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In Distance Learning, a Little Empathy Goes a Long Way

Like most campuses across the country grappling with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, Queensborough Community College asked students and faculty to switch to distance learning with one week’s notice. It caught most of us off guard.

Queensborough is part of the vast City University of New York system that is home to over a quarter of a million students. As a minority-serving institution in the most diverse county in the United States, Queensborough serves students and faculty that embody and embrace the diversity of this nation. Many of our students come from communities that were hit the hardest in this pandemic.

As might have been expected in these uncharted waters, the directives from the University changed almost daily with revised withdrawal deadlines, new for-credit and noncredit options, and syllabi changes that confused both faculty and students.

Only a small fraction of our faculty had been formally trained in e-learning or were proficient in online teaching. A great majority had to hit the ground running, and learning curves were steep. Some of our best and most senior faculty had no choice but to recuse themselves from teaching for the semester at the last minute. 

However, something amazing happened in the days that followed the start of distance learning. As a department chair, I saw camaraderie among faculty and students alike. In many cases, it was reverse mentoring. Junior faculty took pride in teaching senior faculty the ins and outs of online teaching, and senior faculty who see themselves as mentors were open to learning new techniques and pedagogies. What took me by total surprise was that some students even respectfully guided faculty through technical glitches. This teamwork made it possible to do the heavy lift of switching from teaching 2 percent of our classes online to 100 percent within a week.

But not everything has been smooth sailing. Many students are agitated because of the pandemic and the simultaneous calls for action against racial injustice. The pandemic has hit students and their families hard as they face lost jobs, sickness, and confinement in living spaces with multiple people relying on the same equipment to learn. What students may not have realized is that faculty are coping with similar conditions. For example, many faculty have small children who are trying to learn at the same time their parent is trying to teach.

And our students may not be as tech savvy as we assume; at Queensborough, many are not the “typical” students raised as digital natives. As the pandemic has highlighted critical socioeconomic gaps in access to educational resources and technologies, many low-income students lack Wi-Fi or laptops at home. And to my surprise, the pandemic has highlighted that many faculty are also in need of computers or updated technology to deliver effective learning experiences for students.

In some cases last spring, both students and faculty were navigating similar issues, often causing disruptions during courses. Frustrations and complaints grew quickly. As a department chair, every time an angry email landed in my inbox, I had to gently remind both sides—students and faculty alike—what the other side was going through. We are all in the same boat. It will require a lot of patience, ingenuity, and empathy from both sides to sail through this pandemic.

The role of empathy in higher education is nothing new. It has been recognized as a useful approach to classroom management, and Kathryn Miller suggests that empathetic conversation between a faculty member and an agitated student can be disarmingly powerful and calming. Most students in my department, Biological Science and Geology, want to apply for nursing and other health-related programs. In preparing future health care workers to work with vulnerable patients, experiences that help students develop empathy need to be integrated into the curriculum early in their undergraduate studies. Students should leave our classrooms with the skills to continue building their capacity for empathy throughout their lifelong learning.

At the same time, faculty need to be understanding of the current issues faced by our students, including problems that seem far beyond the teaching of general health care topics like biology and anatomy physiology. Professional development for faculty must include empathetic strategies to create a student-centered, supportive climate so that there is more positive interaction among members of the culturally diverse student body.

After all, we are in this together for the long haul. We need to come out of the pandemic transformed not only as better educators, but as better human beings capable of imparting lifelong skills to our students.

Nidhi Gadura is professor and chair in the Department of Biological Science and Geology at Queensborough Community College.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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