Empathy, Resistance, & Curiosity

On the limits of empathy in pedagogy, this post starts with a query from Deborah Britzman before moving into a consideration of a 1993 article by Anne DiPardo, Professor of Education at the University of Colorado. DiPardo’s account of a semester-long relationship between a student writing assistant at a college writing centre and a student learner is thought-provoking.

One area of research I’d hoped to explore this summer was the role empathy might have, or not have, in teaching & learning.

I, and perhaps you, too, have often felt that empathy is the ticket for greater communication and understanding between people. Empathy seems to short-circuit fear, distrust, hatred, and anger. When a student’s request for a last-minute extension incites irritation, or when her pithy excuses for repeated absences prompts full-on anger, teachers might quickly martial empathy to circumvent both the cost of such negative emotions on themselves, and to better communicate with the irritant–er, student.  In cases such as these, empathy might take the form of a quick internal catalogue of all the possible reasons the student might legitimately need an extension or have found regular attendance impossible.

A thoughtful reader will have stumbled, a bit, in the reading of that last sentence, because the desired result–empathy, and, presumably, greater understanding of or compassion for the student–hinges on judgement: the judgement of whether the excuses, causes, or conditions of her “misbehaviour” might be legitimate, or not.

If the result of such empathetic manoeuvres is that the student gets the opportunity to work more on and therefore learn more from an assignment, or the teacher gets the opportunity to encourage the otherwise unreachable absentee to re-engage with the course, then we might overlook the judgement empathy entails.

But we should note that there are limits to empathy, just as surely as there are limits to our own experiences and education. If empathy is our dedicated tool for helping us relate to others when faced with difficult emotions or unfamiliar ground when teaching, then we are limiting the prospect for deep learning: both our own learning, and our students’. And we are limiting that learning to our own zones of comfortable knowledge, zones which might be incredibly uncomfortable for the student with whom you are working.

Deborah Britzman asks, “If one cannot ‘feel [one’s] way into people’ without, in actuality, representing the self as the arbitrator and judge of the other’s actions and possibilities, perhaps it is time to question what one wants from empathy” (84). Is it possible that teachers want the solace of empathy, that they want reassurance that students’ indecipherable desires and resistances are, in fact, decipherable? You might wonder, “What’s the harm in that?” Well, perhaps little when it comes to extensions and absences. But when a teacher attempts to empathize with a student who seems, as bell hooks has put it, “resisting” (8), might that teacher inadvertently circumvent real and important reasons for that resistance?

“‘Whispers of Coming and Going’: Lessons from Fannie”

Anne DiPardo’s article, “‘Whispers of Coming and Going’: Lessons from Fannie,” marks the result of a semester-long study undertaken by DiPardo, in which she followed the course of a basic writing tutorial program through ongoing interviews with its student-learners and student-tutors (101).  Her article focuses on one student and tutor relationship, and it is a story of the sort warned against above: one of student resistance and teacher frustration, and ultimately of the limits of empathy and its potential detrimental results.

DiPardo explains that the story she recounts is “about one student and one tutor, both ethnic minorities in an overwhelmingly white, middle class campus” (101). The student, Fannie, is Navajo. She grew up speaking Navajo exclusively at home on her reservation, but attended a boarding school where students were punished severely for speaking any language other than English (102). She reports to DiPardo that she is “shy” about her English (103), and that her early education “had taught [her] to be a housemaid, … [she] was hardly taught how to read and write” (102).

DiPardo notes that Fannie’s writing tutor, Morgan, “had initially welcomed the challenge of drawing Fannie out, of helping this shy, young woman overcome her apparent lack of self-confidence,” but that this “initial compassion” was later “nearly overwhelmed by a sense of frustration” (107) when she was faced by Fannie’s long silences, her seeming refusal to speak more forthrightly and to learn. Morgan is African American and an aspiring teacher; she reports the desire to “work with students of all ethnicities, to help them see that success in the mainstream may not be regarded as cultural betrayal” (107). DiPardo senses a lot of potential ground for commonality, compassion, and empathy between Morgan and Fannie, and she conjectures that Morgan “would have been interested to know that Fannie was learning to inhabit both [cultural] arenas, and in doing so, enacting a negotiation of admirable complexity–a negotiation different in degree, perhaps, but certainly not in kind, from Morgan’s own” (114).

Ultimately, the relationship between Fannie and Morgan is a failed one. When Morgan attempts to engage Fannie’s thoughts on her essay topics, Morgan repeatedly fills in Fannie’s silences and imposes on Fannie’s unfamiliar ideas her own knowledge and education. When Fannie explains that she wants to write a paper on America, and how it “was a beautiful country,… but… isn’t anymore” (109), Morgan quickly directs the topic into the comfortable confines of her known world: environmentalism, pollution, and waste. She fails to explore what Fannie meant by her own statement.

DiPardo ultimately identifies this failure to explore as a serious problem in Morgan’s approach to teaching & learning, though DiPardo does not describe it as such. Instead, DiPardo claims that Morgan was “insufficiently curious” (111). If Morgan were more curious, for example, she would have learned that one of her defenses against Fannie’s seeming resistance to learn–that Fannie, as a Navajo woman, is “more sensitive to male-female roles, and the female roles being quiet” (112)–could not be substantiated either by Fannie’s outgoing and assertive behaviour when at home, or by the abundance of publications which emphasize the important and respected role women play in Navajo society (111).

Respectful Curiosity and Respecting a Refusal to Learn

I’m not so sure curiosity is the solution to the problem of communication and understanding DiPardo describes arising between Fannie and Morgan. It seems that DiPardo isn’t so certain of it, either. She recognizes that curiosity might have caused Morgan to “[pry] into hidden corners of Fannie’s past” (114), so she instead calls for “respectful” curiosity. DiPardo defines respectful curiosity as curiosity that is “attentive” to “whatever clues” a speaker might have to offer (114). Respectful curiosity is attentive, then, to what is being said and not said. And while DiPardo doesn’t make this distinction, I think it’s an important one: respectful curiosity is more akin to desire than action. If we are to consider respectful curiosity as an alternative to empathy, we have to define it is a desire to know a person, her history, and her worldview, but it is a desire that is not necessarily acted upon. If we are learn from another, that learning should be lead by her.

Could we take respectful curiosity as a model for learning from another? Could it be a model for engaging with resisting students?

Perhaps this blog post is over-much an argument over words–for some, the word “curiosity” will inspire hope, for others it might threaten. But I can’t help but be drawn to it as a model for teachers, because it reminds teachers the learning process is reciprocal, that we are ignorant of so much, especially of the lives of the students with whom we work.

I wonder, though: can I respect a student’s resistance to learn, or to learn a particular knowledge, or to learn in a particular way, without first understanding and judging the reasons behind that refusal? Should I?

In one of her interviews with DiPardo, Fannie says:

“I mean like, sometimes if you get really educated, we don’t really want that. Because then, it like ruins your mind, and you use it, to like betray your people, too . . . That’s what’s happening a lot now.” (104)

Works Cited

Britzman, Deborah. Lost Subjects, Contested Objects: Toward a Psychoanalytic Inquiry of Learning. State University of New York Press, 1998.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1995. Print.

DiPardo, Anne. “‘Whispers of Coming and Going’: Lessons from Fannie.” (1992). The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. 4th Edition. Eds. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. Boston: St. Martin’s, 2011. Print.


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