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What we thought COVID tore down might never have actually stood. As classes moved from in-person to online delivery, many teachers lamented the loss of connection in the name of connectivity. We mourned 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 missed that distinct sense of togetherness we get from classroom experiences and professional conferences alike. COVID taught us to cherish the feeling of in-person connection by making us go without. We discovered how hard it is to share emotions and energies 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 act like shared slide decks posted to an LMS are equivalent replacements for attending a lecture. Too often, we define “class participation” by what students do for their instructors, not for one another. And far too often, we assert 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, right?
I want to challenge the notion that moving online means removing humanity. And I want to challenge the dichotomy of in-person connection and online connectivity. Overall, I want to talk about ways we can design our spaces, both physical and virtual, to foster empathy in our classes. With a little attention—and a lot of intention—it’s possible to create learning environments that offer rich interaction, emotional validation, and meaningful connection. I’m going to make an argument for what I like to call humane technology: tools, devices, and platforms that prioritize human interaction and genuine kindness over other seductions, like harvesting our money or our data. And as you’ve already guessed from the title of this talk, I argue that the crux of all these issues is empathy.
Let me begin with a couple steadfast academic moves: defining my terms and signposting. Brace yourselves.
Empathy—the ability to cognitively register or affectively feel the emotions of others—can help us assess and direct our engagement with others, especially people in our classes. I will discuss ways to emphasize empathy and hone our attention to be more in-tune with folks in our classes regardless of modality. I’m going to talk about these issues:
- Listening with the whole self,
- Distinguishing cognitive and affective empathy, and
- Connecting empathy and space.
Listening: Content-Focused & Intentional
Many years ago, when I co-taught the #CritPrax class here at DHSI with Jesse Stommel, he offered me a strange-sounding compliment. He said that I “listen with my whole self.” Jesse noted that I engage intently with people and do far more than hear their words. I attend to tone, affect, mood, expression, and intent with apparently unusual intensity and focus. I work to be utterly present and attuned to the feelings and mindset of the person I’m listening to. As a consequence of this multilayered and focused attention, I struggle with rooms filled with overlapping conversations, televisions on in the background, or passing hallway conversations through open office doors. My colleagues often express 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 specific characteristics that make it difficult for anyone to ignore. Sound:
- initiates attention from vast distance and from any direction
- enters our awareness through organs we cannot close
- indicates action or life through vibration
- foregrounds 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. But for the curious, I want to drop in some recommendations. You might consider exploring Anne Karpf’s 2006 book about the information conveyed by the human voice, Annette Schlichter’s 2011 article about the materiality and gender performativity of our voices, H Bump Halbritter & Julie Lindquist’s 2018 chapter about the rhetorical sleight of…ear?…that comes from audio editing, Erin Anderson’s work on material vocality in composition, or Crystal VanKooten’s work on audible authorial voice in aural storytelling. In short, the sound of our voices provides a wealth of affective information we lose when we rely solely on the print-based writing that’s so revered in academia. Pun intended here: Clearly, there’s a lot to talk about—and listen for—when it comes to our voices.
You intrinsically know why listening to the sound of a voice is important. We’ve each experienced the benefits of that extra affective information when listening to someone read something they were really engaged in. On the flip side, we’ve all suffered through that additional affective information when listening to someone read material they didn’t quite grasp. Each of us has had the experience of attending to affect. Most of us use that affective information to help us respond to and navigate social situations and everyday conversations. And those of us who read with our ears appreciate the added depth and richness of a well-produced audiobook or immersive podcast episode.
Scholarship in Sound
Back in 2021 I created an edited collection of articles originally published on the online journal Hybrid Pedagogy. The collection highlights the inherently political nature of teaching, from the technologies we adopt, to the choices we make in the classroom, to the effects of ballot boxes on education policy. I took a great deal of pride in arranging and typesetting the book, and I love how the articles play off each other to really complicate topics in a productive way.
But then I got an idea from Kyle Stedman, who made a podcast version of a great open-access book called Bad Ideas About Writing. For the podcast edition, Stedman asked each chapter’s author to read their own words. For those who opted not to contribute, Stedman read the chapters on their behalves. And let me tell you, Kyle’s a great reader. Single-handedly, he made the book dynamic. But when his voice became one of a chorus, the book came alive, with authors obviously getting snarky, passionate, concerned, and exasperated at all the best moments. Those voices allow readers to feel a connection with the person behind the words.
