Reflecting on the Necessity of Empathy

Although I certainly mentioned empathy in a variety of settings last year, I am having conversations with faculty and graduate students about it quite a bit at CTFE events this year.  I’m not sure why it seems to be coming up so often, but it is striking how frequently I find myself talking about empathy as the foundation for effective teaching.  By this I mean that good teaching ultimately comes from understanding that we are all human beings, that students bring their lives with them into the classroom, that people sometimes have tragedies both small and large that impede their learning process, that there is a time for rigidity and a time for compassion.  Ken Bain has a great chapter on empathy in his award-winning What the Best College Teachers Do, and many others have written on the subject, so I don’t claim originality here.  I just think it can sometimes be too easy to forget, especially in the midst of a hectic semester, that teaching is fundamentally a human enterprise.

I am always careful to note that being empathetic does NOT mean lowering your standards for learning in any way.  It simply means that we are teaching people, not numbers, and we need to allow this to inform our practices.  We need to learn names, listen to students’ ideas, and give them space for constructive failure in a low-risk environment.  Empathy also allows us to be more fully attuned to the myriad of learning styles our students bring to our classes, so we are more successful teachers when we are empathic.

No instructor is perfect, of course, and it can be a struggle to teach this way sometimes.  Indeed, it is a process that waxes and wanes over the course of a career.  I know that I certainly have many moments where I wish I had been more empathetic for my students.

Still, I am convinced that empathy is at the heart of good teaching, and I hope to keep spreading the word…

CVs and the Academic Job Market: Bite-Sized Graduate Student Professional Development

A significant percentage of my current position at George Mason University is devoted to facilitating graduate student professional development workshops and initiatives.  Because the academic job market is now in full swing, I find myself talking to groups about application materials more and more these days.  In individual consultations, in small groups, and in Mason’s “Preparing for Careers in the Academy” program, my mantra is always the same:

  • Do not go on the job market before you are absolutely ready.  It takes so much out of you cognitively, emotionally, and physically that you are being unfair to yourself if you go on the market before you have a reasonable chance of success.  This “reasonable chance” looks different for everyone, though, so it’s important to consider a variety of factors.  I have developed a job market readiness checklist (PDF) that might be of some use.
  • You can really only control two parts of this process: 1) your decision regarding to which schools you will apply as well as your research on these institutions, and 2) the excellence of your application materials.  Everything else is out of your hands, from the composition of the search committee, to the needs of the department, to those you are competing against.  Focus on what you can control and try to take a broader view of everything else.  In other words, to twist the George Constanzaism–it’s not you; it’s them.
  • The CV is probably the most important of all the job application materials, even though it is the least flashy.  I wrote an essay for The Chronicle in April outlining why I think this is true.

Those are just a few of what I think are the most important bite-sized nuggets of job market tips.  I’m happy to help and to answer any questions at any time.