By acting with compassion, we help our students diminish anxiety that can lead to a pervasive dissatisfaction in their lives. Before considering what needs to be included in a pedagogy of compassion, let me detail what is not part of such a pedagogy: lowered standards, giving some students an unfair advantage over others, and treating the student as customer. Nor does it presuppose that we consider our students as anything other than responsible adults.
If we have compassion for our students, we need to take actions to help them develop course competencies, but also skills that allow them to develop in their personal and professional lives. For example, when I receive a rude email or comment for a student, I will try to turn it into an educational experience. For example:
May I make a suggestion concerning tone in writing to a professor?
If I were in your situation, I would send a polite email which followed the course email guidelines (e.g. making sure that the subject line begins with [course redacted]). I would be sure to address the email using the professor's title and name (e.g. Dr. Berg). I would then apologize for overlooking the portion of the grading rubric that said a title page was required. I would thank the professor for already allowing me to revise and resubmit the assignment and ask if the professor would allow me one more opportunity to correct my mistakes.
As written, the only response you can expect from the email you sent is the answer "No."
In this case, the student wrote a very nice response and I quickly granted his request. I would never send such an email unless I was willing to work with the student. In another case, I wrote:
I know that you sometimes get impatient with email responses, so I now take such email [from you] in stride. However, in the future, you might come across as unreasonable at best and rude at worse. I know this is not your intent which I why I am bringing this to your attention. If everything is urgent, then nothing is urgent and people could just start to disregard you. “Oh,” shaking their head, “It’s another one of those emails from [name redacted].” They might not even bother opening it. I mention this because I fear that you could set yourself up for difficulties in the future unless you make some modifications as to how you approach professors—or colleagues in the workplace. Ironically, the more time you are willing to give others to respond, the more likely it is that you will move to the top of their priority list.
I don’t know if the student will heed my advice, but it doesn’t hurt to give it.
In arguing for compassion, I am not saying that we cannot give up on a student. There are times when all of our efforts will come to naught. For example, I am no longer surprised at the number of students who will not take advantage of my offers to revise and resubmit their assignments for a higher grade.
We must also be conscious to not cross the line between being compassionate and being enabling. There are times when the compassionate response is “No.”
This chapter begins with two essays concerning establishing compassion in our professional lives. I then give an example concerning bereavement days that can serve as a model to change our thinking about the lives of students as well as an essay which encourages us to consider how teaching without having experienced a cognitive disability can sometimes cause us to lose compassion. The chapter ends with an essay arguing that we need to be like Maasai Warriors who use their power to advocate for compassion.
Image: And Yet She Persisted
Trimming the Yuzu Tree #2:
Reflection on the Complicated Lives of Students
After watching Dominic trim the Yuzu tree in my cousin’s yard, I heard him express his concern that the tree will likely not bear much fruit because the area in which it was planted does not provide enough light. As Dominic explained, “It is not where you want it to be. It’s where it wants to be.”
Dominic’s words provide comfort to those of us who have compassion for our students and feel a sense of frustration as we watch their personal lives overshadow their potential academic achievement.
Our students have complicated lives. Too often, demands of family or work or other personal concerns overshadow their educational goals. While we want them in class, these outside influences encourage them to be elsewhere, often for very good reasons.
I, too, have a complicated life, and I have more life experience, which gives me skills at juggling various responsibilities. However, because I am human, the personal sometimes interferes with my educational responsibilities. For example, there was the time I cut my finger and had to schedule a doctor’s appointment during class time. While I would have preferred that he check the stitches at a time when I was not teaching, I knew the doctor would not be willing to adjust his office schedule to accommodate my desires. My students were very understanding of my situation because they, too, have experienced the necessity of making hard choices between personal and academic commitments.
Over the years, instead of coming to campus, I have accompanied my father to the hospital for a medical procedure. There have also been times when I stayed home from campus when I was ill. Although my students do not have sick days or personal business days built into the syllabus as I have such days built into my contract, their illnesses and other personal business are no less legitimate than mine. As a result, I do my best to work with students who have to miss class.
Yet, there are limits when it is not possible to assist students even if they are dedicated. I once had a dedicated student, who had many legitimate personal reasons for missing class. As a result of her absences, she kept falling further and further behind. Unfortunately, it reached the point where it was no longer possible for me to work effectively with her in such a way that she could pass the course. While I wanted her to be in the classroom, she needed to be elsewhere.
