Reflective Practice

On Empathy and Reflexivity in Pedagogy

Photo by Kathy Drasky:

By Eileen Liang

As the end of the semester drew near, I began the process of creating the final exam for my students. This was a strange task. I tried to create an examination that would be straightforward and measure student involvement and investment in the class (i.e. actually attending, listening, and participating in lecture and discussion). At the same time, as a proponent of creative thinking and analysis, I wanted to design an exam that didn’t me feel like a hypocrite (i.e. one that wasn’t all about memorization and multiple choice answers with no flexibility).

I agonized over the exam. Because it was worth 25% of my students’ grades, a percentage I adapted from another instructor’s syllabus, I knew it could be the difference between passing well and barely passing at all. And the idea that one exam could play this big a role in a student’s grade? It just didn’t sit well with me. Because of this, I made sure to repeatedly emphasize the date and time the examination would take place. I created a detailed study guide for my students. I gave them a day off for review. I was diligent about monitoring my email for any incoming questions. I really wanted to set my students up for success.

Then, the day of the exam, two students did not show up. I had not prepared for this scenario. At all. As a goody-two shoes student obsessive about dates and deadlines, I had never been late for an exam, let alone been absent, so it never occurred to me to have a contingency plan should it happen.

I came home to find frantic emails from one student, who had misremembered the date. I heard nothing from the other student. This worried me. I did some calculations and this student would have gone from an A-/B+ to a D with a zero for the exam. For whatever reason, she did not make the exam and was not reaching out. I decided to email her to let her know about the make-up exam I scheduled. This was the response I received:

Hi Professor Liang,

I apologize for not reaching out. I had a family emergency that prevented me from making the exam. I felt really embarrassed about missing the exam so I didn't reach out. I would be extremely grateful for the make-up. I'll be there tomorrow. 

Best, [redacted]

I like to think that I am an approachable and kind professor, and that my students know this about me. I’m nice to a fault. So part of me was upset she was embarrassed to reach out to me. Didn’t I have this amazing track record of being understanding and forgiving?

But then it occurred to me that there’s a bigger story here, one that goes beyond who I am as a professor. I thought about my own journey in college and in graduate school, how I still struggle with the concept of asking for help or reaching out for clarification. How I never missed exams or deadlines, even if I was stuck in the emergency room all weekend because of a debilitating migraine, but instead worked through the night to make my deadline. How I didn’t realize I could go to office hours for individual help and attention, but rather, treated them as spaces of evaluation in which I was meant to impress, as if I were being interviewed. What was it about the way I had been raised, the culture I had grown up in in Taiwan, that taught me certain things, but not others? And knowing this, and the struggles I went through trying to gain that cultural capital, that know-how for moving in these academic spaces…I realized not everyone comes to school with the same handbook for success, and some students never even find out that handbook exists.

My job as an instructor is partially to make sure my students understand the course material, the difference between socialization and assimilation, systemic racism and discrimination—introduction to sociology stuff. But there’s also the other part of it, the making sure my students are socialized to succeed in academic settings and beyond, and being empathetic to the different kinds of social and cultural capital each individual brings to the table. For me, keeping in mind this larger context— that certain ways of knowing and being are normative and rewarded, while others are not—is important when choosing to penalize a student or not. Having the know-how to reach out and say to a professor, “Hey, I have a family emergency; can I reschedule this very important exam that is worth a quarter of my final grade?” versus not saying anything at all and expecting disciplinary action and failing the course— these are very different ways of moving through the world.

We can ask ourselves why some people are conditioned to believe they will receive help if they ask and why others expect negative consequences—there’s a lot there to unpack. As an empathetic instructor who strives to be reflexive in my pedagogy, I believe it’s important to acknowledge and be aware of these differences.

Given all this brouhaha, and my own initial misgivings about having so much of my students’ grades resting on this one exam, I’m pretty sure I’m nixing this evaluatory hurdle from future classes. Being able to prepare for an exam, take it, and come out with good marks is an important skill. But upon reflection, I might opt for a semester-long final project with a presentation aspect as the “final” for my next class. Public speaking and individual research, in-depth analysis and creativity are skills that are just as important (or more important) as successfully sitting an exam…and are ones I value a lot more.

Eileen Liang is a doctoral candidate in Sociology and a Contributing Writer for Visible Pedagogy.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this posting. It raises some interesting questions about how much a new instructor adopts or adapts a syllabus from someone else, as well as having empathy for students who don’t have the kind of college-going behavior we would like.

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