In March 2020 we began teaching, learning, and researching from home. We felt unilateral uncertainty and set aside our frustrations with the many emails, Zoom meetings, and work interruptions to find empathy. This happened when we idyllically thought that we’d be “safe at home” for two weeks. As I write this, we near the one year anniversary of the two week lockdown–a joke that has certainly made its rounds online. We share this humor, but the empathy we held for each other those first two weeks has waned, particularly amongst academics. In its wake has been left a divide between those who have adapted to “the new normal” and those who have not. The vaccine roll out makes it feel like an end to the pandemic is, perhaps, nearing, but I worry that this decline of empathy does not just impact our present, but that it will impact the discipline, pedagogically and research wise, for years to come. This post relies on psychological research about the decline of empathy during times of crisis to invite readers to consider how we might infuse sustainable empathetic practices into our work now and after the pandemic.
Sarah Konrath (2019), a clinical researcher and psychologist who studies empathy, notes that rising narcissism and individualism, coupled with burnout, have resulted in declining national empathy. Konrath’s research predates the pandemic, but it’s no secret to anyone that the pandemic isolates. Nor is it a secret that levels of burnout have skyrocketed, with “more than half of college faculty [considering]a career change or early retirement” and nearly 70% of college faculty reporting stress and fatigue (Nietzel, 2021). Konrath (2020) notes that this decline in empathy is reflected in our inability to mourn COVID-19 deaths, which happens because “people have a limited capacity to process mass suffering, rather than a callous lack of care” (n.p.) Something similar happens in the wake of natural disasters, which are similar to this pandemic in terms of scope, coverage, and loss. Zaki (2020) tells us that “disasters thrust people into a situation where their suffering is obviously shared with others,” (p. 588) that creates a sense of empathy. However, this empathy is limited to those who navigate crises together, not the public. While we may have had the “we’re all in this together” mentality in March 2020, many people adapted, or even thrived, as the pandemic continued. For those people, the collective response to COVID-19 pandemic hardships is no longer one of empathy, but of “compassion fatigue,” which anyone can experience as a result of “habituation, paired with a feeling of numbness…drain[ing]our empathy, motivating us to stop caring about victims of tragedies” (Zaki, 2011). Ultimately, the more “normal” pandemic life feels to someone, the more likely they are to experience compassion fatigue, which we must actively avoid, and instead work to infuse deliberate empathy into our work.
To do this, we must practice what Blankenship (2019) calls “rhetorical empathy,” or “deliberative praxis that offers ways of being-with-others” (p. 28). In a review of Blankenship’s work, Wilkes (2020) calls us to remember,
“This work is not optional. For people who do not have much power or privilege, rhetorical empathy ‘can help […] sustain efforts to fight the status quo and to maintain perspective […] in the midst of polarization and, in some cases, deep and traumatic injustice’ ([Blankenship] 11)” (p. 147).
In plain language: it is a privilege to work and produce as normal. It is the responsibility of those in this position to combat compassion fatigue and practice rhetorical empathy. This is a call to reflect on how we practice rhetorical empathy in such a way that we uplift those who experienced traumatic injustice at the hands of COVID-19. While many academics have adapted to the “new normal,” we have to remain critically aware that the new normal is not equitable, and consider the impact.
We know that the pandemic has exacerbated gender inequality and created conditions in which women, particularly women of color, are publishing at lower rates (Iwelunmor-Ezepue, 2020; Minello, 2020). Beyond emotional labor issues facing women, especially mothers and caretakers, we also know the COVID-19 death rate for Black Americans is roughly 3.6 times higher than that of white Americans and that 2.2% of all COVID-19 deaths are indigenous Americans despite only making up 1% of US citizens (Ford, Reber, & Reeves, 2020). Living with this knowledge makes productivity not only challenging, but perhaps impossible. This is not to vilify those who have been productive during the pandemic, but to encourage those folks to use Blankenship’s (2019) framework and Wilke’s (2020) addendum to support those who have been less productive whilst suffering pandemic related “traumatic injustice[s].” It is a call to lift up the voices of others: to advocate for more equitable tenure review processes; to value innovative teaching practices; to value empathy. It is a call to rethink why we prioritize productivity over personhood, and how that privilege shapes the composition of the field in a myriad of ways. In light of the past year, consider not only how productivity rates differ, but how your own empathy, or lack thereof, might contribute to someone staying in, or leaving, the discipline, ultimately changing the scope of knowledge making in rhetoric and composition. I call on you to have critical conversations about how we can equitably address gaps in productivity (as ultimately there will be those who overproduce and those who underproduce during the pandemic) now and when the pandemic is forgotten.
