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?

fine

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.
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