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.
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.” 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, 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.
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.