So I stole Kyle’s idea (he knows and approved, don’t worry) and created a podcast version of Hybrid Teaching. It’s basically a serialized audiobook where I read a few chapters, and lots of authors read their own words. When I listened to their recordings, I felt like I finally got how the text was supposed to work—I heard it the way the authors had imagined it. Having authors read their own work out loud helps convey their enthusiasm as well as their ideas, adding vitality to the text and connecting readers more completely. To all the publication editors in the audience, I challenge you to expand the reach and depth of your materials by producing audio versions. Imagine if we could subscribe to our discipline’s big-name journals as a podcast, hearing each new article as it came out. That would be amazing.
We’re now at the “but wait, there’s more” moment. Earlier, I mentioned the aural effects of good and bad readers, and I probably brought some specific examples to your mind. Sure, voices convey rich affective information. 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 any curriculum-committee representatives in the audience—we need to teach embodied rhetorics in our writing/comp classes. 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 listen instead to what a speaker intends. The increasing temperature of global political discourse makes this a critically urgent need. Hell, maybe your department meetings could use some cooling-off. I know I’ve seen my share of contentious committee meetings.
Speaking of which, I want to tell you about a little superpower I have. I often observe from the sidelines in meetings while one person misinterprets another. I notice that the listener’s facial expression doesn’t align with the reaction I knew (from their intention) that the speaker was going for. To put it crudely, I could tell the message didn’t get delivered correctly. So I step in, tell the speaker what the listener heard, tell the listener what the speaker intended. Then I sit back. They both re-assess the discussion and consider the other person’s perspective. Usually, within seconds, they both relax their expressions, nod their thanks to me, and continue the discussion with a far more productive and understanding tone.
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. I’ve found that when people encounter a difference of opinion, that difference usually persists until someone vocalizes an epiphany. Many misunderstandings stem from the assumption that someone has changed their perspective when they haven’t yet done so. Learning to attend to intent over content helps avoid misunderstandings and foster collaborative, productive conversations. By listening with our whole selves and with all the available information, we can grasp a speaker’s actual intentions.
Distinguishing: Affective & Cognitive Empathy
Now that I’ve discussed listening with our whole selves, let’s expand that a bit and talk about fully engaging emotionally. I want to start with some relevant personal disclosures.
Empathy in Overdrive
First, I’m what’s called a “highly sensitive person.” For the unfamiliar, it basically means a person whose sensory inputs are cranked up to eleven. We’re the people who go bonkers when we can feel the tags on our clothing. Or hear the ticking of a clock. Or see a flashing light in our periphery. You get the idea—we’re easily overwhelmed.
Highly Sensitive People
I’m no fan of the “highly sensitive” terminology, as it sounds like a reference to all the recent pejorative connotations of “snowflake”. And when the most famous fictional character fitting the “highly sensitive” description is the Princess and the Pea, well, you can see why it can lead to frustrating assumptions. It’s peculiarly bad for men because being highly sensitive means we’re an extreme version of something society tells us not to be in the first place. Elaine N. Aron has a 1997 book (revised in 2020) about HSPs that serves as a basic introduction, for anyone looking for a general overview.
Being a snowflake—I mean, HSP—myself, I’ve had a lifetime of experiencing and feeling things that can often go unnoticed by 60–80% of the population. The same sensitivity that allows me to easily moderate contentious department meetings also means when there’s tension in the room, I really feel it. HSPs are often natural experts at reading the mood of a room. To my fellow HSPs with this heightened sensitivity: Lean into it because it can help you tune in to what a class needs in the moment. But that sensitivity comes at a price—HSPs are also more likely to take on the feelings we sense and become overwhelmed by them. We, and other natural empaths, don’t need to be told to feel feelings; we need strategies for coping. Hold that thought.
