Fletcher urges Ohio State students to model empathy in Education for Citizenship Address

In The Ohio State University’s second annual Education for Citizenship Address on Monday, Professor Angus Fletcher offered strategies for how students can build a sense of community on campus and beyond.

While introducing Fletcher, Executive Vice President and Provost Melissa Gilliam said the purpose of the address is to set a tone of dignity and respect as the new academic year gets underway and encourage students to engage in civil discourse.

“It sets a lofty and really uncompromising goal because it calls upon you to use your Ohio State education to become model citizens, to lead the way in changing the world, to leave it a better place than the one you found,” she said.

Fletcher is a professor and story scientist in the Department of English. He is involved with Ohio State’s Project Narrative podcast and is leading an academic think tank for the study of how stories work.

In his address, Fletcher shared that as an immigrant whose family is originally from Scotland, citizenship is an especially significant issue.

“The reason that being a citizen is so important to me is that I had to make a conscious choice to decide to become a citizen” upon turning 18, he said. “I decided to give it a go, and I have not regretted it.”

Fletcher said he began to discover a sense of community as a freshman at the University of Michigan when he encountered the medical school’s neurophysiology lab. He asked the scientists working there to explain to him how the brain works, which led to a job at the lab for the next four years. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in literature from Yale University and embarked on a career researching the brain’s powers of creativity and imagination.

“Why did those scientists invite me in?” Fletcher said. “Why did they treat me with generosity and openness instead of suspicion? Because they viewed me as a citizen of the same community. And because they did that, they changed my life.”

Fletcher offered tips on how to create community based on his academic research and his work training U.S. Army special operations personnel in leadership and decision-making skills. Earlier this year, Fletcher was awarded the Army’s Public Service Commendation Medal, the fourth-highest civilian public service honor.

Fletcher offered three tips on building community: creating emotional security, cultivating true curiosity and being a force multiplier. Creating emotional security is necessary for the personal and mental growth that produces complete citizens, he said.

“That’s why it’s so important to create emotional security here in our university community,” he said. “If you want to be a citizen of a community and help produce the biggest ideas, work hard to create that climate of emotional security. Make the people around you feel safe, empathize with their vulnerabilities, acknowledge their fears.”

Cultivating true curiosity involves asking who, what, when, where and how, Fletcher said. He recommends avoiding asking why when interacting with people because it can lead to judgment.

“I promise you, the more you practice this technique, you’ll see that you will cultivate true curiosity,” he said, “which will then produce true empathy, which in turn creates emotional security and personal growth.”

Being a force multiplier involves seeking opportunities to be of service, which are nearly limitless at Ohio State, Fletcher said.

“We are a very big school. We have something like 70,000 citizens here,” he said. “Everywhere you go, there’s a chance to empower someone.”

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