A Pedagogy of Care

As I have mentioned, I think pubic speaking provides a somewhat unique platform for engaging with different people in all of their complexity, especially in the classroom. As you have shown throughout the semester, it is powerful to listen to your fellow students, in all of their vulnerability, eloquently share some of what is really important to them. Those kind of honest and intimate moments, even when they are defined by disagreement, offer the possibility for a genuine kind of listening and community that is vital to both the educational and democratic experience. At the same time, it is very ephemeral experience of community. I am only too aware of how limited that experience is and how hard it is to translate the kind of wisdom and openness you have offered in class this semester into sustainable practices of community. The classroom is very different kind of place than the outside world. All of you will move on to other things when the semester ends. Our competing obligation will pull us in different directions. And the habits of the past will continue to shape our future conditions. In saying that, I want to underline the way that you and my other public speaking students have profoundly shaped how I understand the world. How I understand Colgate. How I understand myself. It is a pleasure to have been able, in the limited way that a class allows, to experience some of the complexity of your lives and to see some of the quality of your character. I am fortunate to see hints of your remarkable potential, even as you, and I, reflect the fallibility of the human condition.

Part of the wisdom you have shared is the value of empathy, understanding, compassion, care. Many times you spoke about wanting to be treated with respect, for us to recognize your fundamental dignity and value. You have spoken about the dangers of judgment, stereotyping, putting people in a box, thus undermining the particularity of their identity. You have sought to resist social expectations, even as you have revealed the powerful ways in which you are defined by those expectations. You have shown the ways our lives our intricately tied together, in ways that both empower and disempower us. In lots of ways, our struggles and hardships would be alleviated by those around us being willing to genuinely listen, to engage, and to empathize.

I have some reading below that seek to expand on the comments about the value of empathy that you have shared in your speeches. As we end the semester, I want us to reflect on the possibility for taking the lessons we have learned from each other beyond the classroom. What does empathy mean to you? How do we create sustainable practices of empathy/care? What can we practically do to create an environment that encourages vulnerability, respect, and listening wherever we find ourselves? How can we learn to be more aware, more inclusive, more reflective of the power have over others? I think the reading offer us some valuable tips. It also complicate the way we think about empathy. I would encourage you to carefully read the sources I have included below. I would then ask you to share some of your thoughts about the way can habituated practices of empathy/care. Feel free to share specifics of things that you are doing/will do to be a a source of community wherever you might find yourself.

How to Be More Empathetic

How to Build Empathy

Some Thoughts on Pedagogy and the Problem of Empathy

The material below comes from the “Problem of Empathy” piece (I left out the works cited list in order to shorten the reading).

Last week, my provost asked me about the research on “empathy” in teaching and learning. He’s interested-as I am-in how my university can improve student success, become more inclusive, and create a climate in which all of our students may learn in meaningful and powerful ways. Any faculty developer would love to be having these conversations with their chief academic officers, and to see administrative support for these objectives. Therefore, I’m quite happy for the opportunity to dive into the research in this area; I’m familiar with some of it, but I know I have a lot to learn. So I tweeted out a query:

And, wow, did y’all respond! I received a bunch of great references and suggestions, which I have compiled below this post for anyone to use as they wish.

I think it’s worth noting, however, that many of these resources don’t use the exact term “empathy” to frame their research or arguments. “Care,” “compassion,””understanding,” or several other terms proliferate, but empathy appears to be a somewhat malleable concept. And that actually affirmed some of the reservations I’ve held about the concept. Of late, it seems, “empathy” is an affect we are constantly enjoined to display, to the point where it almost seems like it’s a synonym for “be nice” or “stop with all this yelling.” In the same fashion that “civility” really means “docility” in the hands of the pundit class, so too is “empathy” deployed in hopes of just making all this unpleasantness simply go away. Have some empathy for those who don’t agree with you (and maybe I won’t get yelled at because of who I voted for) the Extreme Center tells us. Therein lies one of the dangers inherent in using “empathy” as a focus for our pedagogy: it is so malleable as to lose any significant meaning and thus become all things to all people. “Teaching with empathy” thus becomes merely the latest feel-good pedagogy to be sliced up into pithy quotes on edu-twitter. Hashtag ‘inspired.’

Specifically defined, empathy is a much more circumscribed concept. In the time-honored tradition of undergraduate essay introductions, let me present Merriam-Webster’s definition of the term:

1: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this
2: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
.

I’ve written about how, in this sense, empathy can be useful for students of History:

I still think this is an important habit of mind for historians to utilize, but one that must be cultivated with an intentional awareness of the pitfalls inherent in conflating empathy and sympathy (or agreement). But as a larger value, one that asks to become our pedagogical praxis, empathy (as opposed to this more particular “historical empathy”) is laden with some significant problems.

