The Empathic Professor

While faculty members have many traits, at the end of the tough academic year, Michael Bugeja focuses on the positive ones.

June 18, 2010

Biological theorist Richard Dawkins writes in The Selfish Gene that if we wish "to build a society in which people cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, [we] can expect little help from biological nature … because we are born selfish." Observers of academic scandal and fraudulent scholarship often attest to that. Conversely, economist Jeremy Rifkin believes "human beings are not inherently evil or intrinsically self-centered and materialistic, but are of a very different nature — an empathic one — and that all of the other drives that we have considered to be primary — aggression, violence, selfish behavior, acquisitiveness — are in fact secondary drives that flow from repression or denial of our most basic instinct."

Who is right, at least when it comes to professors?

Certainly, violence and aggression are facts of life on the typical campus, ranging from assaults, hate speech and shootings to gridiron wars ignited by tribal bonfires, beer kegs and primal weekend rituals.

As director of a journalism school at a science-oriented institution, I can attest that the empathic professor not only exists but daily displays the grace, forgiveness and tolerance usually associated with higher callings. Ours is such a calling. Who but the empathic professor, from overworked adjunct to distinguished don, can profess the same tenets of basic chemistry, composition and calculus semester upon semester until seasons blend into one career-long academic calendar, were it not for love of learning and the instilling thereof in others.

Teachers, not politicians, shape generations. It has been so since Socrates and Confucius, and ever will be. (Would that state legislatures remember that when allocating funds!)

Too often, it seems, we report the antics, crimes and shenanigans of the Dawkins educator whose selfish gene believes attaining tenure is an entitlement and filing complaints, a fringe benefit.

Within a typical week, I, as director of 50 teachers, teaching assistants and staff members, witness or experience life-changing empathy. I hear it in the open doors of colleagues advising students, or in the break room celebrating birthdays or milestones, or in the hospital visiting a colleague gravely ill but still grading.

Within that same week, of course, I hear gossip, endure factions at faculty meetings, and get anonymous letters and email. Most of my professors realize my English Ph.D. includes a specialty in textual editing, so I can cipher who sent what. (See “Such Stuff as Footnotes are Made On.")

I’m writing about the empathic professor after a week enduring the Dawkins kind, not so much to remind myself that I am surrounded by kinder colleagues as to approach the topic philosophically so that you, too, might focus as I must on the good rather than the disgruntled in our midst. Is it possible that both Dawkins and Rifkin are right, or wrong, or partially so, or more right on one day but wrong the next, especially in the Ivory Tower? I am not a postmodernist promoting truth as illusion. Rather, I am a media ethicist and communication theorist who writes about the human condition, or the inharmonious duet in our heads conveying contrary instructions about the world and our place in it.

Professors, by and large, believe in the human condition but generally do not dwell on it in their disciplines. Ethicists must. In some ways, the human condition sounds eerily like a cable network of talking heads telling us 24/7 that climate change is a political conspiracy; energy consumption, a corporate one; universal health care, a socialist plot; pandemics, a pharmaceutical one, and so on.

Or not.

Although few admit it, on most days we are paradoxical creatures who traipse in our encounters listening to cymbals of consciousness and piccolos of conscience. The former tells us, “We come into the world alone, and we leave it alone” while the latter asserts, “What is in me is in you.”

Which can be right?

Reading Inside Higher Ed, or any educational news site, we discern the chromatic scale of aggression, violence, selfish behavior and acquisitiveness and less often, the empathic tonalities of kindness, forgiveness and compassion. For better or worse, mainstream media and blogosphere reflect the human condition, what Wordsworth called the still, sad music of humanity.

As such, we are both homo avarus and homo empathicus. Avarus, Latin for “greed,” dwells in the material world; empathicus, in a more metaphysical one. Our life’s work is that of choral director attempting to harmonize them so that one enlightens the other. When we do, consciousness allows us to see the world as it actually is rather than how we would like it to be; to foresee the impact of our actions before taking them; and to assess consequences of past actions to make informed choices in the future. Only then can we meet the demands of the conscience: that we love and are loved by others; that we have meaningful relationships with others; and that we contribute to community.

In my 2005 book Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age, I write that conscience grants us peace when we realize that how we treat others determines our own well being and fulfillment. "Community," I assert, "is founded on that principle, from secular laws to religious morals."

Jeremy Rifkin writes about “empathic consciousness,” an organizing principle in his new book, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. However, when he states, "The irony is just as we are beginning to glimpse the prospect of global empathic consciousness, we find ourselves close to our own extinction," he easily could be discussing what I avow: the specter of global conscience.

Appropriately, that prospect is found in Article 1 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience [emphasis added] and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

In media and education, we have listened too long to the cymbals of consciousness drowning the piccolos of conscience. The more educators raise consciousness about any number of public ills, the longer we seem to debate, explicate and irritate each other rhetorically rather than conscientiously, and the closer society comes to catastrophe. Overemphasis of consciousness has resulted in the repression of global conscience, our truer nature.

Conscience acts on simple truths. It does not debate whether climate change is fact or fiction; it intuits that burning so much fossil fuel is harmful to health and hemisphere. Consider the rhetoric of consciousness before the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — offshore drilling is vital to the economy — and compare that now to the awareness that pings within us daily. Neither does conscience associate universal health care with political systems but bodily ones necessary to enjoy freedom, equality and dignity. It knows pandemics occur irregardless of corporate balance books when the balance of nature is disrupted.

As The New York Times reported in 1992, Westerners advocating progress “thought they were nearly invincible, at least as far as infectious disease was concerned. They thought they could interfere with ecosystems, and ship goods and people around the world, with little regard for the effect not only on the balance of nature, but also on their own health.”

That balance of nature is on the agenda again and will be throughout our lifetime and our students’ and their grandchildren's lifetimes. There may not be any lifetimes thereafter unless we as teachers can instruct our charges to harmonize conscience and consciousness so that the duet augurs a new era of ethical awareness of the world and our sustainable place in it.

So I will close by reminding myself as well as others at the end of a trying academic year of slashed budgets, furloughs and firings that the empathic genes of our better natures will prevail. Otherwise the campanile also tolls for us.


Michael Bugeja directs the Greenlee School of Journalism at Iowa State University. His latest book, Vanishing Act: The Erosion of Online Footnotes and Implications for Scholarship in the Digital Age (Litwin Books), is co-authored with Daniela Dimitrova, an Iowa State colleague.


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