A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article explores the challenge of developing empathy for students who fail to get vaccinated for COVID or resist wearing a mask in class (October 7th online).
Guess what? Research indicates that empathy is a struggle for faculty interacting with students in a variety of contexts, not just those that are COVID-related. A national survey jointly sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and University Life finds that professors across the country are having a difficult time feeling compassion for their students. Consider the following 1st-person accounts:
— Nathan S., DePaul University: “Gary, a sophomore, showed up at my class in a full body cast yesterday. Over the weekend he had been struck by a runaway ice cream truck while helping an elderly widow fix her car’s flat tire on the side of the highway. He wanted to know if he could postpone taking the midterm exam for a few days.
“I said no. It seemed to me that an 83-year-old woman should not be driving on the highway in the first place. Gary was simply enabling her reckless behavior, and he needed to own the consequences of what he did.
“Gary took the exam and failed; I could not decipher his scrawled answers to any of the essay questions. Now I feel kind of bad about all this. The kid has a good heart. Maybe I was too harsh.”
— Marjorie L., Miami University of Ohio: “On the day a term paper was due in my class, I was notified that Trent was in jail, having been arrested the night before for pistol-whipping the cashier at a 7-Eleven while attempting to shoplift a bag of Twizzlers. Trent wanted an extension on the paper.
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I know for a fact that our local jail has both PCs and printers available for inmate use. Trent could have finished the paper in his cell on the night of his arrest and had his classmate Gretchen submit it the next day. Just for the record, the two of them have been groping each other in the back row of the classroom like hamsters in heat since the beginning of the semester!”
— Horace R., University of Arkansas: “So, I get a text from Ruth Ann three days ago telling me that she’s just gone into labor. She claims that she didn’t even know she was pregnant, which could be true, since Ruth Ann is a large, big-boned girl. She wanted my permission to miss class for the next two weeks, because her delivery was going to be a C-section.
“Absolutely not. The syllabus for my Senior Humanities seminar on The Art of Courtly Love clearly states that the course is only open to students who have not had sex in the year prior to the first day of class. Ruth Ann clearly violated that policy. I wish nothing but the best for her and her child, but there was nothing I could do. She had to drop the class.”
Sometimes, the ones who need our empathy the most are our colleagues.