“A lot of us just don’t give a shit about each other. … All of us will leave this school with more or less an understanding of the ways in which massive systems affect our lives. But I don’t think that nearly enough of us will leave having reached a point where we’ve been forced to grapple with the ways in which we personally contribute—positively or negatively—to the overall health of the spaces we live in and the people who inhabit them with us.”
Of all the powerful moments in the widely circulated anonymous op-ed, “Columbia has an empathy problem” that was published in Spectator this January, this passage stayed with me the most. In the weeks following a series of student deaths, I had wondered about what seemed missing in our campus community, and this opinion felt like the answer.
But it’s an answer that leaves us with even more questions: Where do we go from here? How do we learn compassion and empathy? The community—students and administrators—have been grappling with the issue of improving mental health care on campus. Still, I wondered, what could Columbia do in an academic sense to make sure that students graduate with not only an understanding of unfair power structures, but also an understanding of each other on a more basic, human level?
To understand what it is we’re supposed to teach, we need to first understand what empathy is. The word has roots in ancient Greek, and its modern usage in English is a loose translation of the German word einfühlung. Kiera Nieuwejaar, an adjunct lecturer who teaches philosophy of education at Barnard, gives a rather academic perspective of empathy. Whereas sympathy involves feeling bad about someone else’s position, she says empathy requires an “imaginative side,” specifically to imagine another person’s situation and better understand where they’re coming from.
Of course, the question of teaching empathy isn’t exactly literal—and so although Nieuwejaar doesn’t think that empathy can necessarily be taught as a distinct feeling or concept, she does believe in helping students develop empathy by exposing them to different perspectives and letting them ask questions about those perspectives so as to better understand them.
Nieuwejaar is, of course, not the first person to suggest that students need to understand diverse perspectives, but a quick glance over the Core Curriculum will reveal that such perspectives are not always included in the classroom. However, this goal of using different perspectives to give students a deeper understanding of other people is already in practice in the program in narrative medicine at the School of Professional Studies. According to the program website, it uses courses in health care, social sciences, and humanities to improve clinical relationships, among other goals.
Rita Charon, founder and executive director of the program in narrative medicine and a professor of medicine, wrote in a 2013 op-ed for Spectator that the program incorporates the humanities and arts to develop students’ capacity to “behold and to be moved by the presence of another.” This allows those practicing clinical medicine to better understand narratives as given by their patients.
The scholarly work of Sayantani DasGupta, a faculty member in the master's program in narrative medicine, Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society embodies interdisciplinarity. She sees the human narrative as the way that human beings make sense of the world and of relationships with each other.
“Skills in story-listening, story-telling, story-interpreting are deeply related to skills in empathy,” she tells me over the phone. If all members of the health care team, from doctors to social workers to family caregivers, are equipped with abilities to elicit, interpret, and interact with stories, then they are equipped with skills in empathy, DasGupta says.
The field of narrative medicine is also open to undergraduate students through an introductory seminar. In Introduction to Narrative Medicine, students read memoirs and look at how the authors’ writing styles and structures influence how they communicate their experiences. “[We’re] thinking with them empathetically instead of judging them,” Waverley Engelman, a Barnard senior currently taking the class, explains.
Emma Toner, a Barnard junior in the class, says that the variety in writing styles is important to understand the variety in the way that people express themselves: “People communicate the same types of feelings in different ways, and there isn't a right way to communicate that.”
The nonjudgmental empathy that Engelman and Toner practice in the classroom translates into their work with Nightline Peer Listening, an anonymous peer listening service that runs from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m. every night. Their work in Nightline, in fact, was a reason they were interested in the narrative medicine class together. As co-directors of the program, they train and coordinate volunteers who stay up at night to anonymously take calls from students who need someone to talk to. “We really are the most secret society around,” Toner jokes.
I ask if Engelman and Toner see an empathy problem on campus.
Engelman says that while people on our campus are good at showing sympathy with responses to stress (“Oh wow, that does sound stressful,” she offers as an example), they might be less likely to give a more empathetic response (“I’m here with you,” she gives as another example). “There’s probably a lack of being able to really respond to people in a way that makes them feel acknowledged, validated, listened to,” Engelman says. “They’re sometimes just hard skills to learn.”
Being the leaders of an anonymous program, Toner and Engelman couldn’t tell me everything about how they translate these skills into teachable concepts, but they did let me know that campus-based services including the Furman Counseling Center, Counseling and Psychological Services, Sexual Violence Response, and the Office of Multicultural Affairs, among others, are involved in the training process.