For my next personal disclosure, I’m going to briefly rely on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI. Yes, I acknowledge how problematic and flawed the Myers-Briggs is. But I also see its value in conveying a basic concept here for a quick illustration. Bear with me. So the second fun little fact about me is this: Every man I’ve ever dated is an INTJ. For those unfamiliar, a person with an INTJ personality is introverted, quick to judge, and rational in their decision-making. I, on the other hand, am an INFP. So while I’m also introverted, I’m wildly accepting and highly emotional in my decision-making—as you’ve doubtless gathered already just from this talk.
By partnering with guys who process information differently, I get the benefit of a fresh perspective that’s often inaccessible to me. Folks with INTJ personalities have quick insights that help me understand situations and people’s actions cognitively and dispassionately. They have, essentially, an “objective distance” that can be a real struggle for me to obtain. INTJs don’t get as easily bound up in the emotional side of things, relying instead on the observable conditions and predictable consequences. Put bluntly, they have to think through what I just feel. That means I can quickly and easily help INTJ folks read and understand someone’s emotional state with what to them seems like near-magical insight. The downside to my approach is that I can become distracted or overwhelmed by the feelings I perceive in others.
I offer these oversimplified examples to highlight differences. These differences are between affective and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy involves imagining how it would feel to be in the situation someone else is in—and experiencing a shared feeling yourself. Cognitive empathy involves deducing how someone else feels based on outward evidence—but not feeling the feeling yourself. As you might imagine, there are risks and drawbacks to each approach, and not everyone is skilled at both kinds. I’m highlighting the distinctions here to make the case that everyone can experience empathy, everyone can use it effectively in the classroom, and some of us need to do so with caution.
How we care about other people might affect us more than it affects others. Lamm, Batson, and Decety have a 2003 article in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in which they explain 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 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, they warn, affective empathy “induces both empathic concern and personal distress (i.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. If you’re already in touch with your emotions, and you know that empathy is one of your strengths, this caution is for you. You can think of this part of my talk as preemptive self-care.
What empaths often need is that good ol’ elusive, mythical “objective distance”. We need to be aware of the condition of others without getting wrapped up in it ourselves. 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 taking that next teensy step and 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 work things through. Now I don’t know about you, but I recently endured yet another finals week. Empathic over-arousal happened every time I opened my email inbox. And now here I am, a self-proclaimed Highly Sensitive Person, giving a talk about empathy in education, telling others to distance themselves and feel less. Yeah. It’s for self-preservation. Folks who are naturally empathic don’t need lessons on how to feel more. They need permission to feel less.
The Power of Cognitive Empathy
To see how that might work, let’s look at the other extreme: cognitive empathy. For those of you who think you’re bad at “that whole empathy thing”, this is for you. In one of my classes this past semester, we had a conversation about the goals of education and everyone’s pedagogies. I asserted that a teacher’s primary goal should be to help students self-actualize. There were some thoughtful, nodding heads around the table. Then one student asked, “But what about psychopaths? Wouldn’t we kind of not want them to self-actualize?” My immediate reaction was fraught: I’ve read enough Freire, hooks, and Shore to believe in the ethical imperative of education to help people grow to become the best versions of themselves they can be, and I didn’t want to make an exception. I just couldn’t figure out how to convincingly argue my case.
Then it occurred to me: I’m friends with a psychopath. This friend of mine maxes out the scales of every test of psychopathy she’s taken. She simply lacks the capacity to register the feelings of others on any emotional level. Yet she’s an absolute delight, I promise you. Turns out, she completely agrees with me and says that self-actualization should definitely be the goal for psychopaths as well. While it’s no surprise she would want validation through education (or any other means), her reasons for agreeing with my stated goal help show how empathy can work for anyone.
First, she clarified an important distinction. Psychopathy is a condition making a person unable to feel what others feel, often leading to purely self-centered motivations for all their actions. We might think of these folks as asocial—not against others, but motivated apart from them. Sociopathy, by contrast, is a personality disorder making a person desire to cause harm to others. We think of these folks as antisocial—actively motivated against others and their social norms. Sociopathy requires intense treatment. Psychopathy simply benefits from clear instruction.
And what I learned from my friend is that a self-actualized psychopath is one who understands social rules and why following those rules is in the psychopath’s own best interests. In her words, “creating messes is inconvenient” for her. Her life is far simpler when she adheres to social norms, even when she might not appreciate or understand them. Once she learned that accruing social capital could benefit her down the line, she became a much more successful human and, honestly, a much better psychopath. Learning how to use social rules to get what she wants quite literally benefits everyone.
