on empathy

half-baked post alert

This is nothing new, but I’ve been internally coming back to it often enough that it’s worth saying out loud.

We’ve been working on identifying and documenting the needs of our campus community, with respect to an eLearning environment – with the unspoken goal of finding The One True Tool that will serve everyone’s needs. The further-unspoken-message being that everyone is (or should be) fundamentally the same, and that by finding and encouraging a single set of “best practices” that we’ll be able to help the lesser-able (i.e., different) people to adapt (i.e., conform). There are reasons to encourage conformity – it’s easier to support, easier to implement, cleaner to put into an RFP, etc…

Giulia Forsythe is presenting on creativity at UMW’s Faculty Academy, and mentioned a throwaway comment by an engineering prof who said her visual notes were horribly and dangerously unorganized, and that she should use Visio to keep more organized notes. Because if you want to be a proper note-taker, with an organized mind, you must adopt the tools and techniques of an engineer. Or be dismissed as an unorganized and cluttered mind.

The pattern is pervasive. “I’ve done this. Everyone should do it just like I did, because I’ve figured it out.” But that doesn’t work.

Michael Wesch has been doing some awesome, inspiring and innovative stuff in his digital ethnography courses. He talks about the stuff he and his students do, and people dutifully write it down as a recipe for them to do the same. But that doesn’t work. People are different. Dr. Wesch nails it – the most important thing we have is empathy. The ability to recognize others’ feelings. To be aware that people are different.

So. How do we move away from silently encouraging conformity, toward recognizing and leveraging diversity? This isn’t just an edtech or eLearning thing. This isn’t just a teaching-and-learning or education thing. How do we encourage and support empathy? How do we avoid the urge to pigeonhole problems into solutions?

Yeah. I don’t know, either.

5 replies on “on empathy”

  1. I love posts like these, I think there is a lot of value in poking around ideas in process… I might be a bit thrown by your choice of title, though. To me, most of what you are describing is a human tendency toward homogeneity, and an inability to respect different approaches if they don’t seem immediately comprehensible within your own worldview.

    Maybe I define empathy too narrowly, which I think of as the ability to put oneself in another’s place, to understand how they are feeling. Are you suggesting a lack of empathy is what makes us so rigid in appreciating forms of expression? I guess I see empathy as one part of it, but maybe that understates the case.

    As an aside, the clinical term for a person devoid of empathy is psychopathic.

    1. Unfortunately, most conflicts occur when people lack the ability to empathize. Dealing with unempathetic people can be draining.

      1. conflict is easy, because it’s visible and can be dealt with. this lack of empathy or awareness is invisible, and goes way deeper than that. it colours everything.

  2. As part of our process, I created a “learning ecology” document, with stories centered around people, their lifestyles, workflow and problems they are trying to solve. As I collected the stories, I was able to connect people from completely different areas, but with similarly structured challenges. Maybe some of that empathy begins just with encouraging people to share their stories, and discover they aren’t alone. It’s amazing how many times I meet with people who think they have a unique problem. I’ve definitely uncovered trends that will help us support some of the needs. I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to help everyone.

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