I have heard colleagues callously take the position that such a student deserves to fail. Yet, it is possible to recognize that a student cannot pass a course because of circumstances that are no fault of her own. We would not blame my cousin’s Yuzu tree for its failure to produce more fruit. Instead, we would recognize that external factors contributing to its lack of success. If we can be charitable to the Yuzu tree, we should be able to honor a student’s decision to attend to personal matters without blaming her for her “failure.”
Several years ago, personal issues caused a colleague to drop his classes in the middle of the semester. Even though he could not fulfill his responsibilities by remaining in the classroom, we did not condemn him for being irresponsible. While we would have preferred that he continue to teach, we recognized that it was not about where we wanted him to be. It was about where he needed to be.
In the case of my student, I had to make the hard decision that there was nothing further I could do to assist her in passing the class. She needed to be elsewhere and I understood and supported her decision. But it did not end there. I intervened on my student’s behalf and provided her with information about how she could get a medical withdrawal which would allow her to repeat the course without having to pay for it again. I also made phone calls and sent emails to appropriate individuals on this student’s behalf so that she could get additional support.
While some students fail because of irresponsibility, any student can become overwhelmed by their personal lives. Whenever possible, I do my best to work with students so that they can successfully complete their coursework—even if they must complete the work after the semester ends. When such a response is not possible, I make appropriate referrals to colleagues who are trained to provide the necessary assistance.
Image: Gesture of Teaching: Karuṇā Radiates From Metta
A Pedagogy of Compassion
My friend and colleague Clark Iverson has written that “compassion is a crucial element of a transactional production of meaning in classroom discourse, as opposed to the unidirectional pouring of knowledge into the students’ empty cups.” A pedagogy of compassion is meant to facilitate learning and to enhance discourse.
Our students are responsible adults who have adult responsibilities. They are also adults in transition who do not always know the unwritten rules that guide the academic classroom. Even as responsible adults, they are bound to make mistakes or bad decisions. Others lack skills they “should have learned” before entering our classrooms. A pedagogy of compassion encourages us to recognize that serving as mentors is an important role, which we play as faculty.
I was once assigned to be a mentor to a new faculty member who was very talented and experienced. Yet, as a college, we recognized that she would need assistance in navigating the new environment in which she found herself. If an experienced faculty member can benefit from a mentor, mentoring is even more needed by our students.
Sometimes, while juggling complex lives, students make poor choices. Whenever possible, I try to turn choices into educational experiences. I will meet with students, discuss strategies for making better decisions in the future, and refer them to support systems on campus. Critics of a pedagogy of compassion argue that such an approach gives an unfair advantage to these students. While I understand their concern, a pedagogy of compassion is transparent and something knowingly available to all students.
During class, I talk about second chances and a willingness to work with students even if they make a poor decision. I acknowledge that many of my assignments are tough and that the worst-case scenario is that, after they submit the project, I will work with them to improve it. I used to grade, “Pass/No-Credit/Redo.” Now I do most of my grading as “Pass/Not-Yet.” In a “Pass/Not Yet” system, students who do not demonstrate the competency that is being assessed are allowed to revise assignments until they achieve mastery. If they don’t revise or achieve mastery, they would eventually fail the assignment. In reality, there is no practical difference between “Pass/Not Yet” and “Pass/No Credit/Redo.” However, “Pass/Not-Yet” places more focus on the process of passing and is a less threatening way to describe a pedagogical approach that is usually foreign to them.
Critics of a pedagogy of compassion rightly point out that, during conferences, students might mention issues we are not qualified to address. But compassion does not mean that we need to delve into our students’ personal lives or to try to fix their problems.
When I meet with a student, I will sometimes ask if they are having personal difficulties, for which they might want assistance. In doing so, I do not inquire about the nature of the problem and, if a student attempts to tell me something that is outside my role as professor or academic mentor, I tell them that I don’t need the details. Instead, I refer them to another support person on campus. A pedagogy of compassion requires interventions and referrals. It does not require that we provide the services ourselves.
When given the opportunity to revise a paper or project, some students react to a pedagogy of compassion with a sense of gratitude. They take the necessary steps to improve both the assignment and their academic performance more generally. Others, as the critics of a pedagogy of compassion point out, take compassion for weakness and act as if I will accept any revision, even if it is superficial. A pedagogy of compassion provides an opportunity not multiple opportunities.
A pedagogy of compassion does not mean that the student needs to be coddled. I recall one instance in which a student informed a colleague that he was too busy to meet any time before 9:30 pm. My colleague appropriately responded “No.” When a student stands me up for an appointment, I say “No” to future appointments unless they are scheduled during office hours. Instead of enabling self-destructive or irresponsible behaviors, sometimes the compassionate response is “No.”
