For healing and learning’s sake
Modelling actionable empathy in higher education
By Jeanine Ntihirageza
In 2020, the global pandemic and the resurgence of racial unrest in the U.S. have made us reevaluate and reposition ourselves in all we do, especially in higher education.
Competition for an academic position, promotion, retention, awards and the like has often bred a covert attitude: “It’s all about me.” Such attitudes can be a handicap in instructional settings, most notably during these unsettling times.
The question is: can we put aside our ego and intentionally engage “the other” for successful teaching and learning?
Empathy as a tool
Armed with this question, I decided to explore empathy as a tool to achieve this goal at a time when most of us are experiencing pain and anxiety due to the lives lost to the pandemic and heightened racial unrest.
Shifting to virtual instruction can be an additional challenge for students and faculty who are used to a face-to-face format, particularly because collaboration is much harder at a distance. Research on basic online instruction recommends reconsidering the role of the instructor; during a pandemic, this role needs to be reexamined even more.
In my experience as program coordinator and department chair, the more empathetic the faculty (except in cases of technology challenges) the easier time they had in transitioning into the reality of virtual teaching. An engaging humanistic approach, at a time of so much suffering, stimulates independent thought and greater engagement with the material.
A shared belief in empathy
We should all learn from two of today’s most respected leaders, former U.S. President Barack Obama and Pope Francis who have a shared belief in empathy. Pope Francis says, “Nor can there be authentic dialogue unless we are capable of opening our minds and hearts, in empathy and sincere receptivity, to those with whom we speak.”
Reflecting on his meeting with the pope, President Obama said, “I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that’s critical.”
As I reflect on empathy in online teaching during challenging times, I am reminded of Chiara Lubich’s work on the Spirituality of Communion. In her writings, she often relates compassion and empathy to the “other”-centeredness. It’s one thing to feel empathetic, it’s another to learn something about the other person’s experiences and use them to provide meaningful support.
What is “actionable” empathy?
What has worked for me in my years of being a faculty member and a department chair is actionable empathy. It is the kind of empathy that moves us to act, or at least to explore and learn, for the purpose of being prepared to concretely support the other.
I’d like to focus, in the next few notes, on ways to model actionable empathy for the sake of healing and learning. This modelling promotes a student-centered approach that promotes effective teaching and learning.
We need to model actionable empathy to 1) build a learning community, 2) build trust, 3) heal together and 4) enhance an environment conducive to successful teaching and learning.
Actionable empathy to build a learning community
Sometimes, as faculty members, we become so focused on the instructional content that we forget to build and strengthen the class community. We forget to show our students that they matter to us and to each other and that we value their presence in our classes. Students are eager to be heard in the learning environment, independent of the subject matter.
In a talk at a conference in 2005, Italian sociologist Mario Giostra proposed empathetic communication and “making yourself one with the other” as a way to create new models of intervention in social difficulties. Making yourself one with the other is recognizing him or her as a person, worthy of dignity and respect. Rekindling human warmth where physical contact is missing enhances readiness to learn.
During the pandemic, I use a virtual café (different from office hours), which encourages casual conversation before and after class in the Ubuntu way, an African philosophy which emphasizes the importance of community. Checking in before and/or after class has contributed to “we are in this together” attitude.
Recently, I was amazed to see four online students readily volunteer to stay on Zoom after class (that ends at 9:45pm) to show a peer how to set up Google folders — this as a result of the sense of community that we’ve been building.
An instructor is a facilitator, not a sole source of knowledge, who monitors and guides learning discussions and encourages students to contribute ideas and experiences from real life or from reading to enrich interaction. We need to pursue unity by taking time to be silent and listen.
A proverb from many African countries says it poignantly: “If you want to run fast, run alone. If you want to run far, run together.”
Availability and flexibility are key to teaching virtually whether synchronously or asynchronously. One of the teaching tools recommended in every effective teacher training is “wait time,” which allows students to collect their thoughts without feeling rushed. At a time, when anxiety is part of our everyday life, building in “wait time” when planning may contribute to reducing nervousness and worry.
Actionable empathy to build trust
Winning student trust and confidence delivers better learning outcomes. At a time when everything seems to be rushed, empathetic listening engenders empathetic response.
Based on my experience of evaluating faculty, I can say students do notice when we purposely pay attention to them. My wake-up call happened when I privately inquired about late assignments from a student. As he tried to explain, he broke down, telling me that he was living in an impossible situation at home.
The story touched me. When I said, “you should have told me,” he replied, “I didn’t think you would care about my personal life.” Since then, I promised myself to try to show my students I do care and constantly encourage them to communicate with their instructors.
Actionable empathy to heal together
Actionable empathy promotes community healing. In Kirundi, my native language, a saying, Uja gukira ingwara arayirata, literally means “You cannot heal if you don’t broadcast your illness” and encourages those in need to seek help.
It’s important that we be silent and actively listen to those who need to be heard in order to increase collaborative solutions to issues. In the virtual world, which is inherently formal, a list of “check-in” questions and resources to start a conversation can be helpful.
Actionable empathy to enhance an environment conducive to learning
Giostra reminds us that “empathy … is not seen as a mental act, but rather as an experience through which a social being goes beyond his or her own daily experience and opens up to other experiences, including the relationship with other people.”
Successful learning is intimately related to the state of mind of the learner. It is our responsibility, as educators, to create conditions that are conducive to effective learning.
For example, an intentional culturally responsive curriculum in mathematics may keep ethnic minority students engaged further than a general curriculum. Additionally, a universal design approach that caters to students’ individual abilities may enhance quality work. If an assignment does not require a writing assessment, an alternative format for students who dread term papers is to allow them to submit a video response.
It’s quite normal to feel overwhelmed and isolated when separated from people engaged in similar activities, particularly in higher education where collaboration enhances productivity.
Under these circumstances, in order to succeed, we need to intentionally reexamine our practices, do away with our egos and be humble to holistically respond to the needs of “the other.” Actionable empathy should be inherent to our instructional content and approaches.
Jeanine Ntihirageza, PhD, is Professor and Director of the Center for Genocide and Human Rights Research in Africa and the Diaspora at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.
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