teaching

Empathy and Education: Fight or Flight

“A good teacher will lead the horse to water; an excellent teacher will make the horse thirsty first.” – Mario Cortes

Inside the academic classroom, we instructors face a number of pedagogical challenges, ranging from constant apprehension regarding proper time management, to confusion over how to best incorporate new media technologies in diverse lesson plans. If the multitudes of our profession may be encompassed by so simplistic a maxim, a good amount of the efforts toward leading our students toward the proverbial well of knowledge involves acknowledging the limits of our ability to engage, and the students’ ability to stay engaged.

Try as we might to liven up lectures on nineteenth-century textual portrayals of class and gender struggles, or lead animated discussion on symbolic content and elements of stylistic form, just to name a couple of personal examples, the passion of an instructor may not always yield a similar investment from those they teach. Here, the learning curve inherent in pedagogy applies to us as well. We acknowledge that students may have chosen to take our course for the purpose of filling out credit hours, anticipate the potential difficulties of teaching the disinterested, and yet do our best to construct inclusive syllabi, encourage open discussion, and foster an environment defined by dialectical learning.

Even in the face of such apathy, within the classroom setting, an instructor retains the authority to insist on certain standards of behavior. Students are expected to pay attention to the material, despite their personal level of enthusiasm for the subject, or lack thereof, and often must display their acquired knowledge through active participation.

Outside of the classroom, however, the authority to instruct has always been a tenuous thing at best, undercut by the style of one’s delivery, the power of one’s rhetoric, and the ongoing struggle to make one’s voice heard at all. There are no quantitative grades to earn in what so many have termed the “real world” outside of academic institutions; no controlled learning environment in which anyone is obligated to respect the notion of a “safe space,” and certainly no imperative to engage in critical discussion or any measure of empathetic self-reflection.

Moreover, in the wake of the U.S. Presidential election, the anti-intellectual impulse now seems to be morphing into a frightening American norm. Never mind leading horses to water – in a “post truth” world, if words aren’t enough, what is left?

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Artist: K.C. Green, 2013 Source: Gunshowcomic.com

Empathy, many say. Following a seemingly never-ending election season distinguished early on by threatening speech, stunningly vitriolic ideological premises, and outlandish promises now turned very real dangers, those grieving for the loss of a democratic ideal were told to empathize with those we had grown to view with fear, anger, and even disgust. Among increasingly convoluted dissections of what the concept of empathy means,[1] voices from all over the political spectrum, mainstream news outlets, and media platforms urged those on the “losing” side to swallow the bitter pill – at least for the next four years – and unite. Accept. Get over it.

In other words: don’t fight.

But for many of us, there is no other choice. At the end of the day, we are thinkers. Letting things go unquestioned, unexamined, and unanalyzed is something we cannot do. Easy acceptance and complacency go hand-in hand, joined together in a desperate flight from grappling with our own mistakes, and pushing to change what we cannot tolerate, much less endure.

Instructors, researchers, public thinkers and scholars affiliated with the academy have all been students at one point or another. As such, we consider the intellectual process as one requiring constant and self-conscious revision – not only must we often admit our own shortcomings, but we must also anticipate learning from those we may initially oppose.

Crafting a common vocabulary is perhaps the first step toward building a rapport with bored or uninterested students, but deconstructing the complexities of hegemonic ideology and the semantic battle over what has been fashionably debated and dismissed as “identity politics” takes the concentrated work of months, if not years. Effective communication becomes much more difficult with the assumption that empathy and cooperative understanding rests upon mutual mute compliance, instead of examination and accountability. Engaging in productive discussions with political opponents is far from impossible. Historically, however, conversations require equal measures of willingness to listen and learn from all those involved.

How do we reach those who see no reward in critical reflection, and harbor no desire for intellectual engagement? To what extent are we meant to empathize and “break bread” [2] with those who would much rather imagine the well of knowledge empty, than deign to be led anywhere?

