Empathy and Teaching

This post is in response to Michael Wesch’s posting about empathy and teaching, in his blog post titled Why Good Classes Fail.

More empathy in teaching and learning, yes!  Empathy has always been on my radar, perhaps because I’m a librarian—a public service as well as a teaching occupation. I can be pretty frustrated by a lack of empathy when I’m a customer.  A great professor in library school (“empathy is not sympathy!”) and Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind gave me a more intellectual appreciation of empathy.

Empathy is not being a friend or being nice or knowing a whole lot about another person or even spending a lot of time focusing on another person.  It’s a connection, it’s putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and adjusting your own behavior accordingly. For the length of any interaction, you are imaginatively and usefully open to the other person’s point of view.  Empathy can save time—I’ve seen plenty of librarian interactions with students that take way too long getting off the ground because the librarian isn’t really understanding the student’s situation.

Even in a big classroom you can demonstrate empathy with the students by the way you interact publicly with individual students or with the class as a whole.  I once took a class that covered some command-line software applications for GIS—it was horribly complicated and non-intuitive because it incorporated more primitive legacy systems and data structures, but as students we didn’t know that.  We were madly trying to grasp the necessary steps in one class session when the prof stepped back, looked at chalkboard, and said “What is up with all of that!”  He got that we were having a hard time with the process because it seemed so crazy to us, we were only familiar with software apps that worked way more simply.  That brief moment of acknowledgement and empathy made the whole class work better.  I think my library school professor’s analysis would have been that affective issues and cognitive apprehension are intertwined.

Empathy, in my opinion, is a form of social intelligence.  It’s something you can get better at, if you think it’s important, by observation and reflection.  Or you can improve your empathetic understanding by actually becoming more like the other person.  I need to understand students, so I take a lot of classes.  Consequently, I have the same visceral reactions as students do to the “power relationships” in the classroom. I know when the basic drill is to have the right answer ready when the prof wants discussion and to sit quietly when they don’t, participate in the activity du jour, and join in free-for-all class discussion regardless of whether any of it is really working.   It’s their lesson plan, after all.  Students are smart enough to know when a professor is not serious about trying to improve the class experience.  In a class where a lot of students might have plenty to say to the professor about how to improve the class, we just don’t.  A course in which the class time is not being used well, I think, goes into a downward spiral – the students distance themselves because they are disappointed.  With no hope of improving the situation, it becomes something to just get through.

The answer is not solely more techniques, more tactics, more “cognitively oriented” pedagogies.  Short of actually becoming students themselves, I think teachers can create structures in their class to diminish things about teacher and student roles that are not helping us.  For example, learning communities or project studio type classes work because everyone needs the contributions of everyone else.  It doesn’t mean that students know as much about the content domain.  That’s obvious.  These different learning structures help us learn to communicate with each other differently, help us work together transparently on the pedagogical and metacognitive levels.  There should be open and useful discussion about teaching and learning in a classroom, just as there has to be discussion among members of a project team about how things are going.  Again, it can’t be fake, with the teacher still presenting themselves as the expert at the front of the room, taking “input.”  If you want students to take charge of their learning, you can’t also be controlling everything.

This is an instructional design question that I think is being addressed beautifully by many practitioners (my early heroes in this area were Henry Jenkins, Don Marinelli, and Gardner Campbell, and more recently M. Wesch!).  So many classes that disappointed me have amazingly well-crafted syllabi, wonderful readings I would never have discovered on my own, and were beautifully sequenced to grow my understanding.  And then the class time itself felt like a waste – I sometimes wished the professor would just lecture!  I think it takes teamwork to design good class time.  Librarians, it might surprise you, often know a lot about what students don’t get because we see them in the “black box” time between when faculty give the assignment and the due date.  We interact with students in their informal learning time, when they are struggling even to understand the assignment.

You can tell from this post that I am not a fan of the anonymous semesterly “class evaluation.”  This, to me, only reinforces the weird notion that you have to criticize secretly because otherwise something bad will happen!  I think those kinds of evaluations are a form of high stakes assessment that can be gamed, can be ignored, and never teach us how to work together with mutual trust, how to collectively use reflection and criticism to solve problems and achieve improvements together.

I don’t think that changing class and learning structures is easy or that there are obvious right answers.  I once taught a project studio that got off on the wrong foot — I thought the students had some problematic behaviors and they clearly thought I was not helpful, in fact they treated me like a professor instead of a partner.  I didn’t have the confidence that I could facilitate a good communication, a transparent discussion on our mutual pedagogical and metacognitive issues that would help resolve problems.  It was risky.  What if things didn’t go well?  What would that mean for the students, for me as an instructor?  So I did nothing and the course became something we were all just trying to get through.  All our good intentions as teachers are not going to make change unless we can ensure that the basic framework is understood and supported by the people we are administratively accountable to.  Courage, yes; martyrdom, no.

Still, short of a revolution in higher education, I think there are many things we can do to help empathy flourish – I’ve suggested learning communities as structures that can help us change up our student/teacher roles, and also the idea of teachers becoming more like students, and I’m keenly interested in what else people are trying and doing.

–Karrie Peterson

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