John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Empathetic Recall

For 25 years at the University of South Carolina I was responsible for coordinating our twice a year University 101 Faculty/Staff “Teaching Experience Workshop.” The purpose of this was to prepare our next cohort of instructors for the first-year seminar course.

One of the exercises we used was called “empathetic recall.” It was really very simple. We would ask our newest “class” of seminar teachers to recall what they were like when they were a beginning college student; and then to contrast those recollections with how they see entering students today.

I continue to use some of the “trigger” questions we would use to undertake such a recall and comparison. I commend them to you now for your consideration as you prepare to greet this year’s crop of incoming students.

1. What year did you enter college?
2. How many years ago is that?!
3. How old were you when you started college?
4. Who was President of the United States at that time?
5. Did the occupant of that office have any influence on your thinking about the world, our country, and your purposes?
6. Do you remember any major world event that happened that same year that really impinged on your consciousness?
7. Approximately, what did you pay that year – for a haircut, cup of coffee, a beer, a movie?
8. As you entered college, were you asked to read anything as some colleges do now in a “common read?” If so, do you remember what you were asked to read?
9. Do you remember your orientation?
10. Your first advisor? If so, what about him/her?
11. Any courses you took first term and how you performed?
12. Your room mate if applicable?
13. How you felt about your new beginning?

For me, the year was 1961. That was 49 years ago.

I was 17.

John Kennedy had been in the White House about six months and I already admired him greatly. And I was thinking about what I could do for my country.

The Berlin Wall had gone up that year and the Cold War was in full force and fury. And this would lead me to having to register for the draft, which today’s students don’t even know the meaning of.

I don’t remember what I paid for any of those things, and I didn’t drink beer or anything else. I do remember that gasoline was about 35cents a gallon.

We did not have a common read. But I do remember Orientation, particularly a picnic where I was so lonely. And I remember how much older the senior RA’s looked, and wise, and suave and debonair. And I predicted I could never look like that. I also remember the orientation speeches punch lines, such as “Look to the left and look to the right and the two you just looked at won’t be here four years from now when you graduate!”

I remember my first advisor. At midterm he told me “you are the stupidest kid I have ever advised.” What prompted this were my mid-term grades: 3F’s, 2D’s, and 1A.

My roommate was a big strapping football player, from Boston who was homesick for his girlfriend back home (so was I). And he was mailing his laundry back to his mother in Boston. One day, about 6 weeks into the term, he announced to me: “I am leaving college.” And leave he did. I didn’t know you could leave college.

How did I feel at the beginning of college? Lonely, “undeclared”, homesick, anxious, depressed, lost.

College kids like me needed help from people like you.

When you engage in empathetic recall, how do your incoming students match up? That is a fair question.

-John Gardner

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