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Growing in Pedagogy: Radical (Self-)Empathy

May 4, 2021

With finals week approaching, I am reflecting on the toll this year has taken on students. The conversation around student mental health and wellbeing has been long, and increased during the pandemic. At West Virginia University, a student’s recent suicide inspired administrators to address mental health challenges facing campus communities. Many of us are still struggling with our role as librarians to better support students, and to support our coworkers, faculty, staff, and ourselves. More this year than other years, students who never intended or desired to learn online were forced into synchronous or asynchronous online classes. Without the requisite skills and self-motivation required for online learning, coupled with the continued pandemic stressors, my students missed deadlines, asked for extensions, and sought reassurance more than ever. I suspect my situation is not unique. 

 I recently read Jordan and Schwartz’s book chapter “Radical Empathy in Teaching” (2018), and started using their words to inform my instruction and interactions with students. In their chapter, they state “radical empathy calls on us to be open to being effected by our students” (Jordan & Schwartz, 2018, p. 34). This semester I intentionally worked this principle into my feedback on student work. Wherever possible, I include one thing I learned from their work in my feedback. The effect on student learning is not clear and my course evaluations are not yet finalized. My gut tells me adopting this small change in my feedback increased my rapport with students at a minimum.

The authors also discuss the importance of self-empathy, both the necessity of practicing it with ourselves when teaching and of modeling self-empathy to our learners. We are experiencing the same pandemic stressors as our students, and self-empathy can “help us increase self-awareness and rejuvenate for the journey of teaching” (Jordan & Schwartz, 2018, p. 34). Self-empathy is admittedly more difficult for me, let alone modeling this for students. I tried to do this in small ways over this semester, such as admitting when I make mistakes and thanking students for their patience with me. There is plenty of room for growth in this area. To further model this in future courses I can inform students when I plan to take a digital rest and encourage them to do the same, check in with them when they are unengaged, and include a short anecdote about my life outside of work in my weekly course videos. 

The semester has a rhythm of high stress and low stress points, and the practice of radical empathy will be easier at some moments and more challenging at others. Jordan and Schwartz remind us that “When we are at our most effective, we are able to communicate to students when their work falls short and at the same time, convey that we understand that the work can be challenging and that we care about their success” (2018, p. 32). Their chapter is full of insight and thought provoking examples. I highly recommend reading it as soon as you have the chance. 

As we head into finals week, then the semi-lull of summer, I invite you to join me in self-reflection. Set aside a dedicated time to reflect on your teaching, services, consultations, etc., to deliberately discover where we can employ radical empathy to build up ourselves, our colleagues, our patrons, and our work. In discovering and sharing our vulnerability and need for grace, and extending it to ourselves and others, we grow stronger as leaders and teachers. 

Jordan, J. V., & Schwartz, H. L. (2018). Radical Empathy in Teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2018(153), 25–35. https://doi.org/10.1002/tl.20278

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