Confused at a higher level

The view from a liberal arts college physics department (and deanery)

Empathy and distance

Posted by Arjendu on March 21, 2011

Typically, when you (students or faculty) interact officially with a Dean’s office, it’s high up there on the list of the emotionally intense professional interactions you are going to have that week, that month, that year, or possibly in your life up to that point (consider for example,  job candidates or students who are meeting me about issues of academic integrity which may result in their suspension or dismissal from the college). To the extent that I do my job well in these situations, it is because — distinct from the intellectual challenges –  I am also empathetic about this emotional intensity and am able to genuinely identify and reflect what the other person is feeling.

This role of empathy is something that I have been getting steadily more used to since I started as a faculty member, when I look back, and while it’s occasionally very challenging, it’s also a way in which I have appreciated growing (up). The big recent learning curve for me has been not only the ramping up of the emotional intensity in the Dean’s office, but also the quantity of such events; there are weeks when I have ten or more such situations. This means that I cannot afford to hold these intensities within me and must learn to be in the moment, but not of it; that is, to be empathetic, but also to hold all of these at a distance, ultimately, so I don’t go home emotionally wrung out day after day after day. I haven’t quite figured this out yet, but am learning perforce.

Just so that we’re clear about the motivation for this post: I am not complaining about this. Further, this isn’t an ER, where everyone’s situation is an emergency, and nor is it quite like the lives of the Dean of Students office, who have to deal with the emotional aspect on a far more continuous basis. Still, it’s something new, and part of my dean-blogging, as it were, about what I’ve learned in this office.

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