When life interferes with our academic responsibilities or we make a bad decision, we depend on the compassion of our students, colleagues, and administrators. Our students deserve no less from us.
Image: When a Grandmother Dies
Bereavement Days for Students
As I was preparing to take a personal business day, I could not help but think about a recent discussion concerning students whose grandmothers die during the semester. Often, these discussions begin with snarky comments about how convenient it is that grandmothers die during exam week.
Generally, my contribution to such discussions includes the rhetorical question, “What do you do when a student’s grandmother dies?” My answer, “Send a note of condolence.” In addition to the condolence note, I also work with the student to make up missed assignments and to stay current in the class.
The tricky issue of faculty determining the legitimacy of bereavement days is exemplified when I took personal business day to attend the funeral of Frank Arvid Cederwall (1924-2018). As a genealogist, I would describe Frank as my first cousin twice removed; a seemingly distant relationship. But, in terms of family dynamics, “Uncle Frank” was closer than a distant relative. Sometimes, a non-biological relationship might be much closer than the relationship a student has with their grandmother or some other relative.
When my students experience a death, I do not set myself up as a judge who decides if their biological relationship or lack thereof with the deceased justifies them missing class to attend the funeral. When a student simply tells me that they have to attend a funeral, that is enough for me.
When I read the snarky comments about it being “convenient” that grandma dies during finals week, I realize that grandma does not choose to die to get her grandchild out of an exam. And when a student tells me that they need to miss class for a funeral, I don’t care if they are paying respects to grandma or to their first cousin twice removed or to someone who has no biological relationship with them.
Image: Teaching While Underimparied
Teaching While Underimpaired
“People who do not have cognitive disabilities think they know what it means to have limitations but they do not.”
— Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Quoted by Cathy N. Davidson in “Handicapped by Being Underimpaired”1
I clearly remember a 24-hour period during which I suffered cognitive disabilities; a period during which I was not sure if my cognitive abilities would return.
I had just suffered a ministroke. In the emergency room, I was unable to fill out the admission form because it was too difficult for me to form my letters. The effort to write the “B” for my last name was so taxing that I had to ask someone else to complete the form for me. With difficulty, I could process thoughts and answer questions, but I knew that I was not functioning at the same level I had been less than one hour earlier.
Fortunately, my cognitive skills returned and I suffered no permanent damage. But I still remember the fear of knowing that I might continue to live in a cognitively impaired state.
Even though I wear glasses without which I could not function in the classroom, I remain fairly underimpaired; much less impaired than many of my students. In bringing up my glasses, I am not trying to trivialize students with “real” disabilities. In the United States, it is relatively easy to get glasses and to simply need glasses is not considered a disability because of the social construction and connotation of the word. Instead, it allows me to bring up the issue of who gets accommodations. For example, to qualify for accommodations, a student at my college--and other colleges as well—must first be certified by our Disabilities Office as needing accommodations.
At the beginning of every semester, I receive a list of students who officially qualify for accommodations in my classes. Sometimes the reason is cognitive. Sometimes physical. Sometimes mental. Never for socio-economic reasons which are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yet the accommodation letter is not sufficient for students to receive accommodations until the student discusses the letter with their professors. No conversation means no accommodations.
Students transitioning from high school often do not realize that the rules for accommodations change; that just because they had accommodations in high school does not mean that they automatically get accommodations in college. In fact, it can come as a shock to those students that they no longer have a district paid advocate working with them and their professors as they had in high school. Often, they do not realize that they need to be their own advocates without any training on how to do so. For example, I used to be very annoyed when a student wanted to discuss their accommodations three minutes before the first class of the semester. Eventually, I realized that these students are acting in good faith but were ignorant of how to best approach their professor. I continue to handle the situation the same way by making an appointment with the student, but I no longer suffer from the self-imposed irritation that resulted in my own ignorance of how the dynamics of our exchange were playing out.
Because I have already built accommodations—which can also be called best practices—into the courses I teach, most of my students who qualify for accommodations do not need to ask me to accommodate them. For example, in the notes I send to students after each class, I include a section called “Forthcoming,” where I list readings, videos, or PowerPoint presentations that I intend to use during the next class. Having access to these materials in advance is not just beneficial for students whose impairments officially qualify them for accommodations.
Recently, I have come to realize that there is an even more important aspect to universal design as it directly relates to students who need accommodations but do not have access to becoming “properly” certified to receive them. In a universally designed classroom, students have access to accommodations anyway. Policy at many colleges do not permit a professor to offer accommodations to students who do not officially qualify for them. Yet there is no policy prohibiting professors for using universal design which offers the most common types of accommodations to all students.
