Empathy- The power within

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Author: Gayatri Venugopal-Wairagade, Faculty Member, SICSR, Pune.

With the onset of this semester, I was presented with a teaching challenge. I was assigned to teach a course named ‘Design Thinking’, a course that was devoid of programming or any technical element, putting me completely out of my comfort zone. The course was relatively new to me, and to the best of my knowledge, it had not been taught to the earlier undergraduate batches, which made it difficult to decide the pedagogy to be followed. The course content looked theoretical in nature at first glance, but as teachers, we know that a one hour monotonous lecture on the theory of a topic is the best strategy one can adopt if one wants the student to start calculating the number of remaining sessions they should attend to clear the dreaded 75% mark. This may come as a surprise to a few students reading this article, but teachers themselves are not very enthusiastic about monotonous sessions either. So I started taking blended sessions that involved lecture, solo and group activities on general topics around design thinking, such as innovation, stretching your imagination, team formation etc. I used this time to study more about the history, applications and various phases of design thinking. The first phase was Empathy; this article does not cover the remaining phases. You may refer to designthinking.ideo.com to know more about Design Thinking.

Empathy refers to the ability to understand the other person’s feelings and feel what they are experiencing. This is much different from sympathy, a more familiar feeling. It is easy and relatively effortless to sympathise with a living being in distress, but empathy requires a selfless intent, patience and practice if it does not come naturally to you. The big question in front of me was, ‘How can empathy be taught in class?’. Design thinking is about solving problems by ideating with limited resources at your perusal. And to implement the same, I referred to various articles and a few research papers revolving around empathy.

For the challenge at hand, I decided to take inspiration from Cameron et al. (2019), wherein the researchers studied how students empathised with a picture presented to them. The activity was divided into five tasks. You may also take part in the exercise as you read through this article.
Task 1: Look at the picture below. *

Source: htps://savethechildren.org

a. Remain detached and write one sentence mentioning the age and describing the facial expression of the person in the picture.
b. Now try to feel what the person feels and write a sentence or more, describing the feelings and experiences of the person in the picture.

Task2: Look at the picture below. *

Source: htps://thecircle.ngo
Repeat a. and b. for this picture.

After completing these tasks, the students were asked which task was easier for them for each of the pictures. While almost all the students explained that describing was easier as opposed to feeling, majority of them explained that feeling was relatively easier in picture 2 as compared to picture 1 because they could see the whole picture and the feelings were visible on the mother’s face.
However, when you interact with others, they may not always wear their heart on their sleeve. Latent emotions are difficult to identify and then the onus is on us to interact with them and/or their environment and understand their issues and deal with them like they were our issues.

Through these tasks, the students had a rough idea about empathy, but they were yet to experience the problem/s that could occur in its absence. In order to design the subsequent tasks, I decided to choose a socially relevant topic so that they could relate to it and become aware of an issue not often talked about in a typical Indian classroom. With this in mind, the topic of gender sensitivity was associated with empathy. When we read the term ‘gender sensitisation’, the feminist in us would immediately think about sensitising men to the issues of women. While this is equally important, the task went a step ahead and introduced students to the notion of usage of gender pronouns. With this background, we move ahead to task 3.

Task 3: Look at the picture below. *

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jacob_Tobia_at_Microsoft_NERD.jpg

Write a short paragraph about the internal experiences and feelings of the person in the picture.
The students looked confused when they started writing. They started discussing whether they should write ‘he’, or ‘he/she’ or ‘it’! Few chose the path of avoidance and avoided the use of pronouns completely; every sentence in the paragraph began with the phrase ‘The person...’.

Tasks 4 and 5 followed immediately.
Task 4:
Form groups of 2, and ask 5 questions to your team mate. For instance, what is your career goal, where do you go on vacation, what is your favourite television show etc.. One mandatory question was - ‘Which gender pronoun do you associate yourself with?’. The male students answered ‘he’ and the female students answered ‘she’. We did not receive any other answer during this task. Following this, two groups were merged together. Now one group had 4 members. The instruction given was as follows:
Every person in the group should now be introduced by their partner to the group, though they must use the opposite gender pronoun than the one that the partner associates with. That is, the female students would be introduced as ‘he/him/his’ and the male students would be introduced as ‘she/her’.
The students got confused again. They felt that this was an awkward task, and asked, “Why are you doing this to us?”. A few students were laughing while a few were not able to persistently use the opposite gender pronoun for their friend.
After this task was over, they were introduced to task 5, which was adapted from MacNamara et al. (2017).