As it’s most commonly deployed, empathy insists that we must see ourselves reflected in others in order for them to be accorded basic legitimacy. Jade Davis goes to the heart of the matter in her critical examination of empathy: “If the only version of an other a person an individual able to see is the one they can imagine and feel inside of themselves,” she argues, “many others will always be invisible or less than human, no more than a passing curiosity.” She continues: “Feelings are fickle and easily changed when trying to connect to the unrecognizable through avatars of the self. Empathy is already its own failure because it is the embodiment of a colonial sentimentality based on missionary thinking.” Empathy, for Davis, is an obstacle to decolonization, and thus confounds rather than promotes any emancipatory practice. Those of us committed to education as freedom and liberation need to sit with this assessment for a good long while.

We cannot escape the fact that the post-2016 political climate has served to place empathy (or, more accurately, the apparent lack thereof) in the forefront of our public discourse. The heartlessness of the ruling junta’s policies, from banning Muslims to stealing babies at the border, is written in every one of its endeavors. And one response to this stunning display of callous indifference to people’s basic humanity is to urge a greater effort toward “empathy.” It hasn’t taken very much for these calls to turn into a full-blown efflorescence of empathy-as-panacea discourse.  Many people want things to “be like they were” politically, but don’t recollect that for many others, things now are very much like they always have been. Instead, they lament some bygone age of empathy, and if we could only return to that magical time when everyone had a willingness to walk in someone else’s shoes, they say, everything would be better. Well, that sounds a little too much like “make America great again” to me-a childishly simplified reading of a fairy-tale past. In this usage, which I would argue is the prevalent one for our particular moment, empathy does exactly what Davis warned us about: it sublimates others to our own (heavily-idealized) sense of self. It is a declaration that another must be legible to us in order to be human, a declaration no less powerful for its being implicit or couched in noble intent.

So how do we avoid this “empathy trap?” How do we embody a pedagogy centered in recognizing and affirming the other without narcissistically demanding that they only reflect our own selves? One way forward, I think, lies in being more direct about what we’re really seeking. Returning to the point I noted above, much of the work on teaching with “empathy” actually deploys other language; in particular, it utilizes terms like “compassion,” “understanding,” or “care.” I think that’s telling. For example, one of the foundational works in this area is Nel Nodding’s 1984 book Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Early on, Noddings tackles the idea of “empathy” as something that creates “care” (the act of “feeling with” on the part of subject toward object.  She writes:

When this occurs, Noddings concludes, “Quite simply, I shall never again be completely without regard for [them]…I am now prepared to care wheras previously I was not.”[1] This very type of receptivity, this implicit refusal to project oneself into every other context and instead create a radical sense of openness, is an ideal foundation for a pedagogy that can make teaching and learning truly emancipatory.

This joint-seeing and mutual experience-not owned but borrowed-is at the heart of what higher education should offer for all learners. When Paulo Freire declared that a critical consciousness is the sine qua non of a meaningful education, and that this critical consciousness would enable students to actively intervene in their own reality,[2] I think this is what he was talking about. To be critically conscious, one must realize that they are part of an interconnected world-that events, ideas, and people do not exist in a vacuum. In order to do this, students must be able to do more than “put themselves in someone else’s shoes.” They-we!-need to become radically open to the other and the other’s experience without demanding that they see themselves reflected in it. That is the type of pedagogical work we should strive to do.

For these reasons, I think it’s more fruitful to advocate for a pedagogy of care rather than a pedagogy of empathy, given the problematic baggage we’d have to carry with the latter. Even if we took pains to define “empathy” as closely as possible, then religiously stuck to that definition, we still cannot escape the vaguely narcissistic overtones and problematic self-centeredness with which the concept is easily-freighted.

It seems to me that a genuine, critically inclusive pedagogy strives for reception rather than appropriation, for radical openness rather than a quest for self-affirmation. If those are the goals we share, then it’s imperative we be mindful of the ways in which we frame our pedagogy. My own thought process has reached a place where “empathy” is too fraught a concept-especially in our current context-to entrust my pedagogical philosophy to. A pedagogy of care, on the other hand, welcomes students on their own terms, includes them for who they are, and-most importantly-commits us to doing the type of work to maintain that climate and approach.[3]

Seeing others as full and complicated human beings should not require their resonance with some part of our own selves. We don’t need to become them, or think that they could become us. We simply need to care.