Recognizing that we can be handicapped by our underimpairment allows us to realize that not all brains work the same. In 2012, Cathy Davidson wrote: “My brain doesn’t do comics, never has . . . but maybe some day it will. I used to marvel at my Dad, my brother, and my sister who would fight for the comics page. When my partner Ken shows me a hilarious New Yorker cartoon, I spend maybe ten minutes trying to fathom it and half the time hand it back, puzzled. It’s a form I admire so much but it eludes me . . . until I met Nick [Sousanis].”2 This was three years before she experienced cognitive impairment due to excessive blood loss and just after her Now You See It (2012) was published. Just a few years ago, the acclaimed educator, who is now a Distinguished Professor and Director of the Futures Initiative at the City University of New York Graduate Center, could not understand comics.
When I first read Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening (2015), I could not fully understand it because I was not used to reading comics. The academic content as demonstrated in the text was easy for me to comprehend, but I really did not begin to appreciate the relationship between image and text until my third reading of the book and after discussing the book with students. My students embraced the book because they are used to reading comics and graphic novels. However, they struggled with the academic and historical references. We were both underimpaired in different ways.
Like Davidson, I do my best to acknowledge my underimpairment so that it does not negatively impact my teaching my teaching. Teaching Unflattening challenged me, but tackling the challenge allowed me to better understand what my students experience when I challenge them, especially those students who are grappling with their own underimpairments.
Fortunately, one does not need to experience cancer or a stroke or a significant amount of blood loss in order to have empathy for students who require accommodations. Some of us just need to remove our glasses—or read a comic—in order to see the world more clearly.
Image: Standing With Power and Compassion
Using Our Power to Advocate For Compassion; or, What We Can Learn from Maasai Warriors
Because of a project on which I was working with my colleague Jessica Worden-Jones and some students, I had the opportunity to meet several members of the Maasai Cricket Warriors including Sonyanga Ole Ngais and Richard Turere. These Maasai Warriors have much to teach us about power and compassion.
Several years ago, using their power as warriors and cricketers, Nagis and other Maasai Warriors took on campaigns advocating against nonconsensual female genital mutilation, supporting of HIV/AIDS awareness, advancing conservation efforts, and building peace. They stood up against the prevailing cultural norms and worked to educate the Maasai elders. And they are making changes.
Turere’s advancements in compassion were initially directed at the lions he used to hate. As a boy of nine, he began to be “responsible for herding and safeguarding my family’s cattle.” The hatred toward lions resulted because “living on the edge of the unfenced Nairobi National Park our valuable livestock would be raided by the lions roaming the park’s sweet savannah grasses, leaving me to count the losses.” To counter the attacks, Maasai warriors would kill the lions: that is, until Turere used his knowledge to “come up with an innovative, simple and low-cost system to scare the predators away.” His innovation was to connect LED lights to an old car battery. “The lights flash in sequence, tricking lions into believing that someone is carrying around the cows shed.” Because the lions stay away from the cow sheds, there is no need to kill them. The lions, the cows, and the Maasai are all winners as Turere used his power to work with other warriors in their conservation efforts.3
Especially those of us who are tenured professors need to follow the lead of Maasai warriors by using our power to advocate for compassion. Because we do not think about the non-consensual genital mutilation widely practiced on intersex infants, we generally do not consider female genital mutilation as a cultural norm in the United States. Nor do we need to worry about lions killing our cattle. But we have many opportunities to use our power to advocate for compassionate responses on behalf of students, adjunct faculty members, and staff. We cannot ignore those things that do not directly impact us, but need to stand up to injustices, bad policies, and other decisions that have a negative impact on the individuals at our institutions.
I have heard faculty members express concern that “If we say something, administrators will punish us.” That can happen. But what can the administrator really do to a tenured faculty member? For someone on probation or is working on a renewable contract, speaking up can cause a loss of job. But even if an administrator goes out of their way to make our tenured lives miserable, they cannot take away our livelihood without just cause.
Even before I was tenured, I was advocating for my students. I remember a professional development session when I was still in graduate school conducted by Dr. “Pompous.” At one point, Dr. Pompus suggested that we have students write about something they know about; someting such as their first date. Even though I was new to teaching, I knew that this was a terrible writing prompt. Some students might not have had a first date. Others may have been sexually assaulted on their first date. The prompt was too specific and did not allow students the flexibility to avoid writing about a potentially traumatic experience unless they lied.
