Be careful with empathy.

by Sean

I am not an empathic person, at least in the way it’s defined in the readings, but I’m fine with that. I think the people supporting the notion of empathy in the classroom frequent;ly take it too far. I’ve seen way too many college-level instructors who seem to think that they should be friends with their students. Ethically, that’s not a good idea. The classroom should have a friendly atmosphere. Most of us don’t learn well in a hostile environment, after all. Still, instructors should maintain some distance. At the end of the day, you. As an instructor, you can’t care more about their grades or their performance than they do.  

And if you haven’t had the underperforming student who can do better but chooses not to, you will. Heck, most of us have BEEN that student. I certainly have. 

Further, empathy can come across as fake to many students. Let me tell you a story. About a decade ago, I gave a quiz in my Voice and Diction class on material they had a month to learn and they bombed hard. 

Now, I’m teaching linguistic theory, and, if you’ve never thought about language this way, there’s a learning curve. And several students were having issues. For them, I just corrected their work and moved on. However, several students had been doing consistently well, and bombed the quiz anyway. I was… less than nice. I remember three comments:

“On the next quiz, you should use a pencil. You’ve scratched out so many things here that it look less like a quiz and more like a recently-released classified document.”

On another:

“Is following directions against your religion or something?”


“I guess I can take comfort in the fact that you didn’t cheat.”

All three were visibly unhappy, which I was not happy about their quizzes either, so I was fine with it. 

At the end of class, they came up to me and one of them said:

“None of us liked what you wrote, but at least we know where we stand with you. You’re angry. In interpersonal Communication, we did badly on an assignment, and the professor said ‘What matters is that you tried.’ Then, she hugged* us. It was weird. We got a D on that assignment. It just felt like bullshit.” 

(These aren’t exact words, but close enough. Well, the bs line was accurate.)

So, be careful with empathy. It can come off as phony and alienate students.

*Don’t do this.

2 thoughts on “Be careful with empathy.

  1. Tuka Al-Sahlani

    I agree empathy can come across as insincere, but I think that is what the reading suggested –that empathy is performed and not innate. Care is innate and relational. Dare I say, your interactions with your students is based on a realtionship of understaning, if not care. Also, I am curious of the demographics of those three students.

  2. Katina Rogers (she/her)

    Sean, I value hearing about your experiences but I don’t think that the readings were suggesting that we should befriend students in the classroom. Could you draw some closer connections to the texts themselves?

Comments are closed.