The training unsurprisingly also involves practice calls to help the volunteers develop listening skills—skills that the co-directors repeatedly referred to as crucial throughout our interview. “Being able to respond in a way that showed how you listened is something that very few people think about,” Engelman says.
Toner suggests that the willingness and ability to listen is a draw for callers dialing into Nightline rather than, say, anyone else they know. “I think it’s rare for people in general to just have someone there suddenly who really wants to know about their experience and is really there to listen, and isn’t really like, ‘Okay, let’s get through to the next thing,” she explains.
But empathy, of course, isn’t the ultimate end. Instructor Miranda Pennington uses empathy as a major theme in her University Writing section, where she asks her students to think critically about what surrounds them. She introduces questions about empathy from a number of texts including Alisa Solomon’s essay “Who Gets to be Human on the Evening News,” which looks at the media’s role in cultivating empathy, and Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams,” which chronicles Jamison’s role as a medical actor performing symptoms for doctors while also exploring her own health issues.
“I have texts that suggest that empathy is the solution to everything and texts that are very frank about the fact that it’s not enough,” Pennington says. She wants her students to recognize empathy’s values and limitations.
Nieuwejaar also does not believe that empathy is the solution to every problem: It doesn’t necessarily promote action, and one can get frozen by feeling too deeply for another person. Without a healthy understanding of boundaries and differences, Nieuwejaar warns that we can project our own feelings onto others in a way that’s not helpful.
She, instead, returns to learning and understanding perspectives. As her students read W.E.B. DuBois, they consider what it means to be educated and what people with perspectives different from their own think about education. As her students discuss Jane Addams, they discuss her ideas about the way people understand and connect with each other, and how this relates back to Addams’ theories of education.
Pennington agrees and believes that diversifying the perspectives within the classroom and bringing in voices that are not included in the traditional academic canon can also help improve empathy. “I think that’s the way to keep the academy alive and vibrant and full of empathy for people who have not historically been inside its sort of scope,” she says.
She also teaches her students empathy by practice—instructing them to be supportive when giving feedback in writing workshops: “I remind them that they should write the kind of feedback they would want to receive.”
Pennington says her role as a Writing Center consultant—much like that of an anonymous Nightline listener—is being nonevaluative. “It’s not to be like, ‘This is great. This is terrible.’ It’s, ‘Here’s what I see happening. Is that what you meant to have happen?’” This process of trying to understand a writer’s intentions produces empathy, Pennington explains.
The aforementioned anonymous op-ed noted that while students at Columbia might not excel at direct interpersonal empathy, we will likely develop an understanding of the larger systems affecting our lives while we’re here.
In teaching courses in narrative health and social justice, DasGupta wants her students to think about listening across differences in power. She tells me that she is more interested in justice than in theorizing ideas of empathy, but she still sees empathy as a result of social justice. “It's still about human empathy, right?” she poses rhetorically. “It’s about, how do you work against hierarchies of difference that prevent good listening, that prevent good empathy?”
Clinical empathy, anonymous empathy, empathy in writing workshops, empathy across power structures—all are forms of empathy the people I’ve talked to believe can be trained or taught. But it seems naïve to suggest that a student body of nonjudgmental, trained listeners would necessarily choose to care about each other.
“There’s a lot on your plates, you know?” Nieuwejaar tells me when I ask her if she sees an empathy problem on campus. She realizes that responsibilities in and outside of our courses, and commitments to others as well as to ourselves can be a lot to manage. Pennington expresses a similar sentiment. “Students are busy, and they are stressed, and sometimes they don't have time to be performatively empathetic,” she says.
But Pennington also points out that expectations for this performance of empathy might be different based on where students are coming from in a literal sense, and not everybody’s expectations align with the no-eye-contact norm in New York City.
“If you’ve grown up in New England, you don’t want people saying hello to you wherever you go,” she says, “but if you came out of Little Rock, Arkansas, you think, ‘Why is everyone so mean to me?’”
Each person has a different way of expressing empathy, and each person has a different way of expressing a need for empathy. Just as Toner learned this in the narrative medicine class, she saw it in practice at Nightline.
“Not everyone does it in the exact same way, and not everyone is perceptive in the exact same ways,” she says, noting that she has learned by observing other people’s approaches towards empathy. “You can always get better.”
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