Compassion is Easy, Cruelty Is Hard

Good leadership makes life easier for employees and students, not harder

Photo by J W on Unsplash

Earlier this week, I offered a workshop on compassionate pedagogy for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My compassionate pedagogy framework is based on my deep-seated belief that laziness does not exist, but unseen barriers do. When a student struggles, it’s almost invariably because they have too many demands on their plate, or they are dealing with hidden challenges their professor either can’t see, or refuses to appreciate as valid. When we approach our students with a spirit of openness, flexibility, and humility, we can lessen their pain, and if not level the playing field for them, at least stop contributing to their feelings of shame and stress. A punitive or controlling approach, in contrast, only makes things worse.

Tweet from Bobbywithdatool that reads: “Professors be like ‘i know these are troubling times’ then be the trouble during the times”

Of course, getting faculty members on board with this idea can take some doing. Academics often believe they have to sniff out fakers, grade-grubbers, and ‘entitled’ young people who secretly just want to take advantage of them. A spirit of mistrust and micromanagement pervades much of the academy; it certainly came out in full force when I was a graduate student myself. Anyone who dealt with depression, domestic abuse, or other private traumas was routinely criticized for lacking the “drive” necessary to succeed.

Furthermore, many institutions mistake making a class punishingly difficult or uncomfortable with lending it intellectual rigor. Just look at how the University of Chicago used intellectualism as a smokescreen for denying students trigger warnings a few years ago. In higher education, as in America writ large, we often equate suffering with virtue, as if pain and trauma didn’t make it more difficult to focus or commit new ideas to memory. When students are having a hard time — and who isn’t have a hard time right now? — flexibility and patience are key. Denying someone such grace is counter-productive cruelty.

To push back against these deeply-entrenched beliefs, I ask faculty to think about a time when a teacher made them feel “stupid,” “lazy,” or simply not good enough. Almost every person, no matter how academically accomplished, has at least one horror story. At the workshop this week, we used a Google Spreadsheet to anonymously collect people’s stories. Here are a few:

The professor asked me to leave the classroom because I had forgotten a play that we were reading in class.

The professor criticized and shamed me when I didn’t have the recommended supplementary text. I couldn’t afford it.

I couldn’t swim and was scared to in 1st grade. Swimming teacher filled a big square bucket with water and made me sit in it for the entire lesson, then came up to me on the school playground and told me she was gonna fail me.

A professor used to tell me to “Pay attention and wake up” while I was actively taking notes in class. There were only 6 students in the class and I was the only female student.

In 12th grade, a teacher told me I was too lazy to go to college. I actually had an anxiety disorder that went undiagnosed for years.

This is just a tiny sample of the dozens of stories people shared; I collected more online via an Instagram ask box; you can read them here.

Reading these stories of educational neglect and abuse, I’m struck by how young people were when a teacher first made them feel “stupid” or “lazy.” Early experiences of shame and cruelty stick with people well into adulthood, and often change the entire course of their lives. I’m also outraged to read how often a person was mistreated for something entirely out of their control — not being able to afford a textbook, being waylaid by anxiety they hadn’t yet figured out how to treat, failing to recognize a mathematical symbol their teacher hadn’t taught them. The injustice of it is stunning.

Tweet from Sapphixy that reads: “I got a C in Calc because it was assumed that I know what the summation symbol means before I took it but I didn’t and the professor never explained it”

In these response, I also notice just how absurdly difficult it is to abuse someone and strip them of self-esteem. How much effort it takes to surveil students, upbraid them, and erode their confidence. The attention and time it demands is staggering. It would have been so easy to simply not abuse these vulnerable people.

So why do educators do it?

I think it all comes down to a lack of trust, and a need for control.

In the era of COVID-19, the temptation to manipulate, mistrust, and surveil has grown to apocalyptic levels. In academia, we see instructors using complex, physically demanding eye-tracking software to make sure their students never look away from the computer screen while completing tests. These programs are glitchy and immensely stressful to deal with; students with anxiety, ADHD, and distracting home environments have spoken at length about just how distressing and Burgessian they are to submit to.

It’s hard for anyone to sit perfectly still, eyes glued to the screen, hands visible to the camera all times. If you have a learning disability, mental illness, painful medical condition, or a fussy infant crying on the other side of the room, it becomes almost impossible. Unfortunately, these invasive protocols are increasingly common — and not just in the classroom. They’ve also infected the workplace.