26 thoughts on “A Pedagogy of Care

  1. I agree with Professor Solomon and that while empathy is appealing in some regards, it also has some trouble when it comes to its use in daily life. For instance, while many of our speeches wanted the listeners to engage with our speeches, I don’t think many of us actually wanted empathy, but rather just attention and care for our stories. The standard “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” is an example of employing empathy, but this can be dangerous considering we often put ourselves in these other pairs of shoes, but only for a brief moment in time, and have not been in that person’s various pairs of shoes all of his or her life, so we cannot truly know what a certain experience is like from the other person’s perspective. I do think, however, that being able to understand where someone is coming from in terms of his or her perspective is important, but it is also critical to understand that while we may have a general gist of the situation/experience/background, it is impossible for us to understand what the experience or story is actually like. I think of a particular example in which I remember being told that when someone who is depressed tells you about his/her experiences with depression, you shouldn’t say something like “Yeah, I get that” or “I totally understand what that’s like” because on the outside none of us know exactly what someone is going through and can’t ever know. We can only get the gist of it. Now this isn’t to say that we can just write off other’s experiences and not care since we don’t really know and can only imagine because I think that this is where care comes into play. As long as we care for others and listen to their stories/perspectives, only then are we actually making a difference. Pretending to know or understand someone’s experience is incorrect, but caring for someone or caring about someone’s experiences is a step in the right direction towards showing compassion and being able to improve the community as a whole. Next time someone says that they are having a rough day, don’t simply say “Yeah, that sucks, I get it. We all have those days.” Instead, care for them and ask them what is going on in their lives and what you can do to help improve theirs.

  2. I think that the topic of empathy can be a very slippery slope, that is, when we try to understand someone else’s experiences and emotions it can often have selfish motivations. I agree with a lot of what was said in the “Problem of Empathy” piece. When trying to understanding what someone else has gone through or has felt, we often reflect it through our own self and what we have experienced, trying to find something similar to it that we have gone through in order to comprehend it. But like I said before, this is inherently a very selfish act in which we tend to reflect things through ourselves and lose the purpose of actually doing it for the right reasons . Therefore, to me, empathy is proactively stepping into someone else’s shoes and experiencing what they have been going through. More often than not, we usually hear someones perspective and reply with “I totally get it” or with a seemingly unrelated story that we think is similar. As such, I believe it is important to have that physical and emotional experience by taking our own perspective out and putting someone else’s perspective in. This can be a difficult thing to actually put into practice. I think that it requires, care, time and good intentions. This could practically be done by reaching out of your comfort zone. Talk to the person, listen to them and actively try to participate in what they are feeling in. In a world of so many conflicting views and opinions, it can become difficult to practice genuine empathy when many people do not know how to or just simply do not care. The way in which we discuss empathy with others through academic and social settings must also be edited to have a less self-motivated agenda but rather a genuine and humanitarian agenda.

    During this spring break, I visited one of my friends in California. I stayed in her house, had the opportunity to interact with her family and friends from home, and live the life she lives on the West Coast. This was very different for me as I am from the East Coast. However, when her and I discuss any issues or conflicts we are having at home with our family or friends, I truly do feel as though I can empathize with her situation as I really have experienced it. I know that gaining empathy is not always this simple but when we have the opportunity to do so, I think it is critical we take it.

  3. I think that some parts of the NY times article are important such as “realizing that a speech is not about you” and “to remember that you don’t need to understand everything about someone to make them feel respected,” however found other parts to be extremely simplistic. For example, I don’t think that teaching children to fight stereotypes is magically going to solve discrimination. It may help, but it certainly won’t solve it. I also found the tips the article gives for hard conversations such as “learn to be quiet” as questionable because everyone is different and has different preferences for how they want to be supported. Some people need to be told things will get better but others may want someone to listen to them. Similar to what Colton said, I do not like when people say they can relate to things they have not experienced. I also do not like when people feel the need to “one up” me with why their life is more difficult than mine when I am opening up my difficulties to them. I think this is hard because while offering empathy it is natural for us to want to tell people that “everything will be okay” or “things will get better” since that is what we are told as children. That said, I agree with Professor Solomon that offering care is better because it is universally more welcoming.

  4. The fact that empathy is a natural brain function that we are gifted with in the early stages of our cognitive development is very fascinating to me. I think that this is what sets us part from most other species on this planet. It also is a sign of how much the human race has developed and is an indicator of how we have evolved to be dependent on one another. I enjoyed reading how to develop empathy in young students by nurturing their capability to care about others and generate understanding in regards to the hardships that others face in their everyday lives. I find myself wonder, however, why do we have this inherent capability to feel empathy for others? It doesn’t seem like an ability that we would just naturally have. Obviously, and this is made clear by some of what is written in the articles, there are people who do not have the ability to empathize with other people. Or, maybe it is not so much that they lack the ability altogether, but that they never really learned to develop this ability at a young age. Personally, I feel as though I have a very strong understanding of what it means to be socially aware, and with that comes the ability to empathize with others. While I truly do believe empathy is extremely important in having healthy interpersonal relationships and is an overall positive characteristic, I still find myself fascinated by it. It doesn’t seem to make sense that at a species that evolves through natural selection as a result of competition would have the need to have empathy for others. This seems almost counterintuitive, yet we have developed the complex ability to empathize, care, and understand those around us. I think that our ability to empathize with one another is an indicator of just how much human beings need one another and how necessary it is for us to be social in order to survive in a healthy and sane manner.