Task 5:
Read the article shared with you on 'Why Indians are sharing their pronouns on social media’. This article was published in a newspaper, wherein the correspondent interviewed gender neutral people, people with a non-binary gender and reported their use of the pronouns ‘they/them/their’.

After the students successfully and patiently completed all these tasks, I asked them how they felt to be referred to by gendered pronouns that they did not identify with. A few of the answers were as follows:
a. “Existential crisis”
b. “Felt insecure "
c. "It felt normal like a fun activity since I'm comfortable with the LGBT issue and community. "
d. "It was a rude as well as uncomfortable behavior"
e. "It feels like one doesn't have an identity when being called upon a pronoun which he/she/they aren't."
f. "I don't like it"
g. "Quite strange"
h. "Not comfortable"
i. "Funny"
j. "Deprived of respect"
k. "Confusing, Awkward"
l. "Not good I would like to be pronounced by my identified gender only"
m. "Humorous and bewildering. Funny to be called by a pronoun you’re never associated with."
n. "I was fine because its an activity”
o. "Funny because it was an activity , but I'm pretty sure that i would have been offended it this weren't an activity."
p. "I felt awkward and it was somewhat offensive to be regarded as some other gender.".

We discussed what persons who do not associate themselves them a binary gender, or associated themselves as their biological opposite gender would feel, when we use the gendered pronouns that are convenient for us to use. Task 4 was a glimpse into this feeling from a bird’s-eye view.
Following this, they were asked to re-frame the paragraph they wrote about the person in the picture in Task 3. A few students read out the modified paragraphs with he/she/it/the person modified to they/them/their.
One student, after the activity, explained to me what I tried to teach through these series of tasks – one of those moments that alone is sufficient to prove the worth of the hours and days spent by a teacher on preparation.
After carrying out this activity for two iterations, I am unsure how much it helped, but in today’s world, where we are engrossed in our busy lifestyle and problems, the need for empathy is monumental. If we look around us and observe what is happening around the world, be it the agitation that is spreading like fire throughout the country, the death of billions of innocent helpless animals, deliberate shooting of thousands of others who managed to stay alive, or the legal system going haywire – it is easy to join the dots and realize that almost all the critical problems in the world are linked to a lack of education. Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that our co-inhabitants are not aware. They might be, but they chose to ignore to act on the problems, which makes them/us merely literate, not educated. As a person witnessing her waning days of youth, neither am I trying to put forth my point as a young millennial nor am I expressing my views in a patronising manner as a member of the older generation. So I hope you will not judge me when I say that we must always blame the person in the mirror instead of blaming our preceding generations or generation Z for the problems in the world. There is a need to understand the nature and depth of the problems around, be it trivial or gigantic, which can only come with an intent to make an attempt to solve the problem. The intent can developed only through education, if not from personal experiences. So let’s call it experiential education. A combination of the two, will in turn inculcate in you, ‘empathy’ that will consequently push you to act on the problem and help suppress the negative influence of the uneducated majority, thus making the world a better place to live in, for us and for our future generations. This sounds extremely simple when you think about it but it can only be effective if we realise that we have the power today, before it gets too late, when issues that are of crucial importance today seem trivial in front of the existence of life on our planet.

1. Cameron, C. D., Hutcherson, C. A., Ferguson, A. M., Scheffer, J. A., Hadjiandreou, E., & Inzlicht, M. (2019). Empathy is hard work: People choose to avoid empathy because of its cognitive costs. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
2. MacNamara, J., Glann, S., & Durlak, P. (2017). Experiencing misgendered pronouns: A classroom activity to encourage empathy. Teaching Sociology, 45(3), 269-278.


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