Rigor through Empathy

Last night, I watched a recording of a powerful presentation given by Dr. Jeff Duncan, of San Francisco State University titled, Equality or Equity: Which One Will We Feed? It’s a long presentation (1.5 hours) but it was far more worth my time last night than cringing over season three of Stranger Things.

Duncan reminded his audience that “hiring an equity officer does not result in equity. Equity is everyone’s job.” He went on to make a connection between equity and a classroom culture that starts with relationships and empathy. To consider this idea, one must first understand the difference between empathy and sympathy.

To demonstrate the difference, Duncan asked, “What happens within a person who is sympathetic of another person? … That’s right, absolutely nothing.”

He then asked, “What happens within a person when someone is sympathetic of them? … That’s right, absolutely nothing.”

Empathy is a physiological process that occurs in a person when relating to the experiences of another. When a person listens to another person tell a story, it has been proven that the listener’s brain changes in ways that mirror the storyteller’s brain. It’s called neural coupling and it is visual evidence of empathy. In short, when another person is hurting, we too must hurt to be empathetic.

If you teach online, it can be more difficult to foster relationships and empathy. But it is very possible. It begins with cultivating your presence in your course. And I don’t mean a polished, academic presence. I’m talking about using your smartphone to record a brief video of the real you … ums and all. When students enter a class — online or not — and are greeted by a supportive, friendly human, they feel more safe and begin to lean in.

I know it’s hard. I know it makes you feel uncomfortable to record an imperfect presence of yourself and share it online. I also know it’s harder for some of us than others. I recognize the privilege my white skin bestows upon me and recognize that my peers from minoritized groups are coming from an entirely different place that involves threats that I can not begin to fathom. These are difficult conversations — but also powerful opportunities to build empathy among colleagues.

Alas, your students need you — in person and online. Being a student who doesn’t feel that they belong in college and is expected to reach out and ask you for help is a lot harder.

Moreover, the assignments you design in your courses are opportunities to foster empathy and relationships which, in turn, begins to cultivate a more inclusive climate. Designing assignments that are relevant to our students means folding in opportunities to draw upon their experiences and traditions. It also conveys to students that you value their differences. When students are invited to make connections between curriculum and the real world, that’s also when real rigor is achieved.

I remember being at a conference about twelve years ago watching a presentation by an educator about the value of using videos in teaching and learning. I was right there with her — shaking my head, imagining how I could improve my teaching with videos. To me, it was the emotional part of video that excited me. It can convey dimensions of a historical event, for example, so much more richly than text alone. And then one person in the audience exclaimed, “Where’s the rigor in that?” I remember turning around with the most confused look on my face and thinking, “What is that all about?” We’re still there, folks.

In higher education, it is very common for professors to resist inviting emotions into the classroom. But it is the pathway to real rigor. Rigor isn’t derived from reading a dense, long text. Rigor isn’t derived from pitting students against other students to earn the highest grade. Rigor is derived through engagement and when students feel trusted and valued, they engage at a higher level. When students know you care about them and believe in them, they’ll work their asses off not to disappoint you.

Is your class starting next week? The first week of a new term is a perfect time to weave in an ice breaker that invites students to tell a story. But remember, you need to participate too. Because the instructor-student relationship is a partnership.

If you’d like to dig deeper into this topic:

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