Why our usual thinking about empathy is flawed and how empathy as practice will improve our teaching.
»Geliebt wirst du einzig, wo du schwach dich zeigen darfst, ohne Stärke zu provozieren.« —Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, aphorism 122 1
From having empathy to doing Empathy
Empathy only exists when it is practiced
We usually talk about empathy as a personality trait or capacity, namely the capacity to ‘put yourself into other people’s shoes’, to feel yourself into the lived experience of other beings. This framing of empathy as a trait implies a spectrum between the binary states of having empathy and not having empathy. It implies that, if people ‘don’t have’ empathy, they can be trained to be more empathetic, and when the training is successful, they now ‘have’ the trait of empathy, they now are empathetic people.
I find this framing problematic because it is essentialist, and – more importantly –, it is power-blind:
First, it is essentialist because the understanding of empathy as a personality trait assumes that people who have empathy are empathetic by default. It doesn’t really need to focus on the actions, practices, and performances that show empathy, because those actions are just tokens for the trait: Once you display an empathetic action, you can be labeled as having empathy.
In contrast, a performative notion of empathy – which I would prefer – looks at empathy as practice, as something we do rather than have. Empathetic actions, in this framing, are not tokens for a personality trait, they are empathy: Empathy only exists when it is practiced.
Second, the framing of empathy as a trait is power-blind because it disregards context and situation: If you ‘have’ empathy, you have it always and you cannot not have it. But it’s not difficult to see that people who are empathetic toward, for example, their friends and family, can also be decidedly un-empathetic toward strangers or other people’s families, toward their employees or colleagues, toward their pupils or students.
Understanding empathy as a performance, a practice, something people do in contact with other people, puts the focus on social context rather than on individual psychology: In what situations is empathy practiced and toward whom? In what situations isn’t it practiced and what are the consequences? Is there a pattern and how does it look like?
Why doing empathy is hard
Doing empathy requires a respectful understanding of other beings as equal in their humanity
I personally believe that most people have abundant capacity to empathise with others – not many people need ‘training’ in empathy. But I also believe that it is really easy to forget or tune out this capacity, to not do empathy. Conversely, I think that we must acknowledge that doing empathy is hard. It takes conscious effort and the will to spend energy on it.
Doing empathy is hard because it requires a strong sense of self, a sense of security in who you are as a person. It requires feeling free to open yourself up and share in the experience of others, their joy and their pain, their pride and their defeat. Doing empathy requires us to accept that we are same, that experience is social, that our opposites have a rich internal life just like ours and that what they feel is not much different from what we feel. It requires a will to allow and endure human connection on equal terms without judgment. It requires a respectful understanding of other beings as equal in their humanity.
Why doing empathy in university education is extra-hard
Social hierarchies systemically inhibit individual practices of empathy
Any social hierarchy is a hierarchy exactly because it makes human beings unequal in status, prestige, and resources. If a sense of equality is necessary in the practice of empathy, then it follows that social hierarchies create systemic boundaries that inhibit individual practices of empathy. Institutional education, of course, is one of the most hierarchically organized social environments that our society upholds. This is why doing empathy in university education is extra-hard.
At university, this hierarchy puts teachers in a highly privileged discursive position in comparison with students: The teacher position draws its power from several privileges which are systemically (but not naturally) linked 2, namely
the privilege of expertise (teachers have authoritative knowledge by definition of their position which students don’t have, regardless of both their actual insight into a specific topic),
the privilege of status (teachers have structural and social prerogatives that students don’t have, for example to occupy an office, to dictate classroom discourse and conduct, to speak uninterruptedly, to be treated as a professional scholar, etc. while students are apprentices who are expected to respect these markers of status and not to appropriate them),
the privilege of evaluation (teachers may and must treat students as recipients of assessment and students are expected to understand themselves as examinees rather than, for example, as scholars in their own right),
the privilege of curriculum (teachers design the subjects and courses which students must complete to earn their degree),
and the privilege of institutional resources (teachers allocate funds, personnel, and material within the institution over which students have no control). 3
This steep hierarchical distinction between the teacher position and the student position inhibits the practice of empathy on both sides in several ways:
Doing empathy toward students requires teachers to divest themselves from their position of privilege
First, the wealth of privileges that teachers have exerts its own kind of regulative force on teachers: To uphold and justify their privileged position, they must perform privilege – otherwise they put themselves in danger of losing prestige and status. Unfortunately, this performance of privilege is directly oppositional to the practice of empathy. Doing empathy toward students ultimately requires teachers to divest themselves from their position of privilege, to see students as fellow human beings, and to treat them as such. Considering the extent to which teacher–student interaction is fundamentally shaped by hierarchical inequality, treating students as ‘same’ requires a conscious act of resistance. This resistance is a resistance against the systemic social-institutional structure of power that expects the performance of privilege of its members as a practice of upholding itself. Any kind of resistance is hard.
