (2020) ‘Pedagogy of Care: Covid-19 Edition’, Reflecting Allowed, 28 May. Available at: (Accessed: 27 May 2021).

Desierto, A. and de Maio, C. (2020) ‘The impact of neoliberalism on academics and students in higher education: A call to adopt alternative philosophies’, Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 14(2), pp. 148–159.

Freire, P. (2017) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
hooks, bell (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Oxon:

hooks, bell (2003) Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. London: Routledge.

Hutchison, E. (2021) ‘Toward an Ethic of Care and Inclusivity in Emergency E-Learning’, PS: Political Science & Politics, 54(1), pp. 185–187. doi: 10.1017/S1049096520001602.

Luttrell, W. (2019) ‘Picturing care: an introduction’, Gender and Education, 31(5), pp. 563– 575. doi: 10.1080/09540253.2019.1621502.

Morrish, L. (2019) Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff. Oxford: Higher Education Policy Institute.

Noddings, N. (2005) ‘“Caring in education”, The encyclopaedia of pedagogy and informal education.’ Available at: (Accessed: 18 May 2021).

Robertson, M. (2019) ‘Care Amidst and Beyond Technological Unemployment’, in Peters, M. A., Jandrić, P., and Means, A. J. (eds) Education and Technological Unemployment. Singapore: Springer Singapore, pp. 213–226. doi: 10.1007/978-981-13-6225-5_14.

Walker, C. and Gleaves, A. (2016) ‘Constructing the caring higher education teacher: A theoretical framework’, Teaching and Teacher Education, 54, pp. 65–76. doi: 10.1016/j.tate.2015.11.013.

Weiner, S. J. and Auster, S. (2007) ‘From Empathy to Caring: Defining the Ideal Approach to a Healing Relationship’, Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 80(3), pp. 123–130.


Fig.1 Illustration of ‘care as choreography’ as proposed by Wendy Luttrell by Alexandra Davenport, 2021.

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