  5. Until reading this posts and having our discussions in class, I have never given much thought about empathy. I knew the definition and consider myself reasonably empathetic, but that is as far as I have gone with the concept. The last couple of sentences, “Seeing others as full and complicated human beings should not require their resonance with some part of our own selves. We don’t need to become them, or think that they could become us. We simply need to care,” made me start to wonder if empathy for others is truly the answer for bringing people closer together. I don’t think the old concept of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a bad thing. For some people, that is the first step in making an effort to gaining an understanding of another person’s perspective, but it should not stop there. If I can make sense of something in my head, then I can proceed to care about it or assign the necessary emotions/thinking processes toward it. This is what empathy means to me. If the points are logical, even if I don’t agree with what is being said I can at least try to understand where the other person is coming from.

    In terms of creating sustainable practices of empathy and care, I think the first step is having respect for each other. If you care about something you’re not going to intentionally disrespect it. In a classroom environment, I think that making everyone feel welcomed and that they belong makes a huge difference in classroom dynamics, so I was not surprised about reading the benefits of empathy in one of the articles that was posted. Additionally, students getting to know each other in class is extremely important especially when discussion topics get more serious and controversial. The higher the institution of learning, the less that is being stressed which is unfortunate. Speaking for myself, I would not say half of the things that I say in class or even being open to the idea of being vulnerable in front of other if I did not get to interact with everyone and get to know them better through their speeches. Even though things have been said that I don’t agree with because I got to see other sides of them as a person that stops me from completely dismissing altogether. I think these things are important for creating a space for people to care about each other.

  6. I found the “How To Be More Empathetic” piece to be extremely interesting. Specifically, how the author encouraged us to talk to new people in our daily lives. This is something that I can relate to as talking to new people is something I try to do throughout my own daily life. I think it is important, as an athlete here at Colgate, to not let myself get trapped in the “athletic bubble” that athletics can create. For example, it would be easy to stick to only associating yourself with people on your team/sport. I believe it’s important to break out of the bubble, branch out and meet new people with the hopes to spark a new friendship and learn more about them. I think when it comes to empathy, respecting people is what is crucial. I feel although we may not be able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we can always listen to them, respect them, and learn more about them. I feel this is how I can grow as person and learn more about what is going on around us, in such a diverse world with many different religions, race, and political perspectives.

  7. I think the issue that comes with empathy is that at times it seems to be temporary by “putting yourself in someone’s shoes”. Instead of being caring for the long term, empathy offers emphasizes the notion of being momentary. I vividly remember learning the differences between sympathy and empathy when I was a child. They taught us that empathy was trying to feel the emotions/experiences of people around us and being compassionate for whatever it was they were going through. I think that this could have been pushed further by emphasizing that we should be loving and nice to everyone around us and truly listen to their perspective and life experiences.

    I really think that being at Colgate has pushed me to be even more empathetic and compassionate to the new people I meet. Due to the small class size here I feel like I have the opportunity to get to know people on a deeper level, therefore learning vulnerable things about them. That being said, I have learned about the various struggles my peers have been through and experience on a daily basis. In the end I truly think that compassion and love are the key to a happy world. By being open to other people’s stories and their experiences, we can be humbled and become better individuals as a result. I think it all comes down to listening and really open our ears to those around us.

  8. I think the true importance of empathy comes from the act of gaining the information necessary to attempt to be empathetic in the first place. By this I mean that the most important thing we can do to help someone is listen to their problems, listen to their story about how they ended up in the situation they currently find themselves in. Its illogical to believe that you will be able to truly empathise with every person’s problem. People can have such different stories and experiences, but if you truly listen to them you will be able to at least get the gist of what the person is going through and either offer advice or comfort, again depending on the situation. If everyone thought of empathy in this light, that it is more about listening to the stories of others than just trying to put yourself into their shoes, I believe fewer problems would arise. People would then more fully understand the problem and therefore would be able to comfort or empathise with that person as best they can.

