(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

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The role of power, social justice and empathy in our perception of cheating vs learning

I’m here trying to tie some of the ideas of #rhizo14 into a physical event I will be part of in a few hours. I’ll be discussing with a group of other academics my previously published article on critical citizenship – which centers around the role of higher ed in promoting social justice orientation and empathy in students, thar focusing on critical thinking is not enough for citizenship.

In #rhizo14, there have been some mentions of power in the discussion of cheating (Dave on jenny’s blog; Terry on my blog) and if i may summarize the ideas crudely as i understood them:
1. If what constitutes cheating is based on rules, those rules are an imposition of power by some group of people, and by setting those rules, they privilege certain individuals over others (i might have added sthg here, not sure)
2. If cheating is dishonesty, then it might involve ways of gaining unfair advantage/power to compete with others (example of taking steroids in sports was a good one mentioned)

Where do social justice and empathy come in?

I am reflecting on academia. And instances where teachers have broken their very own rules because they were empathetic (or not). E.g. One student told the teacher after the exam time ended that he had not noticed the last page of the exam. She gave him an extra 10 minutes or so. I was her TA and i was like, “that’s not fair to other students who had less time” and “but he had more time than everyone else on all the other questions”. In hindsight, she used her judgment and was empathetic, i think, in her decision-making in ways i was maybe too young to understand?

Another instance which shows the opposite. There were a group of students about to graduate who all failed the final exam of a required course. The (quite young) teacher was rigid – each time someone spoke to him on their behalf to give them a second chance so they could graduate (this is everyone from students to the dept chair to the dean), he refused to budge. Eventually, he did budge: he let them re-take the exam. Was that really the fair thing to do? Probably not. But it was an empathetic thing to do. Were there other options? Probably

Reflecting on my own teaching… I try to be flexible enough to meet my students’ needs and interests. But some ways of creating a community-centered (vs. Student-centered) classroom or course, are not necessarily socially just. For example, a full group discussion disadvantages shy or reflective people. A community-created rubric is really one where the voices of the loudest (or quick thinking, or brave) students end up being what gets written. There are lots of micro-contestations of power in a community-centered course. Social justice and power remain issues.
For example… Breaking rules. I often teach my students about copyright law (often via guest speaker as a way to maintain my integrity – see next), then discuss with them the ways in which copyright laws are unjust and disadvantage us in the poorer countries. Where would we be in our already low-quality education without illegally photocopied texts and pirated software? We tall about legal alternatives like creative commons and cheaper versions of some things (e.g. Free word editors). What some Westerners don’t get, though, is the ENORMOUS difference between a free and a $1 download. It is huge, because many ppl here do not have credit cards, some may not have bank accounts. So cheating is their only way.

So is it then justifiable to break a rule or law? Who decides that it is?

If i publish my article in a non-open access journal, do i really not have the right to email copies of it to others (some journals have allowances for manuscripts or drafts before peer review, or embargoes after which you can post). But my point is: how justifiable (or just “just” as in socially just) are those rules? And what does it mean when we break them? Are we truly hurting or harming others?

This post has rambled a bit but in a weird way connects different aspects of my life as i reflect on a course i am about to teach, an open access/education event we are organizing, and the critical citizenship event tomorrow… And cheating as a topic in rhizomatic learning…

Will unfortunately miss the live event that is at dawn my time! (Sync events are sooo biased – an upcoming article i am working on)

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Does Ideology Prevent Empathy?

This is my third post on the topic of empathy. WordPress recommended I look at some other blogs that discussed issues of empathy. I really liked this blog post and the way the author makes the connection between how ideology can stand in the way of allowing people to be empathic. Funny enough, it connects again with Hannah Arendt’s critique of ideology as not being open to learning from experience or reality.

This all made me realize that maybe this is what is wrong with some notions of citizenship. People tie themselves to a particular ideology, and therefore belong to certain groups and empathize with them (the Rifkin video I mentioned here), but the ideology makes this belonging exclusive, such that any reality outside their own becomes unimaginable, they are unable to learn from it, and therefore they are not empathetic to it. Ideology stands in their way. Do people truly subscribe to ideology so dogmatically, or is it just the hegemony of the political discourse? To what extent are we “agent” in the face of that?

Ideology is, in a sense, uncritical and it sort of demands compliance, doesn’t it? I’ll try to mull this over and think about it in a more practical, rather than merely abstract manner. Though I also need to dig a bit deeper into the theory as well.

[FYI, this is the third in a series of posts exploring the notion of empathy – the first post was here]


Annotated resources on empathy

I found two good videos about empathy on YouTube (both by RSA)

This first is Jeremy Rifkin describing empathy as a biological imperative, one that evolves with the human condition and which comes from the human drive to “belong” (incidentally, primates elephants, and possibly also dolphins and dogs display empathy). I also like how it ties empathy with sustainability at the end!