In an Op-Ed piece from The New York Times, R. Derek Black shares another personal narrative tracing the unlearning of hatred-driven ideology through experiences at a liberal college:

“Through many talks with devoted and diverse people there – people who chose to invite me into their dorms and conversations rather than ostracize me – I began to realize the damage I had done. Ever since, I have been trying to make up for it…

People have approached me looking for a way to change the minds of Trump voters, but I can’t offer any magic technique. That kind of persuasion happens in person-to-person interactions and it requires a lot of honest listening on both sides. For me, the conversations that led me to change my views started because I couldn’t understand why anyone would fear me…

I never would have begun my own conversations without first experiencing clear and passionate outrage to what I believed from those I interacted with. Now is the time for me to pass on that outrage by clearly and unremittingly denouncing the people who used a wave of white anger to take the White House.”[3]

On one hand, there are no easy answers. But on the other, admittedly, easy answers aren’t our forte. We press for deeper truths than that.

Buck up, Academics. We have our work cut out for us.


[1] In this short interview promoting his new monograph, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom attempts to distinguish between what he terms “cognitive empathy” and “emotional empathy.” The former, he argues, is a mental exercise based upon rational thought; the latter is based solely in affective feeling, and actually “distorts goodness” in “direct[ing] our moral decision-making [and] reflects our biases.” Bloom’s argument, as presented in this interview, contradicts itself when he disparages empathetic feeling, yet then doubles back and claims “We need love, compassion and kindness.”

[2] In what has since been criticized as a short-sighted commentary reflecting a lack of knowledge on the lived experiences of Black (and fellow minority) Americans, Trevor Noah’s Op-Ed piece boldly states, “We should give no quarter to intolerance and injustice in this world, but we can be steadfast on the subject of Mr. Trump’s unfitness for office while still reaching out to reason with his supporters. We can be unwavering in our commitment to racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who’ve opposed us.” (“Trevor Noah: Let’s Not Be Divided. Divided People Are Easier to Rule.” The New York Times. 5 December 2016.)

[3] “Why I Left White Nationalism.” Black, R. Derek. The New York Times. 26 November 2016.


Vicky Cheng is a fourth-year Ph.D. student whose research and teaching interests center on nineteenth-century British literature and culture, with a specific focus on queer and feminist readings of Victorian texts. Her proposed dissertation project finds its structure through queer methodology, and will investigate Victorian novels and conflicting representations of gendered bodies within. Other scholarly interests include mediations between textual description and visualization, the structures of power surrounding the interplay of non-normative bodies and disruptive desires, and the complexities of embodied sexualities.

Empathy and Education: The Double Burden (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, toward the end of our class’s unit on “Thrills, Sensations, and the Ethics of Nonfiction,” I assigned my students the University of Chicago’s Welcome Letter to the Class of 2020 alongside Sara Ahmed’s thought-provoking “Against Students” (June 2015). The former, a document separately decried or praised as patronizing and oppressive or timely and appropriate, comes from a private University that prides itself as “one of the world’s leading and most influential institutions of higher learning,”[1] and has a notorious reputation among academics for fostering an ultra-competitive – and potentially hazardous – environment for its students.

Following a word of congratulations, the letter states:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority – building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”

A number of think pieces had their say, and the talking heads gave comment. In response, educators and administrators from various institutions defended their policy of creating safe spaces and giving trigger warnings; using the same terminology, they all argued for the same purpose: academic freedom and “moral responsibility.” Proponents of the University of Chicago’s pedagogical stance lauded this strike against so-called “political correctness,” insisting that incoming students should stop expecting a protective safety net to cushion controversial speech and difficult issues. Safe spaces, it was implied, or outright declared, are a cocoon of muffled sensitivities freshmen ought to have outgrown by their first semester of college.