  9. I agree that empathy has a potential to apply your own thinking to someone else’s experience and as a result change the way they see it, but I think that realistically empathy is the strongest way for someone to actually care for another person’s experience. You can tell someone all you want that they should care about another person’s problems, but that care will not be genuine or deep unless a person can understand the feelings accompanied with a situation, which is empathy. I think maybe empathy should be altered a little bit from assuming how you would feel in someone else’s situation to listening to how that person describes his or her feelings and then imagining how those feelings would feel. In that way it isn’t assumed empathy, it’s empathy with thought.

  10. I strongly agree with Paulo Freire’s idea of critical consciousness (“one must realize that they are part of an interconnected world-that events, ideas, and people do not exist in a vacuum”). I think so much of empathy revolves around being able to be critical and understand your role in events/other lives as a whole. I think even being able to be critical of yourself is a struggle in itself for those who don’t grow up doing so. Empathy is one of those things that is determined so much by your upbringing but is something that is difficult to teach. Especially, I think it’s tough because people can gain empathy through having tough experiences themselves which obviously you can’t want for your child. For example, if your kid is bullied, treated poorly, etc. just knowing what that feels like makes them less likely to subject anyone else to such. I think having a diversity of experience leads people to get out of the bubble they too often subject themselves to and understand the role they play in a bigger picture. I also lied the second definition given in the last source “2: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.” Because I think it goes underrated how much imagination plays a role and how important imagining someone else life and putting yourself in their shoes can be. Lastly, when I think of my own experiences my mind immediately goes to one of my favorite classes in high school: “African History.” It was one of those classes I had no idea what I was signing up for, but in taking I realized all the misconceptions I had had. It’s things like my service trip to Thailand sophomore year that I would’ve never though of as bad which it wasn’t exactly, but unintentionally it led to me endorsing a one dimensional pitiful and helpless view of less developed countries.

  11. This semester I have had the privilege of being in both Public Speaking and Sociology of Gender, a class dedicated to highlighting care work and the culture of care in our society. In Public Speaking, we have learned the importance of empathy first hand, hearing our peers evocatively tell their truths and experiences, and in Sociology of Gender I have learned the systemic issues with the culture of care–namely, the ways in which we have a care deficit because of the culture of work, leading to people having to outsource care–so I have been able to see these issues from both sides. This has been an enlightening experience for me, especially as I transition outside the classroom into the real world. I think the classroom can be an incredible space to learn from your peers, but that this aspect is not utilized enough; this is one of the only classes where I feel like people who didn’t know me actually got to know me for who I am and not just my thoughts about the reading that we had done for homework. Something that my senior seminar implemented that I think would be an easy task to incorporate in classes at Colgate is a daily check-in. We went around and for 2-3 sentences just said how we are feeling–if we are stressed, tired, energetic, being bogged down by something or other. It was a way to explain that maybe these reasons were why you snapped at someone or aren’t participating in class.

    Which brings me to my next point–these readings made me think of the saying, “Hurt people hurt people.” In my family we say this a lot, trying to always remind ourselves to think of what the other person is going through that you cannot see on the surface. For instance, if the cashier at the coffee shop was not very helpful and responded to you rudely, maybe he/she is going through something (their child is sick, they had a bad altercation with their boss, they are not feeling well, etc.). It reminds us to not write people off as rude or a bad person, but rather give them the benefit of the doubt and try to take a walk in their shoes.

  12. I enjoyed reading the NYTimes article about how to be more empathetic in our lives. The first thing it says is to talk to new people. This is one my favorite things to do. I love to meet new people and talk to strangers everywhere I go. It’s part of the reasons I love traveling so much. It is nice to see that no matter where in the world you go, people have similar wants, needs, and struggles as you. We just want to feel liked and appreciated and be comfortable. It’s refreshing to find a joint thread of humanity anywhere in the world that you go and I always find that I always broaden my perspective to understand how certain people are feeling regarding their individual experiences.

    The phrase we grew up with was “put yourself in the other person’s shoes” and I think that’s a good motto to live by. I am generally pretty disappointed at this school how little care people have for the broader community and how they only care about their smaller groups. Especially as Kailey Tobin said in her class speech about the fragments of the community, especially in greek life, and how there is very little interaction between groups. I genuinely believe that many people in these groups do not care about me or others and it’s consistently frustrating having to be in a position that is trying to create community events and build a sense of trust and appreciation across groups, only to not have people show up. Very few people here think about other people’s experiences here and how their actions are perpetuating problems and toxicity across the board. In the Harvard educator article, they talk about “widening the circle of concern” which I feel like sums it up well. Our circles of concern are very narrow here and I hardly ever feel like this is a real community.

