Do medical students really lose their empathy?

In my opinion, this was the most interesting read for me this week. My father is a doctor, I have a couple of best friends who are doctors now, and I guess I’ve been to a doctor…or…whatever.

My friend, Sanjay, grew up with me from pre-school. We endured our middle school years together and attended a prom or two as dates. I say this without an ounce of reservation: Sanjay is a truly empathetic and selfless person. He’s also freaking brilliant. In fact, it was pretty much assumed that he would graduate from Duke and move on to medical school, but he wanted to work for a non-profit to help people sign up for healthcare in limited access Appalachian regions for a couple years before reluctantly accepting a spot in Harvard Medical School’s class of 2020(?). Anyways, I forced him to talk to me on the phone. He’s doing rotations right now.

Sanjay read the article entitled “When do medical students lose their empathy” before we spoke, giving him enough time to formulate his thoughts on the topic. “I don’t want it to be true, but I think it is.” Sanjay went on to detail his exhaustion, the competitive environment, the torturous hours, the weight loss, the pressure. Oh, the pressure.

Sonia Henry said: “Fear of exams, of angry surgeons, of night shifts, and of looking stupid is one thing. But fear to engage with a patient, to feel their pain and offer them your comfort — that is something else entirely. For all the medical procedures and lab tests and suture ties I cannot perform as a student, comfort is something that takes no study at all and can be given freely, with almost guaranteed good results.”

Not necessarily so different from the academic environment we subject undergraduates to, in a way, just at a higher caliber. I asked him what he thought he’d do to try and counteract the loss of empathy. “Honestly, it’s not exactly something I can be concerned about right now. I’ve got to get my stuff done. This what they want, this is why they accepted me.” A far cry from the voice calling me lost on an Appalachian back road trying to find the clinic to help patients get the care they needed. “I won’t always be like this, Sarah. I just need some time to breathe.” Maybe we all could use some breathing time.

Farewell Contemporary Pedagogy peeps! Twas a most excellent experience with my fellow GEDI’s by my side. Though I still have a long way to go, some of the important things I have taken away from this experience are:

  1. Start with a plan
  2. Be willing to desert the plan you started with
  3. Be open to digital learning-embrace the changes
  4. Have a philosophy, but make sure that it is fluid
  5. Never be too set in your ways to change the way you teach young people
  6. Reflect, reflect, reflect




Was going to take the week off from blogging, but here we are…

When I read the article on CNN about the 11 year old boy who committed suicide because of a prank played on him via texting, I was absolutely sick to my stomach. Therefore, I shall blog about it.

That’s really part of the argument, right? That we have access to this incredible amount of data and information from a young age, but does it help us? More specifically, is there a threshold age in which we should restrict this access? In my opinion, there is a moral obligation here to allow children to grow and learn in a “child’s world,” so to speak. They are inherently curious, and active, and passionate, and inquisitive. AND WE SHOULD ALLOW THEM TO BE THAT. But, at what point do we take a step back and say, “privacy should be an adult luxury,” or something of the sort? Are we blinded by our own outrageous EXCITEMENT over how the digital age is exploding and “information is everywhere” and “let’s use lap tops in the classrooms instead of books” and “what’s the worst that can happen when you allow young children to freely explore and interact online without oversight?”

I don’t want to write much. I’m angry. Information is sacred. Privacy is sacred. “Globalized digital worlds” are sacred, or whatever. More importantly, though, life is sacred. Children are sacred. Our peers are sacred.

I leave with this final question: What good is information sharing to a population of people who are in the process of navigating their own viewpoints on their own little worlds. As adults, we cheer and rejoice at the idea of information sharing and globalization, but let the children be children, and perhaps begin worrying about their “ability to excel in the social media age” after they hit puberty. Or after they get a driver’s license, for goodness sake.

I’m so angry. I’m so, so angry. I don’t want to talk about the importance of staying connected today.

Farman said, “Beyond developing a deeper connection with places, using cellphones to foster deep connection with the people in our lives is a common, everyday practice.”

“Cellphones…a deep connection with people.”

I am so angry.

Teaching Philosophy

This weekend afforded me the opportunity (and time) to think deeply about my teaching philosophy. “Do I even have one yet?” I’m actually not sure. I think I do. Maybe? I have little ideas about what I believe is effective and what is not. I have opinions about what is right and wrong. Honestly, the idea of formulating a teaching philosophy still seems a bit daunting to me. It’s easy to be hard on yourself when you can’t come up with the perfect words to say.

I took a break, I listened to some podcasts, and I stumbled across an article that helped concentrate on what I felt to be most important in this quest. The article, titled The Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry: An Availability Bias in Assessments of Barriers and Blessings, addressed key situations we often find ourselves in that lead us to feel as if the world is against us, the headwind is hindering our progress, or the hand we’ve been dealt is not ideal.