After Dr. Pompous gave his suggestion, I raised my hand and asked, “With a man or a woman?” In the late 1980s, it is not surprising that Dr. Pompous became very flustered; but not as flustered as a student who had been raped on their first date might have responded to his ill-informed prompt.
A friend at another institution wrote about technical problems she encouraged because “IT made changes without talking to us first.” As faculty members, we need to advocate for our voices as well as the voices of staff and students to be part of discussions; especially when bad decisions are being made. And if we are not included, we need to find ways to make our voices heard. Several years ago, a department at my institution kept claiming that a certain problem was unique to each of the faculty members who reported it. To counteract the official denial, we began to send emails to the dean each and every time the problem came up while we were teaching. Soon, the problem began to be addressed at the institutional level.
One of the risks of using our power to advocate for compassion is that we can lose the equanimity and drift into a pervasive dissatisfaction. Sometimes institutions move very slowly. I once spent four years trying to have an error corrected in an institutional document. This was despite the fact that there was 100% agreement that a change needed to be made. Sometimes, we find that we are Don Quixotes fighting windmills.
The advice a senior colleague gave to a new faculty member who had just been made to feel powerless is important:
I must admit, I step away from situations I cannot change and work like heck in situations I can. That, in fact, may be my survival guide. “Step away from situations you cannot change, work like heck in situations where you think you can make a difference and where the process is good and feeds you so that, even if you fail to make a difference, you grow stronger and learn from the process itself.” That does not mean accepting the situations you cannot change. Not at all. But it does mean accepting where your particular reach and power cannot have an impact on a situation--and making choices for those situations that feed you, inspire you, and where you can be powerful and a force for change.
This advice cannot, however, be used to excuse inaction without analysis. It would have been too easy for Sonyanga Ole Ngais to think that as a lone individual he would be powerless to stand up with the women in his community against a strong cultural tradition supported by the elders. He would have been wrong. Richard Turere could have accepted the prevailing attitude that the only way to deal with lions was to kill them. He was willing to consider where he had power and how far it could reach before accepting defeat without trying anything. There are now over 750 families who are using Turere’s invention to protect their cattle.
Although comparing our students and colleagues to cattle is problematic, we need to accept that metaphors have their limits. That being said, it is important that we fight the lions at our own institutions while realizing that there is no need to kill them.
Image: Tips and Tricks #04
Everyday Tips and Tricks for Teaching with Compassion
The Buddhist tradition has the Karaniya Metta Sutta which begins “This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness, and who knows the path of peace” before listing instructions on how to radiate loving kindness from self to the world. Matthew 25:40 from the Christian scripture tells us that whatever we do to even the least of my brothers or sisters, you do until Jesus. In the Islamic tradition, there is a text--recorded in the illustration for this section--that instructs “Kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever has not kindness has not faith.” Although there are some philosophers such as Ann Randwho reject altruism, most religious and philosophical systems rightly recognize that it is through compassion that we make our world better on both the macro and micro level.
Give students “sick days” and “personal business days.” This is something that could be listed in the syllabus as well as discussed in class.
Recognize that outside influences can cause a student’s “failure.”
Students often do not know the processes that are required to get assistance. That should not annoy us; even if we include that information in our syllabi.
Proactively work with a student who is having difficulties.
We don’t have to provide all of the services ourselves. We can make referrals.
We do not need to know the details of a student’s personal life to make a referral.
Serve as mentors to our students.
Don’t serve as judge to determine what is a “legitimate” illness or funeral when a student needs to miss class.
Whenever possible, allow students to know what is forthcoming so that they can review readings, videos, and other course materials in advance.
Making this as part of universal design means that we don’t have to worry about accommodating students who require such services because they are already built into the course.
Let students know about special circumstances withdrawals4 and other special considerations that the college can make.
Compassion does not mean we cannot say “No.”
Adopt a “Pass/Not Yet” or some other form of grading system that acknowledges that students master course skills at different times.
Using our power does not presuppose that we consider our students as anything other than responsible adults.
Davidson, Cathy. “Handicapped by Being Underimpaired: Teaching with Equality at the Core.” HASTAC. 7 July 2015.↩
Davidson, Cathy. “A Dissertation About Comics That is a Comic: Great Interview with Nick Sousanis.” HASTAC. 5 March 2012.↩
For more information about Richard Turere’s work, please consult his website: lionboy.org.↩
Special circumstances withdrawals are the name of the process my college uses that allow students who are ill or whom have had some other extraordinary circumstance to drop a class after the deadline without having the class appear on their transcript. In some cases, students are even given a refund for the course or a retake credit which allows them to take the course again without paying for it.↩