  13. Similar to the comments above, I also agree that empathy truly must be the epicenter of our political and social system in the United States — but most definitely is not. How can we hope for any sort of “democracy” or centralized political system in the United States when more and more of its citizens are feeling marginalized? Unfortunately, it feels like the every-growing sense of political polarization in the United States is making it even hard to talk about and try and find a solution. When did “empathy” get so politicized?
    What about just be a good person??
    That kick-back reaction that so many of us immediately feel when someone says something we disagree with needs to be immediately followed with a sense of self-awareness. Why did you react this way? What do you find so repulsive about whatever this person said or did? Where did you learn that from? I think the main way in which people in the United States are going to be able to extend their empathetic worldview is through self-awareness. The first step has to be getting to people to even TALK about how they feel, which seems to be getting progressively more difficult.
    I recognize that all of the above sounds pretty cynical, but I feel like there IS hope for human empathy. But the root of the problem is probably the current political climate in the United States that conditions us to judge so deeply.

  14. I struggle to find a place for empathy. As pointed out in the “Problem of Empathy” piece, it is an extremely malleable term that has come to mean both too little and too much. I do agree that we need to create more open environments to encourage judgement-free listening; however, I don’t know how much of a role empathy should play. I feel like people should feel heard, but beyond that I feel like this seldom translates into true feelings of empathy, or at least empathy how it has been commonly defined to me – the ability to care and understand for someone via a shared condition. I feel like we so seldom truly have shared conditions, and so utilizing empathy in this common way leads to more exclusive understanding, alienating those who care but are also different, rather than wholehearted openness.

    But I understand that my learned definition of empathy is not exactly what we are searching for, and therefore the colloquial interpretation must change if we are to build a pedagogy around it. If we view empathy as Nel Nodding’s idea of a shared receptivity creating care, I start to see more of a role for it. However, I agree with the “Problem of Empathy” piece that we should rather value a pedagogy of care. This releases the necessity of seeing yourself reflected in the discussion, and therefore leads to more active and understanding listening – exactly what we are missing in today’s society.

  15. I really do believe that more empathy can really help deconstruct bias, but only if the people involved are willing to have an open mind and really challenge their bias, which is not a common thing to occur. A really big part of empathy for me is looking beyond the surface and really understanding what motivates people to do what they are doing instead of judging the action in isolation. Trying to understand the person underneath and the societal issues and social bias that have caused this person to act and be portrayed as they are, are essential in understanding actions. Thus, people trying to immigrate into the United States are mostly likely doing so because something occurred at home that caused it to be unsafe and thus to protect themselves and their family, moving could be the only option. It is wrong to view people as “illegal aliens” simply because they are trying to protect their families. Most of us, when faced with similar situations, would do the same. Empathy is key here, understanding why someone acts how they do and understanding that you may act the same if you were placed in their shoes. I think the New York Times article has some interesting suggestions for building ones empathetic capacity, but it is easy for someone to justify to themselves that they are achieving those goals and more often than not people who need to work on their empathy will not be reading such articles. Learning empathy then is something done in person, not from an article with a checklist.

  16. From my four years at Colgate and in the U.S., an enigma that I struggled to understand is this: immigrant communities in the U.S. are some of the strongest advocates for stricter immigration and border control. But why? For the most part of my time at Colgate, I had a hypothesis that it’s only the people who have experienced injustice and/or discrimination themselves that can empathize with and support others. Clearly, my hypothesis was wrong. Then, what does it take people to be empathetic?

    To start, we have to check if we genuinely want everyone to be better off, in the grand scheme of humanity. Yes, what I just wrote sounds very grandiose, but I think it is at the heart of empathy. We are often confronted with a situation in which improving someone else’s situation means giving up some of our privilege. For example, if Colgate chooses to abolish Greek Life in an effort to address sexual violence, classism, and a myriad of other problems, people who are affiliated will lose their pie of Colgate’s social capital. It sucks that the size of pie is definite. But if we agree that we somehow have to reconfigure how to distribute the pie, do we really want others to take a bigger portion at the expense of ours?

    I think this is what’s at the heart of the enigma. Immigrant communities may 1) acknowledge that the amount of opportunities (portion of pie attributed to immigrants) in the U.S. society is definite and 2) fear that competition for the limited opportunities will exacerbate if there are more immigrants than now.

    So, in this peril of “definite pie,” how can we be more empathetic? I think the first step is to care about others, as some of the readings point out. We have to genuinely want people to live a better life than they do now. This may be a personal belief (religiously devout people tend to be better in caring for others) or an educated idea (from parents, school, media, etc.). Regardless of where “care” comes from, practicing care should be the first step to being empathetic.