According to the article, these inherent biases cause (directly quotes from article abstract):

  1. Democrats and Republicans both to claim that the electoral map works against them.
  2. Football fans to take disproportionate note of the challenging games on their team’s schedules.
  3. People to believe that their parents have been harder on them than their siblings are willing to grant.
  4. Academics to think that they have a harder time with journal reviewers, grant panels, and tenure committees than members of other sub disciplines.

Though not surprising, I found the article to be particularly timely as I work to address my teaching philosophy, keeping in mind that the students I teach in the future will harbor these same biases (I will too). The article mentions the importance of simply being aware of this asymmetry in order to combat or partially combat the effects.

What struck me the most was the section addressing gratitude. I will now try to bring this all back to the original topic of teaching philosophy- gimme a sec.

Moving forward, with the acknowledgement of the inherent biases we all harbor and the probability that my teaching weaknesses may be interpreted as personal attacks or obvious preference, I think it is important that I remember to be gracious and cogniscent of my students. Regardless of how my hard-copy teaching philosophy changes over the years, if I am able to stay consciously aware of the blessing that is it to be able to teach and have a voice in the first place, I’ll always have a small wind at my back pushing me forward.

Davidai, S., & Gilovich, T. (2016). The headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry: An availability bias in assessments of barriers and blessings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology111(6), 835.


Strength in Differences

This week, I want to specifically address Katherine Phillips piece entitled “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter.” My typical approach to blogging is to try to relate the readings to my own experiences, and this one really hit close to home. Having grown up in a conservative, rural small town, I spent most of my adolescent years attending church youth group, playing sports, and silently chastising the lifestyle choices of the more artsy, progressive students in my school. This is not to say that my childhood was inadequate, so to speak, but it was undoubtedly uni-dimensional and not necessarily conducive to personal discovery and growth.

I had the great blessing of being accepted into graduate school in New York City, which eventually led to my being introduced to my Jordanian husband, and moving to the Amman to live for a year. This would come to be one of the most critical and informative years of my life.Amman

In her article, Katherine says: “Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think.”

How can we harness this effect into a classroom of diversity-enriched discussion and discourse? For me, it took a quite literal immersive experience for my brain to re-wire in a way that allowed me to comprehend and accept alternative viewpoints, and to ultimately change the way I viewed politics, policy, and globalization. I know this will be different with each student I encounter, kind of bringing the whole idea full circle. While we acknowledge the importance of diversity and the strength in our differences, we too must accept that this kind of larger-than-life growth takes time. We must encourage the movement towards acceptance of diversity in a gentle way, otherwise our message may get lost amongst the kicking and screaming.

Still Curious

When my grandfather was in the last few days of his life, I remember him being remarkably alert. He knew what was coming, and maybe it was for that reason that he worked beyond his exhaustion to talk to me. I distinctly remember one of the last sentences he spoke to me. He said, “Sarah, don’t ever stop asking why.”

When I read W. Gardner Campbell’s piece, it brought me back to this moment with my grandfather, and to the moments that would follow our last day together. I would move forward with my life, graduate from high school, college, and eventually enroll in graduate school. However, it wasn’t until the last couple of years that I have begun to understand what he meant. Too often we find ourselves caught up in the whirlwind of competition, doing whatever it takes to stay ahead, and fail to look around and ask the important questions. We are often so focused on the answers, that we miss the joy and intrigue of the questions themselves.

Campbell says: “Our world is too complex, our problems too intricate, our opportunities too vast to settle for such narrow aspirations.” Looking back now, perhaps my grandfather had noticed the shift in the world around him. Perhaps he noticed how his grandchildren were being shuffled from one soccer tournament to the next, staying up late trying to finish homework, all the while distracted with our devices and blind to the world around us. Perhaps he saw that moment as an opportunity to send a message to me that would not fully come to light until a decade later. Regardless, his intention is clear to me now. The praise we receive as children is often tied closely to the value of our accomplishments-the glittering report card, the athletic ability or success in the band, the schools we are accepted into. In the midst of the struggle to attain the goals that will provide us with the praise we long for, we have simultaneously lost sight of the joy in the questions themselves.

I share the above story because I think it begs the following question: can we illicit curiosity in other people? And if so, how? The reason I find this question so perplexing is that, for me, it had a lot to do with time. I needed to mature to the point where I could fully reflect and be introspective before I truly became curious about the world around me. This could be a fairly difficult task for a professor teaching a classroom full of distracted freshman (as I once was).