Ahmed’s piece, while predating the University of Chicago’s letter by almost a year, exposes similar “sweeping” generalizations made in critiques of higher education, while laying bare the ideological contradictions the letter claims to espouse. Students who are often blamed as oversensitive, coddled, and otherwise too entitled to address “difficult issues” bear the brunt of critique in the wider battle of, and backlash against the dreaded brand of PC-neoliberalism. In actuality, those who oppose trigger warnings often do so at the expense of marginalized groups and students as a whole, and not in service of a wider range of critical discussion.

“The idea that students have become a problem because they are too sensitive relates to a wider public discourse that describes offendability as a form of moral weakness and as a restriction on “our” freedom of speech. Much contemporary racism works by positioning the others as too easily offendable, which is how some come to assert their right to occupy space by being offensive…

This is how harassment can be justified as an expression of academic freedom.”

Rhetorically, those who use this toxic, masculinist mantra to “man up and quit being so offended” imagine its directed audience as a bunch of whiny, thin-skinned spoiled brats. It has become a “no guts, no restriction of hateful speech, no glory” approach modified for instructional spaces. Unsurprisingly, it represents yet another attack upon we Millennials of the generation of participation trophies; we special snowflakes-turned-Social Justice Warriors; we who dare protest for a minimum wage of $15/hour, refuse to consider any human being “illegal,” and demand equal rights under the law for an ever-expanding catalogue of identities, intersectionalities, and sexualities.

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The thing about we who make it our job to deal in words is that we know what they say about us. Sometimes, we respond with sarcasm and memes.

Apparently, to many, intellectual boldness – or the tricky concept of free speech in general – is incompatible with thoughtfulness, compassion, or the necessity of imagining and reflecting upon the consequences of such speech. But at its core, intellectual efforts rest upon a foundation of empathetic engagement, curiosity, and responsible efforts to give voice to those who have previously been silenced.

For the most part, we who teach are expected to keep personal politics out of the classroom. Each student ought to have their say, and must not fear their grade may suffer due to a difference of religious, political, or personal ideological belief. The classroom is a place for critical engagement and analytical inquiry, but it should not act as a place of conversion, or the base of any particular soapbox.

On the other hand, we introduce students to the concept of ideology, and invite them to critically question previously held beliefs; we encourage students to critique ideas, and not the individual espousing them. Disagreement should not deter discussion, so long as speech remains respectful and productive. We are all here to learn, is the unspoken catchphrase of the liberal arts education, and we learn best when we question what it is we think we know.

I presented the University of Chicago’s welcome letter to my class without trepidation – not because I expected every student to agree with the material, or to contest it straight away; rather, their job was to consider the rhetorical strategies being employed, and foster an interpretive reading based upon textual evidence. Thus far, we had studied texts through the framework of social critique and purposeful writing, interrogating the usefulness of nonfiction texts that have outlived their writers. We questioned the boundaries of truth and fiction, fantasy and reality, and spent a good portion of the semester discussing the importance of readers’ ethical responses to texts presenting themselves as unproblematic, factual, and objective. They held productive class discussions on tone-policing, white privilege, and the conflation of violence with sensational journalism and the commodification of wartime horror. These students, most of them incoming freshmen, rose quickly to the challenge of tackling these subjects, with vigor and great respect for the material, and one another.

The students of this generation “aren’t snowflakes, and they don’t melt,” Yale professor Steven Berry writes, in admiration of the resiliency of students who were still able to attend class and complete an exam the morning of November 9th. The same resiliency we admire in our students becomes so much more difficult to embody when we, students and scholars and educators alike, consider how much more dangerous our world has suddenly become.

Ten days after the U.S. election, eight hundred sixty-seven hate incidents were reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the majority of these occurring in K-12 schools. Since then, an organization named Turning Point USA, which purports to “fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish,” has created a Professor Watchlist, with profiles of “professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls” – the majority of those listed professors being women and persons of color.

post-election-hate

“Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election” Source: Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/20161129/ten-days-after-harassment-and-intimidation-aftermath-election

Without giving into paranoia, the project of providing safe spaces appears more daunting than ever. Despite this, while the classroom may not be a pulpit or a soapbox, it nevertheless remains a platform for instruction. Our determination to forge ahead despite fear and anger represents both the privilege and the burden of educating with empathy, and an ethical responsibility we owe to ourselves, and those we aim to instruct.