When I tell you my friend is an utter delight, I’m neither joking nor exaggerating. She’s magnetic and lovely to be around. And she’s really good at using those around her for her pleasure. She has mastered knowing what kinds of expressions are expected at what moments and what sorts of performances will ingratiate others toward her. As a result, she’s climbing some impressive social and corporate ladders with remarkable speed.
My friend does this by relying exclusively on cognitive empathy. To be clear, cognitive empathy is not some super-secret skillset possessed only by introverts or the emotionally hyper-aware. In fact, the situation is almost reversed, as those of us who operate on emotions can get distracted by them, making it tough for us to focus on the cognitive side of things. No, cognitive empathy as a skillset is perhaps more accessible to folks who think emotions just aren’t their thing. As an example, folks on the autism spectrum often learn to read specific, nuanced facial expressions and convert those data points into emotional assessments. By attending to outward signs, many of which are involuntary if not subconscious, people who struggle to sense emotions can deduce them with stunning accuracy.
Cognitive empathy allows people to identify and react to the emotional needs of others without adversely affecting their own emotional state. (I envy them that, truly.) In a classroom situation, this can take a number of forms. One common approach is adapting to how students respond to the simple “How’s everyone doing?” before starting a class session. Honest attention to the responses can help us adapt our approach, pacing, and intensity to suit the needs of students. As with so many things in education, we can model this process for students. By demonstrating vulnerability ourselves, we show that emotional honesty has value and that our classes respond to the needs of the its members. We should let students know when we’re having especially good or bad days. If I’m excited about something, leading with that helps students calibrate their expectations for my energy levels that day—and the enthusiasm can often be infectious. And if I let them know I’m distracted at the beginning of class or need them to provide more energy than usual to get us started I’m always amazed by the compassion students show.
Offering compassion in return makes a huge difference, too. I recall a class session last semester where every response I heard to “how are you” 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. Sure, we didn’t cover as much material, but that didn’t matter in the end. The reduced intensity allowed us to make progress in a way that resonated with the needs of the students in that moment. 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 along with the students.
Connecting: Physical & Non-Standardized
So far, we’ve been discussing empathy with a general assumption of face-to-face environments. 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? When you stare at these devices to connect, feelings can be harder to access.
In order to address this situation, I want to tackle two persistent myths in education, then offer two antidotes for enacting real empathy in all our classes.
Educational Myth #1: Virtualization
We often talk about “meeting students where they are.” But that phrase typically means we’re trying to work from the knowledge students already have—meeting them intellectually with what they know, more accurately. What would it mean to meet students physically where they actually are, especially in online classes? I propose a way of reframing distance education that makes attending to empathy far more straightforward: We must always remember that all learning takes place in real, physical spaces. By emphasizing the persistence of space even in online environments, we remember that, though we may see students as names on a list or as text on a screen, they experience our class within some physical environment.
We must take students’ embodied realities into account if we want to meet students where they are. No student exists only on our screens. Our classes happen in their homes, their dorms, their coffee shops, or their cars while driving from one job to another. Indeed, my #CritPrax class from DHSI last year happened in the mountains of Tibet. The minute I forgot that was the minute I left behind a student with very specific connectivity constraints. But the beauty of that arrangement was that she could bring the excitement and peace of her physical world into any of our class discussions—that student was present in the class in remarkable ways.
Distance Gets Local
Let me offer another personal example. Back in August 2021, I moved from Florida to New Jersey. (People used to say I did that backwards. People who read the news don’t say that anymore.) You know what also moved roughly from Florida to New Jersey in August 2021 one week later? Hurricane Henri. Most folks meet their neighbors with a backyard barbecue. I brought a climate event and three days of flash flooding. We joked that I hitched the hurricane to my moving van. But the irony gets even better/worse. Just a few weeks later, Hurricane Ida caused even more flooding and damage in New Jersey. The street I moved from in Florida was named Ida Street. You can’t make this stuff up.
