Mark Twain is widely considered one of the most intelligent Americans in history, but a more accurate description may be one of the most empathetic Americans in History. His first historical fiction novel, “The Prince and the Pauper” tells the story of two similar looking young boys of very different social class who trade places. This is an early example of relational empathy communicated in a way the masses could understand. The novel was later adapted for the 1983 movie “Trading Places” featuring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. The now classic story is one of many examples of how, even if magically, we can try to “see the problem from within the other shoes.” It’s a key trait of being able to make supporting, connected, high-performing, and continuously improving/learning communities.

In a recent e-mail to the Voiland College faculty, Interim Dean Don Bender said,

“Especially with new leadership both at the university and at the college level, it is critical that we literally put down our pens (or mouse) for a moment, stop what we’re doing, join our community, and consider new ideas and directions… I believe it’s time to take a new look at what our stakeholders want and where we can help… I believe that pulling together, being more mission-oriented, and thinking more strategically will not only bring in more research funding but will make our work more meaningful and impactful. It’s amazing how relevant you can feel when you meet with someone in need, look them in the eye, learn what they care about, and come up with great ideas to help.”

So what are some ways we can identify with our constituencies to realize the connections we’ve been missing in our (or lack of) community? This is directly in line with our theme of community building for this blog over the past month. (See Composer in Residence, A walk down memory lane, and Reasons to do Rube Goldberg’s for more) Here’s a few mechanisms for trading places:

  1. A round-table week where each of the VCEA School Directors spends a day as Director of another School. Each School presents A. Strength of the School (from the faculty, staff, graduate student, undergraduate perspectives, and a community/constituent member), B. A weakness (from each of the levels), C. An Insightful opportunity (from each of the levels).
  2. Trade places with someone in a class, both at the instructor and student level. Instructor gives the notes/mechanism, and the switch has to try to replicate. The same can happen at the student level. I recently had the opportunity of being a panel speaker in the School of Design and Construction intro level class to likely ~250(!) students. It was my first lecture to a group of freshman, it really opened my eyes in very awesome ways to their progression through the college, and how the values and mannerisms of students differ between schools. Here’s a recent article about this in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
  3. Be an external safety reviewer/auditor for practices in someone elses research lab. “We don’t know what we don’t know!” Be a lab assistant in another lab for a day.

In the six years I’ve been here, I haven’t seen or heard of this ever happening. The closest thing I’ve heard of this anywhere is the UI music department (big fan of) having faculty teach eachother’s class. In many ways, these practices force us to be more empathetic, to utilize non-routine ways of interacting and accomplishing tasks. Good composers and designers steel. Thereby we increase the portfolio of ways (i.e. entropy and empathy) we can engineer by. Let’s try to ensure our best transfers to others as quickly, and routinely as possible!