[1] This quote comes from the University of Chicago’s Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Chicago); the university’s homepage and admissions proudly greets visitors as “a private, nondenominational, culturally rich and ethnically diverse coeducational research university…committed to educating extraordinary people regardless of race, gender, religion, or financial ability.” (http://www.uchicago.edu/)


Vicky Cheng is a fourth-year Ph.D. student whose research and teaching interests center on nineteenth-century British literature and culture, with a specific focus on queer and feminist readings of Victorian texts. Her proposed dissertation project finds its structure through queer methodology, and will investigate Victorian novels and conflicting representations of gendered bodies within. Other scholarly interests include mediations between textual description and visualization, the structures of power surrounding the interplay of non-normative bodies and disruptive desires, and the complexities of embodied sexualities.

Zen and the Art of the Course Description (19 February 2016)

Course descriptions bridge the gap between the university’s corporate model and the classroom’s pedagogical space, aiding in achieving satisfactory enrollment “numbers.” In this way, the description of a class has to do the work of both an advertisement and an infomercial, appealing to students as well as cuing them about the course’s content. Despite our idealistic desires about learning for learning’s sake that might suggest otherwise, it is important, then, that a course seem interesting or “fun” so that students will actually register for it. However, this can be a fine line to walk: if an instructor goes overboard with trying to make the course appealing, students who do take the course can end up with something like academic buyer’s remorse—feeling that the course they signed up for is not represented in the classroom they occupy. Typically, this means that the student expected to have a lot of fun and (surprise!) the course turns out to be a lot of work. A balance must be struck between appealing to students’ interests and hinting at the rigorous intellectual labor required of a college course. The course description can be the first clue (and compelling advertisement) for how students and instructors will achieve these ambitions together.

As I tried to formulate my own course description for a class I plan to teach next Fall semester (ETS 181: Class and the Literary Text PLUG!), I began to consider how the course description is the first glimpse into what the educational future holds for students. For some, this tiny blot of text is the first step into opening their mind (and consciousness) toward the fundamental questions of the humanities: Who are we? What are we doing in the classroom? What are the forces that shape our world? How can we be engaged members of our classroom, society, and world? These are, of course, age-old questions that teachers have asked for hundreds of years. As I meditated on how to describe the content and objectives of my own course, I came to realize that a profound dialectic of instructional philosophy found in Zen Buddhism could also be found in the humanities classroom.

The practice of Zen Buddhism can be conceptually described as having two schools, each of which can represent different pedagogical ideologies that surface in humanities classrooms. Rinzai Zen practice is centered on the use of the koan, an absurd or impossible question engineered to push the mind away from dualistic thinking and toward “enlightenment,” a state of total awareness and detachment. The most well known example of a Rinzai Zen koan is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” A practitioner may work on the same koan for weeks or even years. Working through the experience of frustration and confusion that results from a koan allows a student of Buddhism to better understand the limits of their own internal logics.

Many humanities classrooms follow a strikingly similar logic as Rinzai Zen, asking students to formulate their own answers to questions of aesthetics, ethics, and ideology like “What is beauty?” or “Can society achieve equality?” that are as seemingly absurd or impossible as any koan. For many humanities instructors, the goal of asking such questions is not for the student to answer, once and for all, what beauty or truth is, but to get the student to ask “Why is it important that we must ask these questions?” This metacognitive approach can seem like the equivalent of a student’s enlightenment: finding a contemplative state rooted in higher-order concerns that engender critical thinking.