(Side note: If we get another hurricane this year, I’m going to teach my neighbors how to throw a proper hurricane party. When a Floridian asks, “why is the rum gone,” we aren’t just quoting a popular pirate movie. We’re expressing existential angst.)
Because the land and infrastructure in New Jersey are built for snowfall and not hurricanes, two storms within a month caused serious, devastating damage and loss of life. At my institution, our server room providing campus Internet connectivity was damaged—twice—by flooding. When each of the hurricanes came through, my school simply ceased to exist online. The idea of “distance” learning suddenly became very, very local. Infrastructure damage in our area went beyond roads so impassable that cars couldn’t get through. It was so bad electrons couldn’t even make it. I’ll say it again: Virtualization is a myth. All learning takes place in physical spaces.
Attending (to) Our Classes
For all our classes, let’s learn from online education and reframe the notion of “attendance” into a matter of “attending to”. That broader, more flexible definition helps inform our perception of on-ground instruction, too. For a student in one of my classes back in April, our class took place in the NICU. She joined a Zoom call while taking a break from caring for her newborn. When a student attends to a class from the NICU, that class exists in a complex, embedded, embodied context that requires special accommodations. That 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 (family first, class whenever), and she was relieved when I extended grace to her. She expected—because our education system has trained her to expect—an obsessive emphasis on 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 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 somehow expects that this student will keep on keeping on. She joined a video call from the hospital just to keep up. Our normal priorities and expectations are a mess.
So it’s probably clear by now that accommodating the spaces of our classes takes work. Live-streamed conference presentations like this one demonstrate the difficulty of meeting folks where they are: I can’t be present with the people in the auditorium and monitor the text chat simultaneously. When we move things online—anything from a meeting to a presentation—we need to have people who can dedicate their attention to each space involved. That usually means one online chat monitor and one audience Q&A monitor at the least.
Students have to struggle to attend to various modalities, as well. We would do well to acknowledge that effort and extend grace. Earlier I mentioned the student joining DHSI from Tibet. She couldn’t hop on Zoom using video, but she managed to listen to the rest of us and type in the text chat for her contributions.
One in-person student I taught years ago missed weeks of class due to ACL surgery. Her colleagues gave her outstanding feedback on her participation because, as they said, she “made her presence felt” by going above and beyond to stay in touch and share her ideas. Many of us have had students come to office hours via Zoom during their lunch breaks at work. Sure, that’s non-optimal due to the surrounding distractions, but it speaks to their dedication and can, if we do this right, help our classes apply out there in the “real world”. By remembering students’ physical locations, we can help make the virtual approach feel more real.
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 would likewise benefit from acknowledging 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 (perhaps even track) their physical spaces, the digital spaces in which your class operates, and their own affect as it changes throughout the class. When I co-taught the #CritPrax track with Jakob Gowell, we made a daily, concerted effort to prioritize people and affect over content and product. This sounds like adding extra work for everyone, but it’s actually recovering from a deficiency inherent in so-called “virtual” courses. Attending to affect makes virtual learning real.
Educational Maxim #1: All learning takes place in real, physical spaces.
Educational Myth #2: Standardization
Let’s move on to the second great myth of education. Many institutions and legislative bodies actively work toward standardization in order to streamline the delivery of education and make the outcomes more predictable. But efforts toward standardization are anathema to self-actualization, the goal I mentioned above. Standardized tests, standard curricula, standard responses—each of these exists to file down the exceptional, to hinder deviation, to enforce compliance, to anonymize learning. But if it’s anonymous, who actually learns? All learning is always personal—it draws from real, personal experience and personal understanding. Anonymizing education disconnects the process from the people involved. And education is nothing without people.
The Mythical Medium
When the United States Air Force formed in 1947, it had a major problem: Pilots kept crashing planes and dying during training, reaching a peak of 17 fatalities in a single day. It turns out that they had been designing cockpits to fit the average pilot—an approach that at first sounds perfectly reasonable. They measured hundreds of pilots in 1926 and designed the cockpits around the average dimensions they found. In 1950, the Air Force measured 140 dimensions of 4,000 pilots. You can probably guess where this story is going. Researchers looked at the ten most crucial measurements across the participants. Of the 4,000 pilots in the study, exactly zero pilots fit the average on all ten measurements—even with a 30% margin of error. The Air Force discovered that, by designing for the “average pilot”, they built aircraft that fit exactly no one.