  17. I have often been told that people feel comfortable in my presence (which is an amazing thing to say to someone who takes so much pride in that aspect of their personality). Despite the humble brag, I do find this to be true: the best way to create community is within oneself because if you can make other people feel comfortable then they will be more willing to open up in return.
    For me, the most important part of the Merriam-Webster definition of empathy is the bit about “understanding…the thoughts, experiences, and feelings of another.” It is impossible (in my opinion of course) to be empathetic towards someone’s identity — a culmination of thoughts, experiences, and feelings — without truly understanding where they are coming from.
    Essentially, I agree with 100% of the final sentence of this post.
    We do simply need to care.

  18. While I agree with the many steps the NYT articles outlines for being more emphatic I also take issue with the article. As we have learned through class, talking with people of identities and putting yourself in their places helps create empathy, but the checklist style that the article lays out rubs me the wrong way. I think too many times in our society today things become “checklists” on how to do this and that better. While the article is correct in the types of activities one can engage in to be more empathetic, there needs to be intention there. You can have a whole conversation with someone but never truly feel empathetic. As we have learned in class, it goes back to listening, and rather than trying to relate what they are saying back to you (empathy trap), ask questions, engage in their point of view, dig deeper.

    This class has not only allowed me to build empathy between the others in the class but taking it outside of Lathrop. Thinking to our political speech, I heavily discussed by differences between my father and I in our political ideologies. For the longest time I would get defensive and set up a barrier when he tried to explain his views, I never attempted to figure out why he might feel that way. Through the process of having to write that speech and comparing my experiences to my father’s I saw where my ideologies developed and began to understand how his developed. The next step is to hopefully have a tame political conversation at the dinner table that doesn’t erupt in yelling.

  19. Katelyn makes a great point–it is possible to follow the actions that should inspire empathy without ever actually feeling empathetic. Empathy is a natural brain function, I also think that being empathetic is much more active than we realize. Without a genuine interest in the other, true empathy can never be reached, regardless of the conversations had or actions taken.
    The classes that surrounded our political engagement demonstrated this. It was easy to have conversations that explored the opinions of others when we were forced to. Some people were genuinely interested in understanding why some people felt the way they did, while others completely wrote off any opposing opinions. The power of empathy became clear to me on speech days when someone had an opinion other than mine and thoroughly explained the experiences shaping their opinion. It was during these speeches that I realized the power of listening to understand, rather than listening to debate.
    This genuine interest is hard to teach. I am not sure what the most effective way to do so would be, but I think that diversity in close relationships is a good place to start. It is only when we are invested in another person that we really are genuinely empathetic. At some point, I think our interest branches out from those we are close to an interest in understanding the other in general; this is where I believe true empathy is reached.

  20. The New York Times article is a powerful road-map for how to be more empathetic and the importance of empathy in society. I believe Miller is right when declaring that increasingly, “we live in bubbles”. And I believe two of her recommendations for breaking out of these bubbles are key. First, and most importantly, is trying “out someone else’s life”. Simply put, you never know what others experience until you truly experience it for yourself. This includes religion, as Miller points out, as well as politics and other overarching ideals that others believe. This will allow you to approach someone else’s beliefs from understanding and fact rather than bias, stereotyping, and other harmful means.
    Secondly, talking “to new people” is important because it creates a dialogue that otherwise may never have existed. Talking to people about their political and religious beliefs, for example, makes you more educated and potentially understanding about society. As I argued in my political speech, there is not enough dialogue between parties at the moment, which is only increasing political tension on campus. Thus, speaking about politics will only help decrease tension, increase understanding, and make the campus a more welcoming place.

  21. I find the topic of empathy particularly interesting, because I admire people who are able to be deeply empathetic. The ability to connect to people on such a deep level is, in my opinion, not something that can really be learned, but rather something you are born with. There is a distinct difference between sympathy and empathy. I think it is much easier to sympathize with people, but actually putting yourself in another’s shoes and feeling their feelings is much more difficult. I think empathy is very important when discussing politics. Trying to put yourself in something else’s position, to understand how they feel and their needs in order to grasp their political views. For example, it is important to empathize with people who do not have the same advantages as you, so you can better understand them.

  22. I have usually thought of the words empathetic, caring, and kind as relating to people who have some sort of inherent goodness within themselves. After reading these pieces, I have since realized that this is not necessarily the case. Empathy is essentially, the realization that people have unique experiences that have shaped their personalities and perspectives on the world. The fundamental attribution error is the psychological phenomenon that says we overestimate the effect of one’s personality has on their actions as opposed to the situation. We see people and judge them on their actions, but don’t account for how their experiences caused those actions. It has been an evolutionary trait of ours that we use schemas, models for how things are supposed to work, which able to reduce the complexity of the world. The schemas however were not evolved for the current society we live in today, but for our hunter-gather ancestors tens of thousands of years ago. We use these schemas to make assumptions about people based on our experiences and assume their lives are similar to ours. Empathy is necessary to overcome this bias and allow people to fully grasp the reasons for ones’ feelings and views. In order to do so, it is not necessarily about whether you are stepping into their shoes, or accepting them into yourself. I believe it is as simple as learning about the experiences they have had and how that shaped them today. Depending on the situation, these experiences can be from their childhood or the just the morning of. Understanding this will allow you to see why they have the certain emotions opinions that they do and will create a more peaceful and compassionate place.

