Tuesday, September 18, 2012

ethics, education, empathy

In my Professional Ethics course, I have my students read an essay by a community college English instructor who is unsure how to deal with the confessional personal essays his students write in composition classes. His students go through all sorts of hell, tell him in their essays all sorts of private information, including details of their lives they’ve never told anyone else. His dilemma is that he can’t tell where to draw the line between responding to the essays as a composition teacher, and responding to them as a person.

I use this essay to get at a dilemma that I believe professionals in many fields face (though likely more often in education and caring professions) – negotiating the boundary between the professional-client relationship and a person-to-person relationship. I started using the essay because I was getting so many liberal studies majors (i.e., students preparing to be primary school teachers), but now that I’m getting practically none of them any more, I try to relate it to the nursing and other health-related professions students. It’s easy to imagine a physical therapist working with a patient, who suddenly blurts out information about some kind of harm or danger the patient is exposed to. What are the therapist’s responsibilities? Suppose the situation is ambiguous legally, ethically, or factually?

As I’m reading it this afternoon to prep for class tomorrow, I’m finding myself wondering why I’m so drawn to this essay. It’s good, and I think the issues it raises are real and important, but I don’t know why I think it’s all that important. I have affection for the essay and empathy for the author that go beyond my pedagogical purpose in using it in class. This is partly because I don’t think education is reducible to training, but I’m sure it’s also because of my own experience of caring teachers I had, in high school especially, who crossed that boundary, and likely (in one case at least) violated their own ethics rules, out of that empathy and care.

So here’s my confession: I love it when this happens to me. It’s impossible for me not to feel empathy and affection for my students, and impossible for me not to care about them as human beings, beyond being students. I want them to do well, to be well, and I want to help when that’s not happening. I feel like I have a responsibility not only for their learning, but also, when it comes up, for their being – in fact, their being is more important to me than their learning.

Of course, my Loveliest had been a student in a class I taught. But it would be a cheap dismissal to say I’m concerned about my students’ being because I have some sort of fascination with illicitly crossing that boundary. I’ve crossed that boundary numerous times, in mostly very minor interactions. I have listened many times to students talk about their history of mental illness. I had a student confide in me about her crisis of religious faith, brought about by a conflict over a relationship she had. I had a student come to ask for advice about what she and her girlfriend could do to form a legal marriage, in case Proposition 8 passed.

I had a colleague a few years ago who used to refer to her students as her “babies” or her “children” very often, and I think that’s going overboard. On the other hand, I do not see any reason the state of their souls shouldn’t matter to me.

(Warning: cheap punchline to come.)

This is why I am ineligible to serve in administrative positions at the CSU.

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