I’m really looking forward to the discussion this week. I am especially excited to hear  from the experienced teachers in the classroom on what they found to be the most effective strategies for encouraging curiosity.

“Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.” -Samuel Johnson





Let the blog shaming begin

Disclaimer: I am more focused, motivated, and resistant to distractions than I was when I was an undergraduate, hence my hesitance to completely trash lecture-based learning environments (had I been asked to write this blog at age 20, my opinions towards lectures may have been a bit harsher).

Being inspired versus being taught. Is there a distinction? Though I feel the pull to say that the two are in no way connected, something deep in my gut is telling me I’m wrong. The truth is, I’ve think I may have learned the most about topics by people who have explained these topics in a way that inspired me. I’m going to have to break with Robert Talbert on this one.

For instance, have most students not enrolled in a course with weariness, unsure if the topic will interest them, only to be pleasantly surprised by an emotional/engaged professor who helps them to connect dots that otherwise may never have been connected? Am I making sense? I am not an engineer, nor am I an ethics expert, but I learned a great deal from Dr. Riley last week about both engineering education and ethical dilemmas in the field, two areas in which I have very little invested knowledge. Granted, this was a smaller classroom size and teacher-student interactions are a bit easier to conduct, but during the more “lecture-y” moments, I still felt like I was learning a great deal because I was inspired by her devotion to ethical approaches to engineering education. To strictly say that lectures are only good for four reasons, in my opinion, is an oversimplification.
I understand that this viewpoint will likely result in some push back, and maybe my brain is wired in a way that makes my learning more conducive to lecture-type environments, although I don’t feel that I have a strong preference for lectures, I just don’t believe that they are ineffective. I do believe that the ability to learn material does, to a degree, depend on the learners willingness to be deliberate in their retention of information. I know, I know-I can hear the gasps. Perhaps I’m unconventional in this belief. We have to shoulder some of the responsibility for dozing off in class or skimming social media sites or even skipping class altogether. Learning is a two-way street, and as much as we love to blame the professors for presenting information in a way that is lackluster or uninteresting, we cannot deny that we are just as human as they are. We are different. Adaptation is so freaking critical. In education, in the workplace, in LIFE—we have to be willing to adapt to different environments because what works for someone else may not work for us and vice versa.
I loved my small interactive classes during my undergraduate education. Admittedly, I loved my large lecture classes too.

Assessing how we assess.

“The free exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.” Yes, John Steinbeck, I could not have said it better myself. In Donna Riley’s piece, the argument is raised that by placing more weight on outcomes that are easily assessable, we are devaluing or even ignoring the outcomes that are more difficult to assess. This begs the question: are we enabling students to embrace the creative and innovative realms of their education or are we placing a majority of the emphasis on what we deem to be “valuable.” Indeed, is it not selfish to limit student assessment to only those characteristics in which we ourselves value? Perhaps this is an issue that has been plaguing our education systems for quite some time. I’m kind of new to this, honestly.
The question of grading was argued in my conservative, southwest Virginia hometown. Not grading, per se, but grading scales. Equally as eye-roll worthy, in my opinion. At the ripe age of 16, I wasn’t exactly interested in weighing in on the debate. This bothers me, in hindsight, because I believe that the viewpoint of the student is oftentimes the most valuable when it comes to questions such as these.
Ah, grades. Necessary, perhaps. Destructive to creativity and self-reflection, absolutely. I began my undergraduate career with a structured view of how my education was to take place: go to class, study the lecture slides, work hard, get good grades. In most instances (and I’m sure this is the case for many others like myself), I struggled to remember the name of the class I was enrolled in. I could, however, tell you which powerpoint slides contained which necessary factoids- possibly even which slide number the information could be found. What a disappointing waste of education. I feel certain now that when I graduated in 2013, I could recall less than 10% of the information I had learned, I had no better idea of who I was or what I believed in, and I remained blissfully unaware of my place in the world. I had some catching up to do.
My personal experiences with the rigged and structured collegiate education system in this country may not be reflective of my fellow 20-something peers. Which begs the following question: has our education system allowed us to become so unaccustomed to self reflection that we are unable to reflect on the inadequacies of our education system? Is this problem cyclical?
Herein lies the the part of this post that makes it difficult for me to press the “Publish” button. I do not have a solution. Therefore, the self-deprecating portion of my brain (which happens to constitute a majority of my brain) is screaming, “THEN WHY ARE YOU COMPLAINING? YOU ARE A PART OF THE PROBLEM.” The fact is, I see the problem, and I feel the problem, I do, but I do not know how we go about fixing the problem. To stop giving grades would certainly shake up the world of the graduate school/medical school/law school/etc. acceptance committees. I can hear them now, helplessly screaming to themselves, “but how we will gauge their potential?!”
I look forward to discussing this more next week in class. And perhaps this is the first step- discussion. To bounce ideas off of one another and to continue to search relentlessly  for plausible solutions.
On a broader note, at an ugly time in our political and cultural history, perhaps this is the moment when dialogue becomes the one thing that we should cling most tightly to.

