Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Empathy


Last week I stumbled upon an interesting conversation in a website devoted to sports and culture.  Why has there never been a great television series, either drama or comedy, about college?  There have been good shows about high school (Mr. Novak, Room 222, My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Friday Night Lights) and about law school (The Paper Chase) and medical residency (St. Elsewhere, ER), but nothing memorable (or at least that I remember) about college itself.  The consensus in the discussion was that high school offers more character archetypes, and that it is too hard to show the balance of serious study and social silliness that are intertwined in most people’s college experience.

That evening I saw an ad for an upcoming movie starring Tina Fey as an admissions officer at Princeton.  The two experiences on the same day triggered memories of a more innocent time, regrets about opportunities lost, and another reminder of why I ended up in a non-profit career.

Thirty years ago I had an idea for what I still think could have been the classic show about college.  The twist is that it would be a workplace ensemble sitcom along the lines of Cheers, only set in the Admissions Office of a small liberal-arts college.  The admissions setting provided an interesting intersection between academia and the “real world,” the main character would have been (like me) a recent grad navigating between being a student and being an adult, and the pilot episode would have featured a celebrity visiting the college with his or her child.  Like most of my great ideas, it didn’t pan out, but I thought there was lots of humor to be found in all aspects of college admissions.

I’m hoping that same recognition, that the admissions world offers a treasure trove of laughs, is what led a University of Pennsylvania admissions officer to share and mock excerpts from applicants’ essays on her personal Facebook page.  I’m hoping it’s a feeble attempt at humor rather than meanness and condescension.  The former is a serious lapse in judgment; the latter, a character flaw.

There is little to add regarding the infraction itself.  Under no circumstances is it appropriate for an admissions professional to share information from an application outside the office.  It is both invasion of privacy and theft of intellectual property.

The larger, more interesting, question is whether admissions officers understand and empathize with the young people whose lives they are judging and impacting.  A number of years ago, an Admissions Dean friend of mine vented that she would scream if she read another essay about the “three D’s”—death, drugs, and divorce.  (Not long after a fourth “D” was added—the DaVinci Code.)  I understood her sentiments, but told her that she was being unfair.  For teenagers with limited life experience and who experience emotions more intensely than at any other point in life (which is why first love is so powerful), any of those D’s is traumatic and life-changing.  Do admissions officers understand what it’s like to be in high school?

I suspect the “empathy gap” is more pronounced in young admissions officers.  I don’t know if that’s a developmental issue or a training issue, but I have talked with a number of secondary counselors who comment that young admissions officers today are too busy giving their admissions presentation to engage in conversation and see applicants as numbers rather than as human beings.  It might be especially pronounced in young admissions officers working at their alma maters.  It wasn’t until leaving admissions that I realized the school I was marketing was an idealized version of the actual institution.  I wasn’t trying to be misleading or unethical, but I was a true believer, and I knew that attracting good students was one way to make the college better.

I also think the “empathy gap” is more prevalent at highly selective institutions like Penn.  When you deal with thousands of applicants, almost all of whom have superb credentials, it is easy to become spoiled and lose sight of the fact that teenagers are “works in progress,” going through an odyssey of self-discovery.  The application process is a snapshot of an individual’s accomplishments, growth, and potential, and the picture that is most complex and interesting may not be the one that initially catches your eye.  At its worst the highly-selective admissions process looks to admit alumni who are already successful rather than students who will grow most from the college experience.

Thirty years ago, my boss, the Admissions Dean, talked about teaming up and becoming comedy writers.  He realized even then where the admissions profession might be heading, that writing comedy might be both a more fun and more sane way to make a living than trying to fill a freshman class.  I’m happy with how things played out. As much as I like the cheap laugh (which I rarely ever get), watching young people grow up and figure out who they are meant to be is far more satisfying.   

3 comments:

  1. There was a really good college based show that dealt with all of the fun, crazy and wild times that undergrads go through. However, it also addressed, head on some of the more serious challenges that are faced on college campuses like racism, time management, sex, drugs, domestic violence, politics, war, falling in and out of love, etc. The show ran from 1987 until 1993 which is a good run, by most standards. Well written, directed and casted, the show helped usher in new, more positive ideas about young people just trying to find their way in the world. With all of the social, cultural, political and entertainment events happeneing during that time, being on a caoolege campus was very exciting and this one particluar show helped to give some perspective to the world about just how young people on college campuses were living and at the same time gave a preview to younger students of what great, although challenging at times, opportunities might lie ahead for them. It wasn't without flaw, but I have my own ideas of why it isn't so memorable for some, but was and still is (in syndication,) not only memorable but special for others.

    Dr. Bill Cosby created A Different World as a spin-off of the Cosby show which followed Denise Huxtable off to fictional Hillman College in Virginia. And even after her departure after the first season, the show carried on and did well. Many of the cast are still plying their trade as writers, directors, in front of the camera and on stage, music, dance, voice and others. You can still see/hear Jada Pinkett-Smith, Marisa Tomei, Jasmine Guy, Kadeem Hardison, Sinbad, Cree Summer, Glyn Turmon, BUmper Johnson, Darryl Bell, Gary Dourdan, Jennifer Lewis, Loretta Divine, Michael Ralph, Dawnn Lewis, Karen Malina White, Rueben Grundy and others.

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