89 Accessibility, Empathy, and Exhaustion

John Lappie

Originally posted on Local Democracy on May 1, 2022

When I reviewed the values set by CPLC Season 2, the first thought that struck me was “I hope all of us are incorporating these values into our own work.” What I wanted to talk about most here though were the values of accessibility and empathy.

Accessibility to me means that no student should be denied access to education based on factors beyond their control, be it physical disability, learning disability, or limited financial resources, among other factors. We obviously need to be very attentive to the first two items on that list, but we also need to be cognizant of the third (limited financial resources). When I was a second-semester freshman at Eastern Connecticut State (go Warriors!), I paid $300 for textbooks for my first upper-level course…and only later figured out that despite being listed as required, none of the textbooks were really necessary, in fact the professor barely ever referred to them. I was fortunate: for my parents and I that was just annoying, but for many of my fellow students paying for textbooks, and other school supplies, is a serious hindrance And it is certainly true here, where so many of our students struggle to pay for college, and where all of our students attend college in a state with high tuition rates.

In my own work now, I try to be respectful of our students’ wallets; for example, by assigning OERs or other open-access readings, rather than paying for textbooks. That’s only an example however: we also need to make sure we are accessible in other ways. For instance, in our tech savvy age it’s easy to assume that all our students are familiar with the educational software we can use, even something as basic as Microsoft Office. However, even though our university offers students laptops and these programs for free, we cannot assume that all our students know how to use them (not that I’ve ever made that mistake and had to learn from it…*eyes shift rapidly left to right*).

Sidenote: Political Science textbooks are particularly problematic- there’s a bad habit of updating the names of elected officials and calling it a new edition, even though none of the underlying concepts have changed.

Empathy is the other key value I wanted to discuss in this piece (and forgive me if I ramble a bit, I’m fighting off a cold, and just in-time for finals week!). One thing struck me about the CPLC Season 2 description: both faculty and students are sometimes unwell, and need to be empathetic with each other. One of the most touched I’ve been was a conversation with a student in Fall of 2020, reflecting on the interesting Spring 2020 semester. This student was talking about the ways his various instructors handled the in-semester transition to remote learning, and discussed what worked and what didn’t work. In this student’s opinion, some of his instructors mishandled the transition, hindering his and his fellow students learning. However, the student followed up with saying that he understood that his instructors were stressed too, and were trying to do something very difficult (switch modalities) on very short notice- so in the end, the student did not think less of them as educators.

College can be an intimidating place (and returning to accessibility, especially for first-generation students!). One of the things that can make it less intimidating is empathy; all of us, instructors, staff, and students, struggle sometimes, and all of us make mistakes sometimes. This is especially true now: all of us are exhausted from the pandemic, and our students more than anyone else. Those who entered before COVID got to experienced very little “normal college,” while those entering now haven’t experienced normal High School in years- and now that things have opened up and are returning to some approximation of normal, are having a difficult time adjusting. I do think its important to be empathetic to our students, to be aware of the issues they are facing and accommodate them as far as possible without compromising education. I do think that last part is important; we don’t want our empathy to lead us to make decisions that actual undercut the student’s learning.

Before doing this assignment, I read Elizabeth Johnston’s final assignment, and from there to Waytz’ article in Harvard Business Review. Waytz talks about how empathy can be exhausting; the example he uses are hospice nurses, whose job is harder than mine, but I do think it’s a risk we face in this profession too, especially lately. It is important that we take care of ourselves too; this isn’t a purely selfish desire, since how well will our students learn if we aren’t well ourselves?


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