Understanding the world through art-My grandmother’s story.

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
― Pablo Picasso

I hope my husband doesn’t read my blog. I am dreadfully in love with Sir Ken Robinson, and have been since I heard his first Ted talk entitled  “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” My interpretation of his talk, therefore, may be a bit biased. I think it is so important to bring humor to important topics such as education, for many reasons. The first is that it helps to grab the attention of what may otherwise be an uninterested audience. Also, it brings joy to the simple task of listening. Sir Ken Robinson manages to be both humorous and serious, both joyful and fearful.

When he began discussing the topic of ‘No Child Left Behind’ in his talk, I perked up in my chair. This has been a politically dividing topic for what seems to be the majority of my lifetime. Improving eduction is at the forefront of most every politicians mind, however the way in which we go about improving it is a different topic entirely. What about the students who are in school but do not enjoy being in school? What about the student who learns differently? We certainly don’t want to leave these students behind. We must not only recognize the importance of education, but also acknowledge how different each children is from one another and how differently they learn. We mustn’t conform. He continues, “A real education has to give equal weight to the arts, the humanities, and to physical eduction.”
I’m going to use my grandmother as an example, for a few reasons. She grew up with dyslexia. She is an artist. She is a philanthropist. She donated millions of dollars to have an arts center built on campus. Her name is P. Buckley Moss, my mom’s mother, and she is absolutely incredible. Her childhood, however, was far from incredible. The way her story differs from many other children similar to her was this: a teacher in grade school recognized her talent in the arts and helped her to find a way to incorporate art into her schooling, which she otherwise did not excel. Her dyslexia prevented her from understanding simple math equations. She still spells my name wrong from time to time on birthday cards. For her, it took one person, one teacher, to recognize that she was different and to embrace her talents and interests rather than using them as a crutch to hold her back. Art changed my grandmother’s life for the better, and I wonder where she would be today if her artistic mind was not given the opportunity to flourish in her elementary school classroom. According to Robinson, “the arts aren’t just important because they improve math skills, they are important because they speak to parts of children being which are otherwise untouched.” I’m grateful that my grandmother had the opportunity to learn and grow immersed in her artwork and embraced by her educators.
How important it is for all educators to recognize the support needed by students who learn differently. How important it is for educators to teach them differently. Classrooms and schools mustn’t be molded and shaped to fit the ideals of a group of legislators. We cannot lose sight of the little minds and the little souls inside those little bodies. We cannot forget that at the very root of the word humanities is ‘human.’ Let us praise and celebrate the true and immeasurable beauty of what makes us human– our differences.

Learning to adapt and… to embrace social media.

I have a confession to make. I was initially turned off by the idea of using social media to bolster academic involvement. For a long time, I viewed social media as a platform for comedy, political riff raff, and embarrassing family photo sharing. I’m learning, however, especially after reading Tim Hitchcock’s piece, that it is critical to utilize the accessible and familiar platforms with young people. One of his quotes that really spoke to me was: “If we simply continue in an older vein – having small (vociferous) conversations amongst ourselves, in professional seminars and at conferences, through book reviews and in the specialist hard copy press – we will lose our place in the broader social dialog.” What an excellent point. For instance, I would most certainly call my grandmother if I wanted to speak to her, but text my siblings if I wanted to speak to them. We must engage in discourse in the way that best fits the generational traditions and we should be open and flexible in our recognition of these traditions. We cannot get so bogged down in our research and finding  exact answers that we forget to reflect and communicate along the way. Needless to say, it will take some time for me to get used to these new educational norms, but I look forward to engaging in discussions such as these this semester with my fellow GEDI’s.


My first blog post

My name is Sarah Donnelly and I am a PhD student currently enrolled in GRAD5114-Contemporary Pedagogy. I am looking forward to communicating with my fellow classmates throughout the course of the semester and learning new tips and tools for engagement and inclusion in the classroom. Let’s do this thing!

The name of my blog is written in Hebrew and is pronounced ‘timshel.’ Timshel is one of the themes in the book East of Eden written by John Steinbeck (my favorite novel) and is translated to mean ‘thou mayest.’ I will share a couple excerpts from the book with you to help you understand why I believe this word to be so incredibly important:

“I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win….And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”

I’m looking forward to the semester and the innumerable future opportunities that we will have, as a family, to learn and grow together. The way is open.