Teaching and the Empathy Gap

I’ve had several opportunities to preach the gospel of inclusive Trauma Informed Pedagogy this semester. This is not a good thing. It means that I continue to witness and hear about teachers being unkind, inflexible, and sometimes abusive to students. I draw experience from my teaching, committees, groups I am a member of at my university, and my tween’s experiences in middle school this year. The empathy gap between faculty and students is probably related to our collective but unevenly distributed trauma from Covid. But the systems that feed it existed before the pandemic and will exist after if we don’t change them. Drastically.

The Slippery Slope

This is NOT A THING. In a <redacted> committee meeting for a <redacted> office at my university, I was regaled with stories of how accommodating students with disabilities and emergencies is a “slippery slope” and, therefore, should be avoided if possible. First of all, this is a logical fallacy. If you have a PhD, you have a Doctor of PHILOSOPHY. Yes, I know most of us don’t learn all that much philosophy if it’s not our discipline, but you should know a logical fallacy when you see it. One instructor used it as an excuse to offer exactly zero deadline flexibility to students with disabilities because it’s “ not like the real world” and “unfair to other (non-disabled) students.”

I cannot.

First, academics have never met a deadline they couldn’t blow, so pot, meet kettle. Also, “real world” people have emergencies and miss deadlines. As long as they don’t go MIA, they usually don’t get fired. So fuck that noise. Second, the whole point of the ADA is to create EQUITY between students; to remove the barriers that make it impossible for students with disabilities to access the same education as others. Just spitballing here, but if you are responsible for enacting accommodations for students with disabilities, which you are, by federal statute, you should PROBABLY AT LEAST READ THE FUCKING CLIFF NOTES and understand the basic history and reason for it.

Years ago, when I was teaching adult learners at a private university, several asked me hard questions about the Civil Rights Act and the ADA. So, I called a local civil rights law collective and had them send a guest speaker. He explained these laws thusly (summarized by me):

Humans can be discriminatory trash, and that sucks, so we make laws that balance out our tendency to individually and systemically disenfranchise everyone who isn’t white and male. This is good for everyone, because then we have a better society, more talent, more productivity, and everyone has better lives.

The goal of equity is to get to the point where the barriers are gone, so we don’t have to make so-called “special allowances” for disenfranchised people. But you can’t jump from “I don’t see color” (you do) to “everyone has the same opportunity” (they don’t). You have to go through steps of enacting processes that may look unfair because you may be giving a Black student a scholarship that a white student isn’t eligible for, or a disabled student flexible deadlines that an abled student may not have access to because nothing is easy and we have to look at the big picture. Statistically, that Black student with the scholarship has missed out on countless opportunities that the white student automatically had. That’s why idiots who keep suing colleges for discrimination against white students keep losing.

The disabled student, similarly, has faced barriers that the abled student has not, and likely discrimination and bullying or abuse. Is it always perfectly fair on a one-to-one basis? Who fucking cares? Fairness is not a one-to-one proposition. We know that our systems are fundamentally unfair, so we have to balance the scales. If you are not on board with this, you should not be involved in any diversity, equity, and inclusion projects because you are not inclusive, and you don’t understand diversity and equity. You know who you are. Or at least I wish you did.

Unpaid and Underpaid Labor is Exploitation that Kills Diversity

In yet another meeting in <redacted> for <redacted> students, I got to hear about how we shouldn’t pay undergraduate mentors for helping us lift up marginalized students because “it looks good on their resume” and “grad students can do it as service.” “Service” is code for unpaid, often unrecognized labor expected of all faculty and graduate students. It is part of the larger illusion that universities are dedicated solely to bettering society and not raking in endowments with which they can pay their presidents and coaches gobs of cash while raising tuition during a pandemic. I gently suggested that we should not exploit our students while they help us serve a marginalized population because THAT WOULD SET A BAD EXAMPLE.

Want to know why we have a diversity problem among faculty? Because most universities don’t pay non-tenure track faculty, also known as lecturers or adjunct faculty, a living wage. So who becomes the employee pool for these roles? Highly educated people with highly paid spouses who can afford to take low-paying jobs. And who are those people? Those people are white. Until universities pay a reasonable wage (that reflects the cost of living in the community) for a full-time instructor who is likely paying off a shitton of student loans, and until they offer a viable career path for teaching faculty (not just tenure track research faculty), we will continue to be a homogenous, white, upper-middle-class population with a limited ability to understand the needs of our diverse student population. The empathy gap I have been describing will not go away unless we can recruit diverse teaching faculty.

I almost became a single-income family about a month ago when my highly paid husband was almost dying from breakthrough Covid complications. I can’t afford to live in Austin on my salary, let alone take care of a kid. This is, while very much the norm in academia, totally unacceptable.

Summary

So here’s the wrap-up. We have a major empathy gap among faculty who don’t have the capacity or the will to perspective-take with their diverse, stressed, and often traumatized students. Some of that empathy gap comes from the homogeneity of faculty and the higher education industry’s unwillingness to stop exploiting graduate students and non-tenure track faculty. So to faculty, I say, Don’t be a Jerk. And to admin, I say, stop exploiting your labor pool and telling us it’s for the greater good. It’s not. It hurts students, it hurts families, and it hurts the community.

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Michelann Quimby, PhD

Michelann Quimby, PhD

I write about ethics, org psych, body liberation, trauma-informed practice, sociology, cyberpsychology, human development, systems theory, and nerd stuff.