However, this goal-oriented approach is not the only way for students to come to a greater understanding of their role in the classroom. As many instructors have experienced, sometimes it is in the least-planned moments that students learn the most. Soto Zen, Rinzai’s competing school, rejects the centrality and formality of the koan as well as the goal of a particular “enlightened” state. For practitioners of Soto Zen, there is no goal to be achieved beyond the practice itself; the only object is to be awake and aware of the here and now. Translated to the humanities seminar, this practice asks the students to be fully immersed in learning, but also to move outside of ideology into subjective and intuitive experiences of the classroom and the world. In my experience, some of the best discussions come from this place of open awareness and improvisation. By letting strict lesson plans and pre-designed questions take a backseat to the participation and engagement of students in the moment, instructors can encourage students to seize their own agency, develop a community of ideas, and make the classroom their own.

Getting students to that “a-ha” moment of realization can be rewarding for the instructor, but often times, students get the most sustained intellectual value from pedagogical experiences that remain open-ended. By moving pedagogy away from structured goals, and, yes, even grade-oriented experiences, students can continue to build their knowledge years later, rather than leaving their experience, and their transcript, at the door of the classroom.

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Every student learns differently. For some people, the Rinzai approach to the humanities will best allow them to reach their educational aspirations, and they will emerge from the University system with a degree that is the material evidence of a more “enlightened” state. For these students, a course description should explain exactly what they will learn—the why is less important. For others, education is a lifelong process that doesn’t start and stop on an academic schedule. These students might benefit from a Soto approach that allows them to “sit” with their new knowledge and apply it to their life inside and outside the classroom. For these students, a course description should explain why they want to be in that class now, and why it will still mean something to them in 2, 10, and even 50 years. A well-balanced course description hopefully appeals to both types of students and ideally makes them excited about the possibilities their learning experience holds. But regardless of why the students are there, the course description has facilitated the most important function of a classroom: the students have chosen to find their way to it.


Max Cassity is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Textual Studies. His studies encompass 20thand 21st Century American fiction, poetry, and digital media. He is currently beginning a dissertation that studies fictional representations of epidemic diseases in American and Global modern literature and digital narratives including Ebola, Cancer, and Pandemic Flu.

Don’t Eat The Flatware: Balancing Instruction and Interpretation in the Classroom (5 February 2016)

For this month’s posts, I will focus on how engagement with social media, popular culture, film, and video games can inform the work we do in humanities classrooms. This week, I look at how criticism of humanities instruction on Reddit might help us understand why the practice of interpretation leaves some students with a negative impression of this field.

To do this, I want to examine one particular Reddit thread about the Oscars that quickly segued into a discussion about students’ expectations of interpretative arguments and pedagogical assessment in humanities classrooms. Initially, this forum comments on a controversy among Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Spike Lee, and Janet Hubert, Smith’s co-star on the ‘90s television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This disagreement concerns celebrity reactions to the despairing lack of nominations of people of color for marquee positions at the last two Academy awards, which in turn has engendered the resurfacing of the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite as an attempt to return public awareness to Hollywood’s historical marginalization of people of color. In their own call to action, Pinkett Smith, Smith, and Lee have advocated boycotting the award ceremony. However, this decision, in turn, has been met with resistance by actors of color such as Hubert, who claimed that Smith’s boycott was a temper-tantrum over not being nominated for 2015’s Concussion rather than an expression of race solidarity (for more on this debate click here).

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Will Smith and Aunt Viv (Hubert) in Fresh Prince (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank via AP Images)

 

This celebrity pseudo-family feud has promoted discussion of the institutionalized racism that persists in US culture, but I am particularly interested here in how one Reddit discussion connects the #OscarsSoWhite debate with the institution of the university, a dialogue that I think can offer those of us instructing in humanities classrooms a unique window into students’ experience.

Commenting on Hubert’s response to the Academy Awards boycott, Reddit user “hashbrown” associated her reaction with their own experience of receiving a disappointing grade on an interpretive community college essay assignment.

Hashbrown writes:

“I have a story that relates.

Last year I had an English class at the biggest community college in California. My African American teacher made the topic of the entire class revolve around black literature. One of the videos we watched talked about how African Americans need to start “helping” and empowering each other out [sic] by only watching black television, shopping at black stores, and volunteering in black communities.

