School of Communication Professor Dr. Joseph Zompetti M.A. ’95 is a rhetoric scholar, but during the pandemic his students have discovered that he is also a man rich in empathy. Now in his 18th year on faculty, Zompetti could relate to the anxiety that moving to online last year was causing some of his students. He felt it himself.

“We started with the premise that what we’re going through sucks,” Zompetti said. “I’m pretty old school; I’m used to chalkboards, and I don’t even use PowerPoint when we’re face to face.”

So, the professor, who teaches Controversy in Contemporary Society (COM 303) and Political Communication (COM 371) to undergraduates, in addition to Seminar in Rhetorical Theory (COM 496) to graduate students, found himself back in school. He took several workshops, learned more about Zoom, “brushed up on ReggieNet,” and changed his syllabi. But perhaps most importantly, he made a concerted effort to guide students as they navigated the pandemic’s waters during an impressionable time in their own lives.

He required each student to meet with him one on one, noting that it logistically was a lot of work to schedule all those Zoom meetings. But he wanted his students to feel better about their shared situation, and he wanted to establish some human connectivity with them.

The underlying goal was to communicate to his students that he was approachable and available to help if needed. Most importantly, he wanted them to hear a simple human message at a difficult time: “Somebody cares about you.”

When some of his students did reach out and thanked him for meeting with them, it felt good.

“When they said they didn’t have other professors meeting with them, that meant a lot,” Zompetti said. “Hearing that kind of feedback obviously makes it worthwhile.”

The meetings were a two-way street with Zompetti sharing as well.

“I open up to them; I disclose,” he said. “Everybody’s going through stuff.”

Leia Atas ’19 is finishing up her master’s degree in communication and has had several classes with Zompetti during her time in graduate school. Safe to say, she’s a big fan.

“I’m pretty biased,” Atas said. “I’m basically getting my master’s in ‘Zompetti.’ He’s great. Best professor I’ve ever had.”

She added that Zompetti is an advocate for students and has been empathetic toward them during the Zoom learning curve, making resources easy to find. She said students who take his classes are passionate about the subject, just as he is. The sacrifice moving to online for Atas was no small thing given how much she enjoys Zompetti’s in-person teaching.

“His in-person classes are the best,” she said. “They are discussion based, with hefty reading but great for bouncing ideas off peers to better grasp the terms and ideas. Zoom world made that really difficult, with background noise and not knowing when you’re supposed to talk.”

It turned out that Zompetti was having similar feelings. 

“My classes were synchronous where we usually read a lot, sit in a big circle, and write papers,” Zompetti said referring to how he taught pre-pandemic. “Now (being remote), you can’t read nonverbals, and we can’t chit chat after class.”

Zompetti said the pandemic has made communicating more difficult, especially for young people who are in the habit of using their phones for almost everything. He said many of his students have trouble asking for help, which made reaching out to them even more important. He appreciates how alone and isolated some of them may feel without the social life they are accustomed to enjoying. Even the most basic thing like joining a study group was affected.

“This is emotional stuff, and it involves mental health,” Zompetti said. “If I can’t help, then I’ll help them find someone who can.”

Zompetti said he feels strongly enough about his students seeking his help that he’s offered extra points as an incentive to encourage them. That doesn’t mean he expects less from them in terms of effort.

“I still try to maintain academic rigor, and I don’t let up on my grading,” he said. “But, in every other way, I’m trying to be understanding, compassionate, and keep connecting with them.

“I try to make the best of it with them.”