What COVID tore down might never actually have stood. As classes moved from in-person to online delivery, many teachers lamented the loss of connection in the name of connectivity. We mourn the loss of face-to-face sessions in exchange for Zoom meetings. We longed for that special vibe we feel when sharing space with one another. Indeed, we miss that distinct sense of togetherness we get from classroom experiences and professional conferences alike. COVID helped us recognize that feeling through its sudden absence. We discovered how hard it is to feel connection and empathy with people separated by time, space, and the mediation of device screens.
But do we take full advantage of that opportunity for togetherness even when we share space? Do we work within our classrooms to build community, or do we squander those chances? All too often, students and instructors see shared slide decks as equivalent replacements for class attendance. Too often, we define “class participation” by what students do for their instructors, not for one another. And far too often, we hear that a meeting, a conference keynote, or a class lecture delivered via Zoom is functionally equivalent to that same thing offered in-person. Yet we all know they are not the same. We lose something when we connect virtually.
That is, unless we design our spaces correctly. Empathy—the ability to cognitively register or affectively feel the emotions of others—provides a helpful touchstone for assessing our engagement with students. I will present ways to emphasize empathy and hone our attention to be more in-tune with the students in our classes regardless of modality. I will address:
- Distinguishing cognitive versus affective empathy
- Listening with our whole selves
- Empathizing in physical and virtual spaces alike
- Ways empathy changes—and possibly saves—education.
Cognitive Versus Affective Empathy
How we care about other people might affect us more than it affects others. Citing Batson, Early, and Salvarini (1997), Lamm, Batson, and Decety (2003) tell us that “imagining how another person feels and [imagining] how [ourselves] would feel in a particular situation require different forms of perspective-taking that likely carry different emotional consequences” (p. 43). They go on to say that imagining how another person feels—called cognitive empathy—“may evoke empathic concern (defined as an other-oriented response congruent with the perceived distress of the person in need)” (p. 43). But imagining how we would feel in the same situation—called affective empathy—“induces both empathic concern and personal distress (e. a self-oriented aversive emotional response)” (p. 43). If we’re trying to help care for/about students and colleagues, the last thing we want to do is get ourselves in a position where we, too, need help.
What we need here is that good ol’ elusive, mythical “objective distance”. We need to be aware of the condition of our subject without letting it affect us. As one who has lived more than four decades with a heightened sense of empathy, I’ll just say: good luck. It takes work and intention to be able to discern another’s feelings without adopting those feelings ourselves. A little self-awareness here goes a long way. As Lamm, Batson, and Decety say, “being aware of one’s own emotions and feelings enables us to reflect on them” (p. 43). They specifically identify the detached observer position as helping to reduce empathic over-arousal. That position, they argue, is the key trick psychotherapists use to avoid suffering as their clients do.
Cognitive empathy allows us to identify and react to the emotional needs of others without adversely affecting our own emotional state. In a classroom situation, this can take a number of forms. One common form is the simple “How’s everyone doing?” before starting class. Honest attention to the responses can help us adapt our approach, pacing, and intensity to suit the needs of students. I recall a recent class session where every response I heard was some form of “I’m struggling.” Whether due to lack of sleep or too many deadlines or something, students knew they weren’t at their best. By acknowledging and honoring that in class, I was able to take a slower, less-intense approach to the day’s activity. The reduced intensity allowed us to make progress in a way that resonated with the current needs of the students. We had great conversation, they thought through some challenging material, and they felt respected and heard. Rather than losing anything by reducing my pace, I actually gained student buy-in. The lessons they learned that day stuck with them because they had the capacity to process the material. By using cognitive empathy, I adapted my practice without dragging myself onto the struggle bus with the students.
Many years ago, pedagogue Jesse Stommel offered one of my most cherished compliments. He said that I “listen with my whole self”—I engage intentionally with people and do far more than hear their words. I attend to tone, affect, body language, and expression with apparently unusual intensity and focus. As a consequence of this attention, noisy rooms, televisions on in the background, or passing hallway conversations through open office doors easily distract me. My colleagues doubtless feel surprise when catching a glimpse of me without my noise-canceling headphones. Sound is my kryptonite, and that’s why I’m fascinated by how it’s used rhetorically and academically.
Calling it “kryptonite” is not hyperbole. Sound possesses superpowers making it difficult to ignore. Sound:
- initiates attention from vast distance and any direction
- enters our awareness through organs we cannot close
- indicates action or life through vibration
- highlights immediacy through ephemerality
I would obviously love to unpack each of those, but I’ll play the “beyond the scope of this paper” card and spare you the details. Suffice it to say, we get a lot of information through sound. For the curious, I recommend exploring Karpf (2006), Schlichter (2011), Halbritter and Lindquist (2018), and the work of Erin Anderson or Crystal VanKooten. In short, the sound of our voices provides a wealth of affective information we lose when we rely solely on visual writing. We’ve each experienced the benefits of that extra affective information when listening to someone read something they were really engaged in. We’ve suffered through that additional affective information when listening to someone read material they didn’t quite grasp. And those of us who read with our ears value the added depth and richness of a well-produced audiobook.
We’re now at a “but wait, there’s more” moment. Voices convey rich affective information, sure. But we also need to consider facial expression, posture, and all the other nonverbal cues we pick up on but rarely discuss. Note to self—and to my department’s curriculum-committee representative currently chairing this panel—we need to teach embodied rhetorics. But I digress. With all this information available while we listen, we can do better than hearing what a speaker says. I challenge us all to attend instead to what a speaker intends. In contentious committee meetings, I often listened while one person misinterprets another. I step in, tell the speaker what the listener heard, tell the listener what the speaker intended, and sit back. They both re-assess the discussion and consider the other’s perspective. All too often, perspectives cloud our ability to hear what others mean. We think through the lenses of our own agendas. People usually maintain a consistent perspective until they say otherwise. We should listen—with our whole selves and with all the available information—to grasp their actual intentions.