  23. I really enjoyed Kevin Gannon’s piece (“Some Thoughts on Pedagogy and the Problem of ‘Empathy’”) because of his conclusion that to see others as “full and complicated human beings should not require their resonance with some part of our own selves. We don’t need to become them, or think that they could become us. We simply need to care.” This challenged my previously held assumptions about how to be a “good” empathetic person and got me thinking that the creation of an empathetic environment is, perhaps, not what our ultimate end-goal should be. I think that we may be better to pursue an environment based on the embracing of diversity—where we acknowledge our uniqueness, our individuality, what makes us different—so we can protect that. I feel like we falsely associate focusing on our differences as bad and focusing on our similarities as good—focusing exclusively on our similarities creates a normative view of what is “good”, I think. Therefore, I think to create an environment that encourages vulnerability, respect, and listening, we should focus on what makes us “different” (to a certain extent, of course). By acknowledging, embracing, and respecting our individuality and building spaces safe for diversity, I think we can begin to create an inclusive environment where we can celebrate each other for what makes us unique.

  24. These three pieces offer interesting insights into what it means to be “empathetic” along with some of the issues around empathy. I found the “Some Thoughts on Pedagogy and the Problem of Empathy” interesting as it challenges the role and meaning of “empathy.” I feel as though this class has focused a lot on the importance of being empathetic and has allowed me to build empathy, however, similar to this article, it has also given me a clearer sense of the problem around empathy. I think Jade Davis explains this well stating that “feelings are fickle and easily changed when trying to connect to the unrecognizable though avatars of the self. Empathy is already its own failure because it is the embodiment of a colonial sentimentality based on missionary thinking.” This relates to what Professor Solomon has addressed in each speech we give; it is “easy” to feel empathy towards one another by hearing their stories, but in order to change our outlook, we must listen, care and understand for other individuals by not only being empathetic, but also by understanding one’s experiences, what has shaped them, and how they might differ from our own. One thing I have taken away from this class is how easy it is to have personal bias; humans inherently are biased based on one’s own identity, privileges, experiences and many other factors. This is why it is important to listen to others in order to understand their perspective and in order to learn more about your own perspective and the factors that shape them.

    This class has allowed me to challenge my own perspective more than I have had to both at Colgate and outside of Colgate. I have never pushed myself to challenge where my uncertainties with politics stems from, where my thoughts on religion stand or even why my 95 year old grandma might act or say the things she does. I have learned so much from my classmates by listening to them in efforts to understand their stories that have helped me think about my own story in a different light. As my time in the Colgate community withers, I will continue to be open to listening to others and challenging myself to understand those who differ from me. This could be on the subway, in the work place or even within my own family.

  25. I think the first article is too patronizing when discussing empathy. It talks about ‘visiting a developing country’ which is kind of just a nicer way of saying visit a third world country and pretend you can understand years of struggle with a single week long visit. I think that is not the idea of empathy, but rather of how to achieve some sort of mental justice. Empathy to me is a much simpler concept, and it simply involves listening. Empathy does not have to be grand, or trying to pretend you can understand a lifetime of experience, because you really can’t. Empathy is the ability to sit down and listen and not try to interject your own opinion or thoughts on the matter. This is something that the class exemplified well, one person got up to speak and share their thoughts and feelings about an experience in their life, and we all just sat and listened. It was in these moments that you could begin to understand how someone else felt, and it allowed you to connect that feeling whether it be pain or what have you, into your own life. That is what made these speeches profound and meaningful.

  26. I think that this class, and listening to my fellow classmates’ speeches have really emphasized the importance and meaning of empathy for me. Personally, I feel like empathy shouldn’t be passive, but an active engagement in the life experience or opinions shared by another person. And while that can be difficult especially if someone doesn’t agree with your opinion, I think it is critical to fostering an environment where everyone feels like they can share openly and honestly. I think in listening to the experiences of my classmates I have realized that the often lack of empathy that occurs on this campus can be due to surface level analyzation of each person and their identity and personality. However, our class environment was a place where I felt comfortable to share and I think others did as well. I think translating this idea of getting to know someone on a deeper level and really stepping into their shoes can enhance our empathy. I am not sure if I entirely agree with the first article’s idea that empathy can really be “taught” but I do think employing some of the ways to listen and learn from others that we used in this class could foster better empathy outside of this course.

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