This same issue applies in far less life-threatening situations, too. The clothes we buy off the rack are often given a single size measurement—maybe two. But I’m sure you’ve had the experience of being surprised when something actually fits you, even though you picked an item ostensibly in “your size”. Why we think that size belongs to us and not one of the other 8 billion people on the planet is quite the curiosity. In actuality, brands have a “fit model” for whom they tailor each size. The rest of us deal with the differences between our bodies and the model’s. Standardized clothing sizes don’t make our clothes fit better; they make them cheaper. Standard sizes facilitate mass-production, not a quality fit. Standardization benefits the production machine, not the consumer. Standardized education benefits the institution, not the student.
Choice as Antidote
To explain one simple and approachable antidote to standardization, I want to start with a hard truth: Teachers make the worst students. When was the last time you submitted something before a deadline? Read all the materials before a meeting or professional-development session? Or read every word of a mass email? 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.
An easy way to help students chart their own course through our courses is to take the same approach as a restaurant. Every restaurant tells its patrons what’s expected of them through an overall framework, then allows flexibility within that larger structure. For example, most restaurants offer appetizer, entrée, and dessert sections of their menus. Some add a drinks section, some add hors d’oeuvres, while some list a tapas section or first-course and second-course sections. We are told what kind of meal to expect based on the overall structure of the menu. But within each section, of course, the choice is ours. We apply our own preferences and interests to select the item that best meets our immediate situation. And let’s not forget those foodies who love to order off-menu just to be a bit extra. They feel special (or we could say empowered) by knowing how to push against the framework the menu provides.
Menus can be powerful tools in classes, giving students ample flexibility and a sense of control over their work while keeping things on-track in the class overall. The menu approach works well for homework assignments, where students can choose source material from a list of pre-vetted texts. It also works for assignments, where students choose the product they create from a list of recommended options that each meet the expectations of that assignment. The idea of ordering off-menu applies here, too: Particularly creative, motivated, or engaged students can suggest project approaches or readings that aren’t on the list but that still adhere to the spirit of the work. And just like the foodies I mentioned, they feel special, empowered, and extra. Who wouldn’t want that for students?
A while ago, I mentioned making learning personal. I want to make a quick note about “personalized” learning. It’s quite the rage in ed-tech circles. Last I heard, the Gates Foundation was eager to pour their resources into the salvation promised by “personalized” learning. Lest we forget, “personalization” is the tech industry’s name for targeted advertising aimed to influence individual behaviors through subtle nudging. If we use personalized learning today, students are primed for personalized ads tomorrow. I know I don’t want to be complicit in that scheme. My rule of thumb is to let students, not systems, do the personalizing.
Educational Maxim #2: There is no such thing as a standard student.
Saving Education with Empathy
These days, it seems we try to automate everything, all the way down to both grading and writing student essays. (No, ChatGPT did not write this talk.) Silicon Valley, assuming all of its banks don’t fail, will keep looking for ways to algorithmically solve all our problems. And, for some reason, the tech industry often sees education as a problem in need of solving. Indeed, they’ve been “finding solutions” for decades. (For a great review of how technology has long claimed—but never managed—to be the salvation of education, check out Teaching Machines by Audrey Watters.) It turns out computers won’t replace teachers any time soon because students don’t get content from teachers—they get support. Wisdom. Empathy.
If we want to stay relevant, help students, and, hell, save our society, we need to emphasize the humanity of the humanities. We need to focus on human connection—specifically, the connections we lost long before COVID taught us how to “pivot” like some pedagogical snow-globe ballerina. Remembering those two educational maxims—all learning takes place in physical spaces, and there is no such thing as a standard student—can help guide our praxis to preserve the critical human bonds of education.
Take the time to connect with students, meeting them where they are—not just intellectually, but physically and emotionally as well. Check in with their needs, with your feelings, and with the spaces you each 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 empathy.
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 alongside real, embodied emotions. To face these challenges, we need to listen deeply to what students tell us. Only then can we connect with learners to help shape their futures—and save ours.