Wednesday, October 12, 2011


One of the recurring assignments in my classes is one which requires students to summarize articles from the New York Times, usually the opinion/editorial section.  Students benefit from the practice in reading and in writing, and it allows me to begin teaching attention to the sourcing of materials.  It is a good exercise for them, and one with which I have had quite a bit of success.

Every so often, I experience a coincidence, a Jungian synchronicity.  Recently, one of them came about as a result of the summary assignment.  One of my students had written a summary of David Brooks' September article "The Limits of Empathy," which appeared in the New York Times on September 29, 2011.  In the article, Brooks notes that empathy, the idea of being able to understand how and what other people are feeling, is overrated.  He calls it "a sideshow," arguing that it is used to display that we are "trying" to be better people, but that the display, because not coupled with ideological rigor or organizational/institutional alignment, is insufficient to ensure right action.  A weakness in his treatment arises in his invocation of the Nazis, but his use of other information is effective, making for an interesting article.

The Jungian occurrence derives from my other reading.  I had not long before received College English 74.1 (September 2011), in which is an article by Rutgers University English professor Ann Jurecic titled "Empathy and the Critic."  Jurecic seeks to complicate the concept of empathetic reading.  She notes that the development of empathy--commonly regarded as the foundation of moral action--is frequently put forward as a justification for teaching literature; reading well-written works helps us to understand people, and in understanding them, we come to treat them better.  She also notes an opposing view, that reading a text explicitly to seek out connections is to be overly simplistic or even to assume an offensively hierarchical power dynamic.  Neither viewpoint is sufficient to her understanding, and she maintains that effective teaching recognizes both as being simultaneously true--in addition to other things.  As is to be expected from a work in a high-profile academic journal, Jurecic's article makes ample use of previous researches to sufficiently support its points of contention, and as should be more frequently the case than is true even within a composition-focused journal, the article is easily read and understood even by someone (such as myself) who does not have extensive background training in rhetorical and pedagogical theory.

Having finished reading the Jurecic piece the day before the student turned in the summary of the Brooks piece, I had the College English article fairly far forward in my mind when I read the New York Times article to be able to grade the student's work.  (That is another reason I have students write summaries of news articles: it helps me stay informed.)  Even though Jurecic does not take into consideration the treatise that seems to have sparked Brooks' writing, Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, there is a fair bit of overlap among their sources; Jurecic also  takes into account the viewpoint that Brooks expresses, although I sincerely doubt that Brooks had read Jurecic before writing his article.

I do agree with something that both voice: fellow-feeling is not enough.  It is fine and good, as Brooks notes, to be able to understand the lives of those around us.  But being able to imagine ourselves feeling as others feel does not mean that we will be able to do anything to make things better for them--or that we will be motivated to do so, which he also writes.  Perhaps it is only because I am so evil a man as I am, but there have been a number of times that I have been well aware of what others have felt, even to the point of having felt it or something very much akin to it myself, and have thought that the others damned well deserved to feel the way that they did; sometimes people ought to feel like shit because they have acted shittily.  I tell my students from time to time that I have no sympathy for them precisely because I have faced down heavy course loads with lots of homework.  Even now, even having a full-time teaching job at which I could easily remain for the rest of my career, I have homework to do--and this little piece is not part of it, so that there is more writing waiting for my attention when I get done with my regular day.  I am not about to assign less work to my students because of it.  And if Brooks is right, I am wholly justified in my actions; he argues that the "sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code [sic]" does more to make people "good" or admirable than their ability to engage with the psychological states of those they encounter.  He uses the example of the adulterer, who takes pleasure in undertaking a reprehensible act and so is to be shunned even if the reasons for the actions are understood; similarly, while I understand why my students complain about the amount of work I assign or the nature of it, I fail to agree that their complaints should alter my teaching.

Jurecic also articulates the position that empathy, defined as the ability to perceive and understand the emotional states of others, is insufficient.  She would have empathy be the underpinning of academic, institutional, and pedagogical practice, so that the understanding of others comes to inform and direct the treatment of them.  This makes much sense to me.  Certainly, as an educator, I am obliged to treat my students with a certain degree of courtesy--really, I am obliged to do so because I am, or am at least trying to be, a decent human being.  And I do keep in mind that my students have not had the many advantages which have been mine.  Aside from white male privilege, which I have noted has been to my benefit (here, here, and here), I came up in a place, time, and situation which encouraged me (specifically, rather than just because I happen to be a white guy) to spend a great deal of time tending to my studies; many, if not most, of my students have not.  As such, my teaching does necessarily accommodate that difference to some extent.

I maintain, however, that 1) entry into my classroom is on my terms, terms which I openly publish to my students along with the means to fulfill those terms or escape them; and 2) where a student starts in terms of background knowledge and academic socialization is not tied to how hard a student is willing to work at this point to improve.  As such, when my students complain about the amount and type of work my classes require, or the standards by which I evaluate that work--and they very much do--I pay little heed.  I try not to let what pity I may feel for their life circumstances occlude my evaluation of the work that is submitted to me or my judgment of what skills and levels of skills are necessary to pass out of my class, for while I may as a person feel for them, I know that they will ultimately be judged on the quality of what they do.  And just as the bad home life of a killer does not mean that the person killed is not dead, the poor prior education of a student does not mean that a sentence written unclearly and saying nothing in fact is clear and content-laden.  Perhaps it is an expression of empathy, somehow, and an appropriate reaction to it that drives me to act as I do in the classroom; I do feel for the students (in many cases), but I know that if I allow it to unduly affect me in the moment, I will not be able to help the students get to a point at which they no longer have to feel the way that they currently do.

I can hope.

Works Cited
~Brooks, David. "The Limits of Empathy." New York Times. New York Times, 29 September 2011. Web. 12 October 2011.
~Jurecic, Ann. "Empathy and the Critic." College English 74.1 (September 2011): 10-27. Print.

No comments:

Post a Comment