The second is a great one that shows the difference between sympathy and empathy – I will let the video speak for itself.

Both of the above come from RSA.org

I’ll post more resources as I go along. I know there are some TED Talks out there worth checking out. I think these resources could be interesting to use as conversation starters about empathy


What is Empathy?

I am writing this post to begin exploring the notion of empathy, which I have argued previously might be an essential component of a constructive critical citizenship. I am doing this as sort of pre-writing and brainstorming for a book chapter I am writing and a seminar on critical citizenship I will be leading soon. This might turn out to be a series of posts so that I can develop the idea further and bring in various understandings in the literature.

First off, I had been thinking of the expression “put yourself in my shoes” and how inappropriate it really is, because standing in someone else’s shoes does not necessarily equip us to understand how they would think, feel, or behave, had they been in those shoes. Knowing their surrounding circumstances helps. But it does not completely put us in a situation to truly “be them”. Coincidentally, someone said something very similar on facebook recently: that we cannot judge someone without having truly been in their situation with all its complexity. I guess even then we cannot judge them, but the key here is that there are a variety of complex factors that go into understanding why and how a certain “other” thinks, feels or behaves. Below is a really good cartoon about empathy.


Cartoon by: Dave Walker, originally at: http://davewalker.cc/empathy/

Second, I was reading about Hannah Arendt (in the book Interpretive Pedagogies, and she was quoted for saying “sympathy is not compassion, and compassion is not empathy (‘I’ am not ‘Thou’)” – this happened after the above thoughts came to mind, and reinforced them. They also reminded me that in order to talk about empathy, I need to unpack the connotation of empathy and articulate it further. I need to differentiate it from sympathy and from compassion. I need to clarify what I mean by it (whether individually or in a participatory manner with others) if I am to discuss its importance for critical citizenship, and to discuss ways of possible promoting it within education.

Third, I am reminded again that the traditional understandings of critical thinking do not often incorporate elements of empathy, but that this notion is not completely absent from the literature. It is in infused in Women’s Ways of Knowing as a preference from many women as opposed to antagonistic approaches to critical thinking. It is an element of Edward Said’s “philological hermeneutics” (where you seek to understand the author/creator of a work before critiquing them), and in Martha Nussbaum’s notion of Narrative Imagination (though she distinguishes it from practical reason).

Fourth, I need to go back and look at the references I had previously downloaded on the idea of teaching empathy.

Fifth, I seem to remember reading a popular science book that took a very deterministic and reductionist view that suggested some people had “empathy” and “altruism” genes, and others did not. While I believe there must be some inherent variability in our capacities for empathy, I intuitively expect that it is something that can be nurtured in our environment (e.g. Check out this toy for teaching empathy to kids), and I also have high hopes that those who do not develop a strong sense of empathy in childhood can do so in adulthood (e.g the activity “humility walk”that I often use as an ice-breaker in my classes). I also suspect that one can have empathy in one context but not transfer it to another context, and that, while this is a huge issue (e.g. If it makes one accept human rights abuses against certain individuals/groups one is biased against), I still think it is something we can work on, possibly through a cognitive approach that emphasizes social justice (the other element of critical citizenship that I suggest is essential, but which is already talked about often enough in the critical pedagogy literature, and so is clearer to me than the empathy element).

The above just sets out my thinking about where I stand now on the topic and opens up areas for inquiry in the next few weeks and months, which I plan to blog about. I will keep this blog post short, but include some of the definitions (which I, by no means, take as the “final” definitive understanding) of empathy, compassion and sympathy.

Dictionary definitions: just to start

Oxford English Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

A fuller definition of empathy in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is:

” the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this”

But I actually think the shorter definition works well enough (Merriam-Webster also have a short def similar to the Oxford one)

Now, moving onto Sympathy, Oxford has two definitions that work for my purposes to compare it to empathy: “Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune” – this one is definitely how I normally understand the word sympathy and is definitely different from empathy because of the “pity” factor. The second definition, however, is less clearly differentiated from empathy, “understanding between people; common feeling” – this sounds very much like empathy to me.

Merriam-Webster also has two similar understandings for sympathy, so I won’t repeat here, except that their first definition adds something about “caring” about another’s misfortune, as well as feeling sorry.

Oxford defines it as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others” – I am unsure how that differentiates it from sympathy!
Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, makes compassion more active: “a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc.” (emphasis mine).

This quick exercise has helped me get into the mode of looking for nuances in meaning and is helping me think about what I truly do mean about empathy. Moving beyond dictionary definitions will be essential, of course, but this was a good start. Would appreciate any resources anyone can recommend on the meaning or teaching of empathy.

More on this topic soon (interlaced with other topics). But I leave you with this video I foud that differentiates between empathy and sympathy better than the dictionary defs above!

RSA Shorts, empathy