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On empathy

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A few weeks ago, I got a C. The letter, scrawled in the corner and circled for emphasis, burned into my retinas the moment I flipped over the paper at the end of precept. A cocktail of emotions sizzled silently in the pit of my stomach as I packed my bag — frustration, anger, incredulity, insecurity — and I practically stomped out of the door like a two-year-old, mid-tantrum. Like most Princetonians, my self-worth remains a little too closely entwined with my GPA, despite my efforts to consciously pull the two apart. Receiving a bad grade still provokes a visceral response.

As I left the building, I spotted my preceptor ahead of me on the side of the path, lighting up a cigarette. Still brimming with indignation, I thought it a good idea to march over there and give him a piece of my mind. I’m not proud of the possible, rather Shakespearian, conversation starters that ran through my head as I walked over, which ranged from the tersely outraged rant (how dare you disrespect me with this awful grade) to the guilt trip (I met with you before writing this paper and you told me I was on the right track, how could you stab me in the back like this).

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The preceptor looked up as I approached and said that I was surprised at my grade. He stumbled over his words slightly nervously when he began to reply, and I looked down to notice his hand shaking slightly behind the faint veil of cigarette smoke. The thought suddenly struck me that, though he was responsible for giving the grade, he didn’t deserve the unkindness I was about to unleash on him.

Who knows what was going on his life — a life not all that many years ahead of my own — that had him smoking a cigarette at 10 a.m. Perhaps he’s stressed by his own work. Perhaps his dog just died, or his mother is sick. Perhaps, I realized, with a surge of sobering guilt, he is just a human being who didn’t deserve to take the full brunt of my irritation in that moment, even if he played some role in it. It can be far easier, but also less fair, to cast off unpleasant feelings onto others than to just let them go.

Thankfully, this timely flash of empathy quelled my self-righteous impulse to lash out at the preceptor. I took a breath and asked if we could meet to talk about the paper at a later date. We both smiled, and I walked away. As I felt a surge of companionship and kindness toward my clearly overly-stressed preceptor, as one human being to another, the indignation about the C quickly faded into perspective. That angry, small-minded and selfish student is not the person I want to be, regardless of whether or not the grade I received was strictly “fair."

The academic environment is, by nature, full of criticism. We criticize to challenge ourselves and others, to improve ideas and, ideally, to improve our ability to think and make the world a better place. As high achieving students, most of us take our grades personally — probably more personally than is healthy — though it’s inevitable that the transcript we get will play some role in defining our future.

But the pressures and expectations we feel don’t excuse us from behaving with basic empathy and kindness toward the professors and preceptors giving out those grades, the same way we would treat anyone else who is doing a job. In our everyday interactions and conversations among ourselves, as students, we tend to dehumanize our professors and preceptors. They hold power over us, so we adopt an “us versus them” mentality, inventing intentions or vendettas behind their assessments of our work that rarely exist. Far more common causes of unfair grades are human errors like tiredness or distraction; or maybe, we actually deserved that grade because we could do better.

I’ve been babysitting for a professor this semester, and seeing him at home playing joyfully with his kids simply drives home the point that, though he may stand at the lecture podium and dictate standards in the academic system, he’s just a person. We all may have frustrations with the academic system from time to time, perhaps rightly so. Perhaps we may have legitimate feelings of blame when we are judged unfairly; but genuine ill will on the part of a preceptor, which is not excusable, is far less common than we make it out to be. Anger and negative emotions only serve to alienate us from others, whether it’s our friends, family or professors.

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The student perspective is, and has to be, very self-centered. We’re rightly concerned about our grades, our future and our performance. But the reality is that the world isn’t only about us. Everyone has their own struggles in the classroom and in the wider world. Perhaps we can all try to step into other people’s shoes before we act, to remind us of the baseline of kindness and respect that we would hope to receive were our situations switched.

Lauren Davis is a philosophy major from London, England. She can be reached at lhdavis@princeton.edu.

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