Should we teach academics how to empathise?

Having now done four university level courses at three different universities, I’ve been taught by a pretty wide range of academics. Some of them were excellent but too many were hopeless. What was particularly grating were those who either seemed disinterested, unsympathetic or frankly came across as jerks.*

With this in mind I was rather sympathetic to an article for Slate by Rebecca Schuman arguing that academia should follow the lead of medicine and start teaching empathy:

Though most doctoral candidates teach or will likely teach in the future, the Ph.D. does not include training in, or emphasis on, compassion and empathy—“deskside manner,” as it were. Should it? Some might argue a focus on empathy is just acquiescence to the customer-service mentality. After all, aren’t “patient satisfaction” surveys basically the student evaluations of the hospital? Just as students don’t often know what they need to learn, isn’t it true that patients often don’t know what they need to get better? What’s more important, you might ask, a nice doctor or a good one? A nice professor, or one who knows what she’s talking about?

Well of course the answer is, why can’t she be both? After all, the new emphasis on bedside manner in medical school is actually improving care, according to 13 recent clinical trials. Recent peer-reviewed studies, like this one published last month, attest it improves health outcomes.

And besides, I’d argue that there is a discernible difference between tough assignments (or a tough diagnosis) delivered with empathy and a personal touch, and assignments or treatment of any sort dispensed with a cold shoulder. We don’t have to conflate caring treatment with kowtowing to someone’s wants, and the best hospitals don’t. The best college professors don’t have to either—but there is no reason we shouldn’t incorporate basic deskside manner into our pedagogical training, because the medical-school model suggests that it can be taught. The old adage of “either you have ‘it’ or you don’t” is fallacious.

It’s not that I expect your John Nash–style eccentric physics prof to metamorphose into Mister Rogers (even though he already owns the cardigans), but if even the most awkward and curmudgeonly among us can be trained to crank out a 10-page conference paper on a three-hour plane ride, we can surely be trained to make eye contact with students, to mingle around the classroom or lecture hall, and to speak to students one on one—to say, “Oh, I remember finals from college; they were the worst!” while handing out study sheets. Academics can invent particle accelerators, and read Assyrian cuneiform; they can learn to say, “I realize this is a lot of work, but think about how accomplished you’ll feel when it’s done.”

As Schuman acknowledges this is part of a broader problem. Despite it being the better part of their work, their status and career prospects are largely dependent on their aptitude as researchers. Part of the result is that while someone looking to teach in a school generally gets a year of training, the training to teach for academics is rather sketchier. And the sad reality is that many academics have precious little incentive to demand better training because continuing to be rubbish teachers won’t interfere with their prospects of promotion.


*My CSP classmates probably know who I have in mind with the final phrase.

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