Second, the lack of privileges that students have also (and more obviously) exerts regulative force on students: They are equally expected to perform their hierarchically lower status in ways that uphold both their status and that of teachers. This student performance of low privilege is also oppositional to the practice of empathy: It’s hard for students to do empathy toward teachers because that is an assumption of equality which the institutional setting doesn’t condone. It is also hard for students to practice empathy toward themselves because it is the nature of any position of privilege that it can demand of its deprivileged opposite to see itself through its eyes: When students see themselves through the eyes of the educational system, they don’t see themselves as human beings but as examinees. For students to practice empathy toward teachers or toward themselves is consequently an even harder act of resistance.
Not-doing empathy dehumanizes the self as well as the other
It bears pointing out explicitly that students are hurt far more by the inhibition to do empathy that is systemic to institutional education than teachers are. Yet, teachers are hurt, too, by not practicing empathy toward students: Not-doing empathy denies teachers genuine human connection to the individual people whom they spend a lot of their time with. It makes them fashion themselves as carriers of institutional functions rather than agents in their own right. Not-doing empathy dehumanizes the self as well as the other. It’s just that the consequences of this self-dehumanization are often not obvious to people who define themselves in terms of the privileges they have worked hard for to achieve.
The good news
The good news is that university leaves individual teachers a lot of freedom to use their privilege in a way that subverts the rationales which created and uphold the privileges in the first place – to change the institution that guarantees them. While resistance against social conventions of performing privilege is hard because the conventions are so strongly ingrained in the system, the institution of university fortunately doesn’t have strong mechanisms to actively punish teachers for acting against those conventions.
Ultimately, once you as a teacher decide to see students as human beings and to treat them as such, once you let go of constantly performing privilege – you will see how easy it is and how little the institution really cares about your lack of zeal to uphold its social conventions. This freedom ultimately rests in the humanist notion of the university’s freedom of inquiry: How you communicate with students in your classroom or office hour is not institutionally regulated except to safeguard the freedom of shaping classroom conduct, which is one of the teacher privileges.
Making empathy toward students into a teaching practice
So, beyond this abstract analysis of empathy and its institutional conditions – what can teachers do to transform their capacity to empathize into a practice of empathy?
Here are two important aspects of my own deliberate practice of empathy, to which I devote considerable time in terms of attention, reflection, and organization in my teaching. I phrase them as first-person practices to emphasize that they are not only – in my opinion – desirable acts within the teacher–student relationship, but that they are also possible to put into practice.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes fail at doing empathy: sometimes the resistance against systemic factors which make the following actions difficult is too exhausting. But I still embrace them as guiding principles which I try to tether as much of my practice to as possible.
1) I treat students as responsible persons with their own priorities in life.
(As opposed to treating them as ‘robots’ whose sole purpose is to perform ‘student work’ to my own highest expectations.)
I accept that students often have to work to make a living and that their job by necessity may take precedence over classwork.
I accept that students decide for themselves which classes they focus their efforts on and which they treat with a lower priority. I don’t take it personally when my classes have a low priority for some students. If I recognize that this is true for many students, I will not blame them but try to find out what I can do to better meet their needs and interests.
I accept that students may not always aim for perfect grades but rather allocate their investment of time and effort toward other projects. Sometimes I might even advise doing that as the sensible path to an overarching goal, such as completing their degree or staying mentally and physically healthy.