My friend Max works for a tech firm that subcontracts with state and federal agencies. She’s has been with the company for over five years, and has secured many contracts during that time. Max has mentored employees below her, and helped streamline several work processes, all things her bosses are grateful for. In a fair world, she’d be trusted to get work done from home during lockdown. After all, she’s been a reliable, consistent performer for years. Instead, her bosses made her install a spy program on her personal computer, which takes a screenshot of her monitor every half hour and sends it to her boss.

“Last week I forgot to clock out, so my manager got sent a screenshot of me screwing around on Facebook,” she told me. “Luckily I was due for a fifteen minute break, so I was able to explain it, and not get in trouble.”

The work Max does is intellectual and highly conceptual. She has to spend a lot of time pouring over grant applications and proposals, and thinking about how to write them up in the correct way. It’s not a type of work where close monitoring is helpful or motivating or even a logical fit. Yet her bosses do it, because they don’t want to “let” any employees “get away” with anything untoward during quarantine.

In March, many corporations began using digital surveillance tools to ensure employees were remaining “productive” while working from home. Like the professors tracking students’ eye movements, companies began logging their employees keystrokes, or requiring they always remain active and “available” on messaging apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams. Some employees have even been required to broadcast their screens via Zoom, or remain on a live call with their managers all day.

In the wake of mandatory lockdowns, managers lost control of their employees’ lives, as well as their own — and they reacted desperately, vying for structure and power wherever they could. Instead of trusting employees to set their own schedules during this immensely tumultuous time at home, many reacted with paranoia and imposed even more demands than before. This despite the many studies showing employee productivity has actually gone up during lockdown.

Before I became a full-time professor, I did freelancing via the site Upwork. Whenever I got an hourly gig on the site, I was required by Upwork to track my activity levels using a program that measured how frequently I typed and clicked, and took screenshots at random intervals. Any time I stopped interacting with the keyboard or mouse, I was flagged for being “inactive.” I had to pause the tracker if I wanted to get up for water or use the bathroom. I only ever got paid for moments when I was actively typing or clicking, generating a “product” the program could see.

I didn’t do my best work under those conditions. I clicked around the screen a lot, and wrote quickly, and even carried my laptop with me into the bathroom once or twice. But was I a thoughtful writer? Did my statistical analyses show insight and care? Was I certain to read my employers’ briefs carefully? Hell no! I churned out results, or at least what looked like results according to the tracker, and I was a distracted ball of anxiety the whole time. I was not trusted to work the way I naturally do, and so my results were unnatural, crappy, and strained as a result.

It was such a waste of effort. It caused so much unnecessary pain.

The most heartbreaking part of all this is just how easy it is to be flexible and caring, and what an immense difference such kindness makes.

When a student emails me asking for an extension on an assignment, it takes zero energy to give them an enthusiastic, “Sure!”. It would take so much more time for me to interrogate them, demand proof, or stalk their social media accounts to find out if they’re lying about having a migraine or a dying grandparent. It’s so much simpler for me to make a test open-book and open-note, and design the questions with that in mind, rather than try to control my students’ eye movements to keep them from cheating.

Managers could be giving their employees a lot of latitude right now. There’s little reason to adhere to a rigid 9–5 schedule, and many benefits to focusing on crucial outcomes rather than hours spent toiling at the computer. Monitoring a person’s computer activity takes a lot of work. Harassing someone for needing a depression nap does no good. Yet so many people, drunk on power, waste all their energy behaving in such ways.

In addition to asking about experiences with uncaring teachers and professors, I also ask people to tell me about a time when an educator extended them patience and grace. The stories I receive are deeply moving, yet they’re also striking in their simplicity. Here are some responses (you can read them all here):

Political Science Prof gave me a last minute extension and a hug when my Noni died. Moved me to tears.

A professor gave me points for drawing the enzymes I couldn’t remember the names of!

I lost my voice for a final presentation, the teacher allowed another classmate to read my script.

An English teacher let me leave the classroom when I had a panic attack during a debate.

Some teachers let me crochet in class because it helped my anxiety.

These tiny moments of compassion stay with people for years, because they are so needed, yet so rare. People are absurdly grateful for being given a single kind word or moment of peace. Just letting a student crochet in class or take a break is enough to earn a teacher a lifetime of immense gratitude.

If you’re in a leadership position of any kind — managing employees, mentoring interns, teaching students, even raising children — I encourage you think about what easy steps you can take to make peoples’ lives easier. Which rules can you relax, or abandon entirely? How can you get out of people’s way? How can you foster a culture of trust and compassion? Nine times out of ten, embracing a more flexible and patient approach will make life easier for you, too.

It’s so easy to relax and grant people flexibility. It takes so much furious, desperate energy to be a punitive, traumatizing hard-ass. Choose to see the good in those around you. It’s shockingly easy, and it can change everything.

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