Empathy in Physical and Virtual Spaces
We’ve established the value of rich nonverbal information and auditory depth that assumes face-to-face interaction. Now let’s look at the challenge of empathy in online spaces. Figuring out ways to sense and respond to emotional needs online can be extremely challenging. The solutions are far from obvious because we implicitly expect students to care for themselves when in their own spaces. When our engagement with others is mediated through screens, it becomes far too easy to stop caring. When’s the last time you cared about the feelings of your smartphone?
I propose a way of reframing distance education that makes attending to empathy far more straightforward. Remember that online learning takes place in virtual spaces. By emphasizing the persistence of space in online environments, we remember that, even when we see students as names on a list or text on a screen, they experience our class as an embodied reality in some physical environment. We must take students’ embodied realities into account if we want to meet students where they are. No student exists on our screens. Our classes happen in their homes, their dorms, their coffee shops, or their cars while driving from one job to another.
Empathy Across Spaces
For online classes, let’s reframe the notion of “attendance” into a matter of “attending to”. That broader, more flexible definition, then, helps inform our perception of on-ground instruction, too. For a student in one of my classes this week, our class took place in the NICU. When a student attends to a class from the NICU, that class exists in a complex, embedded, embodied context that requires special accommodations. The student was distracted, and rightfully so. None of us teaches a class that’s more important than what that student was doing in the hospital. During our video conference, I reminded the student of her priorities, and she was relieved when I extended grace to her. She expected—because our education system has trained her to expect—an adherence to deadlines, inflexibility, and rigor. I could say I “gave her permission” to attend to her child instead of my class. But that permission is not mine to control. The debate here is actually whether I accept the relative insignificance of my class in light of the rest of her life. If any of us gave birth mid-semester, we’d be out the rest of the term on parental leave. Yet the institution expects that this student will keep on keeping on. She joined a video call while in the hospital just to keep up. Our normal priorities are a mess.
Solution 1: Take Stock
I propose a different approach. We should ask students to take stock of their spaces, their environments, their moods, and their needs. In an on-ground, 4:30p class, bringing a snack helps students keep hunger at bay and stay focused through our discussions. Online students must likewise address their bodily needs before attending to the mental activities of class. Yet we rarely acknowledge those needs when we meet virtually. When’s the last time you asked online students to check in with their mental state like you ask an in-person class how they’re doing at the start of each session? We should routinely ask online students to pause and think about their physical spaces, the digital spaces in which your class operates, and their own affect as it changes throughout the class. This sounds like adding extra work for everyone, but it’s actually recovering from a deficiency inherent in online spaces. Indeed, the most nefarious aspect of online learning is the insidious suggestion that algorithms can replace teachers because learning happens predictably and individually. Albert Bandura is turning in his grave. Yet who knows how much money venture capitalists spend seeking the next great tool to program teachers out of the equation.
Solution 2: Be Humane
Speaking of teachers, we too much be more self-aware. Let’s face it: We make the worst students. When’s the last time you submitted something before the deadline? Read all the materials before a meeting or professional-development session? Fully engaged a meeting without browsing the web or checking up on email? Wrote a conference talk before getting on the plane heading to the conference? We rarely do everything we’re supposed to do, and we rarely attend to everything we’re supposed to process. So why do we ask more of students? When I get a reading list, I pick and choose. I skim and scan. I rarely read all of the material. Thus, when I assign readings to students, I expect them to pick, choose, skim, and scan. I give them guidance on how to choose, what to skim, and how to find the relevance. I’m not lowering my standards—I’m being honest. When I teach at DHSI, I start from the understanding that everything about the seminar is optional. People will only do as much as they have the capacity to do. I can either fight that reality—ending in frustration or futility—or accept it—generating grace and resilience. The daily activity checklists for my course open with an acknowledgement that no one can do everything at DHSI, and that goes for our class, as well.
Saving Education with Empathy
These days, it seems we try to automate everything, including student essays. (No, ChatGPT did not write this talk.) Silicon Valley, once it finds its money again, will keep looking for ways to algorithmically solve all our problems, including education. Granted, this problem isn’t new. (See Teaching Machines by Audrey Watters for a great review of how technology has long claimed to be the salvation of education.) But if we want to stay relevant, help students, and—hell—save our society, we need to emphasize connection. Specifically, the connections we lost long before COVID taught us how to “pivot” like some pedagogical snow-globe ballerina.
Take the time to connect with students, meeting them where they are both physically and emotionally. Check in with their needs, with your feelings, and with the spaces you occupy. Remember—always remember—that we’re all human. We can engage with material and with one another in deep and meaningful ways, but only when we have the capacity for care.
Education exists to help students become better versions of themselves. We want students to become life-long learners driven by genuine curiosity and the desire to construct meaningful knowledge. That all happens in real, physical spaces through real, embodied emotions. We must start by listening deeply to what our classes tell us. Only then can we connect with learners and help shape the future.
Overall, four strategies can establish the human connection we cherish as teachers, regardless of modality.
- Understand student feelings, but keep a distance. Distress avoidance starts with cognitive empathy.
- Attend to students’ needs and intentions. COVID taught us flexible pacing and negotiable intensity. Show grace to your whole class. Find the intention behind what students and colleagues say. Remember that perspective informs interpretation.
- Make space for learning, even online. Every activity, every idea, and every student exists in a physical space, regardless of course modality. Online courses should account for students’ spaces. On-ground courses must define socio-emotional spaces each meeting.
- Listen to the learners. If energy levels, social situations, or environmental factors limit attention, we must adapt. Meeting students where they are includes affective connections, as well as intellectual ones.