Author’s note: this blog does not take up the very important lived experiences of graduate students or adjunct faculty. These are groups that have been disproportionately impacted by the stress of the pandemic alongside job precarity and financial insecurity. It is even more important we remember to practice rhetorical empathy within these groups, and that we work to uplift them in years to come. Without doing so, we risk changes to the field in ways that limit perspectives and honor only those privileged enough to continue in academia through the pandemic.
CBC Radio. (2019). “Empathy makes us human, but research suggests it may be on the decline.” The Sunday Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/sunday/the-sunday-edition-for-june-9-2019-1.5165327/empathy-makes-us-human-but-research-suggests-it-may-be-on-the-decline-1.5166354
Dr Lies Lanckman [@aladyofchance]. (2020, October 22). Can we stop it with the academic productivity porn? I work hard. I teach a lot. I do research. I’m still not publishing 3847394 articles per millisecond in the middle of a global pandemic. Give us all a break [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/aladyofchance/status/1319217165908705281
Ford, T. N., S. Reber, & R. V. Reeves. (2020). “Race gaps in COVID-19 deaths are even bigger than they appear.” Brookings. Retrieved from: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/06/16/race-gaps-in-covid-19-deaths-are-even-bigger-than-they-appear/
Iwelunmor-Ezepue, J. (2020). On parenting, a pandemic, and academic productivity. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@jiwez/on-parenting-a-pandemic-and-academic-productivity-158e1734129
Konrath, S. (Guest.) (December 2019). The decline of empathy and the rise of narcissism [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/empathy-narcissism
Konrath, S. (2020). Why is it so hard to mourn the vast number of Covid-19 deaths? Zocalo. Retrieved from https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/12/07/empathy-scientist-cognitive-biases-covid-dead-mourning/ideas/essay/
Megan Lynch [@may_gun]. (2021, January 4). Here’s what I wish those setting the academic workpace during the pandemic would get: Just because I’m home doesn’t mean that my productivity is minimally impacted. I live in a cluttered travel trailer. I’m disabled & low income. The public things I used to augment are now closed [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/may_gun/status/1346194441707503616
Minello, A. (2020). “The pandemic and the female academic.” Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-0113
Nietzel, M. (2021). Pandemic toll: more than half of college faculty have considered a career change or early retirement. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2021/02/26/pandemic-toll-more-than-half-of-college-faculty-have-considered-a-career-change-or-early-retirement/?sh=1f80e22612da
Riya Kataria [@riyakatariax]. (2021, March 1). You’re not about to tell me that the one-year anniversary of a two-week lockdown is in less than 2 weeks [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/riyakatariax/status/1366348392524226567
Sharmila Dissanaike [@DissanaikeMD]. (2021, April 23). 1. Since women disproportionately bear brunt of childcare at home this is no surprise at all. 2. Not sure we should be measuring “academic productivity” in a pandemic at all, honestly. How about data on contribution to the effort of saving lives instead? [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/DissanaikeMD/status/1253418682434252800
Valesca L. [@VaLescaL]. (2020, May 4). It’s hard to make any progress in the midst of this pandemic. Then you read about the person who wrote & published a book about the economics of #COVID19 in 19 days. Does this quick book epitomised an academic productivity that is unreasonable & unhealthy? [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/VaLescaL/status/1257248325893591040
Wilkes, L. (2020). Changing the subject: A theory of rhetorical empathy. Composition Studies, 48(3), 147–150.
Zaki, J. (2011). Empathy fatigue and what the press can do about it. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/empathy-fatigue-and-what_b_199361
Zaki, J. (2020). Catastrophe compassion: Understanding and extending prosociality under crisis. CellPress Reviews, 24(8), pp. 587-589