I wrote my paper on how self segregation was a form of racism itself. Why should black people not shop at stores because of color of the owners skin? Why should people not watch white or asian actors?

In the end my teacher ended up giving me a C and wrote that I wasn’t understanding the material.

A year later and I’m still bitter about that class.”

Hashbrown articulates a common misconception about the value placed on interpretive analysis in the humanities—the notion that any ideological position on a text, regardless of its merit, is valid if properly argued. Missing from this perception is an important aspect of the interpretive process, in which students must take into account the contexts that inform their claims. In this case, hashbrown’s assertion that African American engagement in community activism equates to “self segregation” fails to account for the history of structural racism in Hollywood cinema, and the result of this lack of context was a C grade–hardly a failing score and a nearly universally accepted marker of “average” work in undergraduate study, indicating a need for improvement. Despite hashbrown’s possible “bitterness” over the grade itself, it seems to me that their frustration also might indicate a miscommunication in the instructor’s expectations.

While one could easily dismiss these kinds of complaints as quests for minor revenge by disengaged students turned internet trolls, the sheer number of responses that echo hashbrown’s frustrations suggest there may be something more here. Coming to hashbrown’s defense, other Reddit users noted how experiencing an instructor’s criticism to their subjective interpretations of texts left them with a cynical outlook on the project of humanities instruction at large. Reddit user Rainator writes, “I learned in English that the way to get a good grade was to just parrot whatever nonsense the teacher said.” User OneFatGuy described a similar experience, commenting, “I had a professor that would only agree on arguments based on his ideas, and anything other than his ideas were wrong or weak arguments.” From the perspective of the frustrated student, these users articulate a fundamental miscommunication that can occur between students and teachers concerning the pedagogical interplay between instruction and interpretation.

I believe that effective pedagogy embraces a dialogue between instruction—the teacher’s role of providing proper historical and cultural contexts that inform effective humanities study—and interpretation—the practice of synthesizing information from texts and developing an understanding of its meaning. This allows students to form interpretations that are unique, creative, and grounded in an enriched understanding of the text rather than construed from initial, unexamined reactions or previously fortified ideologies. However, when the prioritization of one element leads to the neglect of the other, the result can be the regrettable alienation of the student and/or the demonization of the instructor.

For Hashbrown and many other students with similar experiences, pedagogical focus on subjective argumentation is understood as a license to assert any of all possible readings of a text, even those that do not account for the specificity of material histories and social contexts. To be fair, the focus on rhetoric in many humanities classrooms makes this an easy misperception, even for advanced students. It is especially common in lower-level composition and survey courses, where the responsibility for providing such contextualization usually falls solely on the instructor. This problem is magnified in English and Literature Studies, where students are encouraged to form nuanced interpretations of texts that deal in complex and even contradictory aspects of culture and society, such as racism. However, focusing too much on contextualization over interpretation can be a problem as well. As Rainator’s response points out, when teachers over-prioritize instruction, students can feel that they have no agency in the discussion and simply parrot back information rather than engage in a critical practice.

This experience can be as frustrating for instructors as it is for students. One instructor in particular voiced on this thread their frustration at students’ mishandling of the “tools” provided by instruction claiming, ”It’s like I prepared you dinner and you ate the cutlery.” Engaging critically with such issues often involves confronting unsettling aspects of culture, society, and even our own experiences—a prospect that can be difficult for students and instructors alike. However, by providing historical and cultural context for the texts students read, and setting clear expectations about how student interpretation will engage with this context, instructors can prevent turning students off to the valuable practice of critical analysis and perhaps even help our students to have their cake and eat it, too!

Next week I will continue to think about how engagement with the public can inform humanities research and instruction, so grab your knives and forks and let’s eat!


Max Cassity is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Textual Studies. His studies encompass 20thand 21st Century American fiction, poetry, and digital media. He is currently beginning a dissertation that studies fictional representations of epidemic diseases in American and Global modern literature and digital narratives including Ebola, Cancer, and Pandemic Flu.