Extinguishing Excuses with Empathy

I confess:  There are days when I want to thump my students with a shoe.

Why, you might ask?  Excuses, that’s why.

2013-08-13 01.17.13I can’t tell you how many times my students have blamed the library printers or the campus wireless for their inability to submit assignments.  Or, the number of times students fall deathly ill at 3:00am on exam days.  Or, better yet, how many parents decide the middle of the week is a great time for family vacation.  And don’t get me started on funerals [check out this tongue-in-cheek study about the “dead grandmother/exam syndrome”].

But what gets me is not the sheer number of excuses or their lameness, but rather the difference between students who make excuses and those who “suck it up” and follow through.  Case in point:  For three semesters I taught a student who was experiencing a very messy divorce.  Not able to afford her own apartment, she had to move her young children into the home of her alcoholic aunt.  You can’t even imagine the upheaval.  Yet, this student maintained a 4.0 grade point average and never, not once, asked to turn in an assignment late.  A current student is undergoing emergency gall stone surgery tomorrow and she (a) showed up to take her exam today and (b) refused my offer for an assignment extension.  I even had a student whose mother died of cancer in the middle of a semester who only missed four classes.

So when I encounter students who just don’t care enough to take responsibility for their learning, it’s very difficult for me to sympathize.  When these students barrage me with excuse-ridden emails (they rarely offer these excuses face-to-face), I become peevish and obstinate, placing those students in my mental “black book.”

But, lately, I’ve been reconsidering my attitude, especially after discussing a particular approach to conflict management with my interpersonal communication students.  Some background information first:

Harvard professors and conflict resolution experts, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen suggest we rarely perceive ourselves as problematic during conflict; instead, we blame the other person (“You’re so stubborn!”  “Why are you so irrational?”  “How could you put me in this position?”  “Stop controlling me!”).  We assume the problem is due to how the other person is; they assume it’s because of how we are.  But, according to Stone, Patton, and Heen, the real cause of the conflict is the collision of our stories.

During heated, difficult conversations, we typically only exchange conclusions.  Their conclusion doesn’t make sense in our story and our conclusion doesn’t make sense in their story, so we dismiss each others’ perspectives as wrong (or irrational, naive, ludicrous, etc.).  What we fail to understand is that both our stories make sense because they’re rooted in our partial perspectives.

Our perspectives are uniquely shaped by our experiences, preferences, values, and opinions.  We each notice varying details and interpret that information differently.  However, we assume we experience the same event and share “the facts” about what happened.  Stone, Patton, and Heen note we often go through entire relationships not realizing we’re each perceiving the world differently.  To make any progress towards resolution, we must understand the other person’s story well enough to see how their conclusion makes sense within it.

So how the heck does this relate to students and excuses?

Well, it’s a humbling experience to realize you don’t necessarily have all the facts and your conclusions are wrong.  I think it’s healthy for professors to be routinely humbled.  Too often, we puff ourselves up as experts, authorities, and all-around smarty-pants that we forget to engage in a bit of perspective-taking.  Remember when you were an undergrad, working every night at the local pizza place until 2:00am, forced to choose between sleep and reading Tolstoy?  Remember when you contracted that horrendous flu that forced you to sleep fitfully next to the toilet you shared with five other people?  Or, shoot, that time you desperately wanted to road-trip with your crush to Bonaroo?

Remember that, profs?  Remember when you were 19 years old?

By taking the time to listen to students’ entire stories, I’ve learned that my assumptions are often wrong (such as the student who was missing class not because she was a slacker but because she was sexually assaulted and not coping well).  Also, when I demonstrate my willingness to listen, students are much more receptive to my arguments about meeting deadlines and being responsible.  When we stop wasting energy making assumptions or placing blame, we reach a place where we can collaborate on a solution.

Now, does my newfound empathy mean I’m taken advantage of from time-to-time?  Sure.  I have no doubt a few students have stretched the truth or flat-out lied to me.  But, I’m less grouchy and I do a heck of a lot less grumbling to anyone who will listen about “kids these days.”  I also know students recognize that I care about what’s going on in their lives.  This matters to me.

So, could you approach teaching with more flexibility, humility, and empathy?

I’ll leave you with Stone, Patton, and Heen’s wise words:

“We act as if we’ve got access to all the important information there is to know about them, but we don’t.  Their internal experience is far more complex than we imagine. [. . .] Rather than assuming we already know everything we need to, we should assume that there is important information we don’t have access to.”

Further reading

Stone, D., Patton, B. M., & Heen, S. (1999).  Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. NY: Viking Penguin.

About pastprof

Recovering academic. Starting a new adventure as a college instructional technologist. Ph.D. in Communication & Information. Reside in the lovely Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
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