Doing empathy keeps me from conflating the academic merit of a student’s work with their value as a person
This acceptance is a practice of empathy because I myself am acutely aware of the priorities that guide my choices and actions. These priorities always result from negotiating the demands and requirements of my job, my personal obligations and commitments, and my health and well-being. And these aspects never achieve a balance where all receive their due with no regrets. If that is true for me – why wouldn’t it be true for students?
This specific kind of empathy forms an important basis for my work as a supervisor and assessor of academic work: Most importantly, it keeps me from conflating the academic merit of a student’s work with their value as a person. Instead, it enables me to ask students about their priorities and base my advice on the self-evaluation of their current capacities and aspirations. It enables me to treat every piece of student work as the best they were currently able to achieve, without the detrimental reflex of blaming them for ‘unfulfilled potential’, ‘lack of insight’ or ‘lackluster effort’ (all negative evaluations of the person, not the work).
Ultimately, this kind of empathy means that I divest my own ambitions and desires from my students’ work and focus solely on theirs: By positively acknowledging the students’ responsibility for their learning and time management, I can keep myself from taking it personally when they don’t fulfil all my criteria for excellent academic work. If students do poorly according to my high standards of academic assessment, I don’t take it personally, but I put my experience and skill at their service to improve if they want that and if they don’t, I accept it without grudge or disappointment as a professional choice.
If students do well (whatever that means for them individually: sometimes a hard-earned pass grade in the face of struggles can be more triumphant than a perfect score), I also don’t take it personally: I join in their moments of pride and joy without evaluating or appropriating them; the successes of students are theirs alone, I’m happy if they allow me to share them.
2) I treat students as persons with their own vulnerabilities and issues.
(As opposed to treating them as anonymous objects of my teaching work whose emotional well-being is none of my concern.)
I’m not a professional counsellor, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot show grace in the face of struggle
I accept that many students suffer from an enormous amount of pressure to perform in their education, in their job, in their relationships. I acknowledge that high levels of stress and anxiety have led to an increase in acute and chronic mental health issues among students. As a representative of an institution that amplifies these issues structurally, I accept individual responsibility to mitigate them where I can. I expressly ask students whether they are okay when I feel that they may not be, and I make myself available as someone ‘to talk to’ if necessary.
This may be the hardest and most important practice of empathy. It is most important because people who are in pain and distress need the empathy of their social environment most. And it is hardest because empathizing with people in pain means making ourselves vulnerable to their pain.
As a teacher, I’m not a professional counsellor, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot show grace in the face of struggle. I can listen to my students’ distress patiently, without judging them for their weakness. I can sympathize. If asked for advice, I can relate my own experience, if I want to share it, or confess to being at a loss – at no point do I take the responsibility for self-regulation and action away from the student. 4
These acts of empathy toward students who suffer took a lot of work on myself and to find my own emotional resilience. They took courage to embrace vulnerability and to open myself up to the pain of others. They also required me to educate myself more about depression and anxiety. But ultimately, what they need is the will to be a caring person who is in connection with their social environment, not disconnected from it.
These acts of empathy have also led to the most rewarding experiences of my teaching and have formed strong bonds between me and individual students, which I will appreciate long after they have graduated.
Doing empathy, in that sense, has ultimately contributed immensely to my own well-being.
“You are loved only where you can show weakness without provoking strength.” (my translation) ↩
“Teacher position”: I speak of the teacher position here as a sort of Foucauldian abstraction: individual teachers can use some or all of these privileges only ever to limited degrees. But relationally, in contrast to the student position, these privileges are granted to each and every individual teacher to a greater extent than they are granted to each and every individual student. ↩
Teachers vs. scholars: I speak of teachers here and not of scholars because my focus is specific to interaction in the educational context. But all teachers also draw on the privileges of university scholars because the educational part of university is an extension of research: all lecturers were trained as researchers first and became teachers later. ↩
Students in major distress: For serious cases, from acute anxiety attacks or phases of intense depression to the risk of self-harming behaviour, I keep a list of counselling resources at hand which I can pass on to students who need them. Most universities now have handouts and guidelines for dealing with students in states of major distress, and I think every teacher has a professional obligation to make themselves familiar with them. But that is not really the point here: Practicing empathy first and foremost means not shutting myself off from these students, keeping myself open to their pain. ↩