On my worst procrastination binges, I’ll dip into the ‘Old Uni Work’ file on my laptop. It’s the nerd’s equivalent of going through old Facebook photos. I’ll chuckle as I think about how Dr Joe Thorogood the lecturer would mark Joe Thorogood the fresher. It’s easy to empathise with your younger self.
Empathy means appreciating someone else’s situation. Empathy is not sympathy. You don’t need to feel sorry for the person; just understand where they are coming from. We think of method actors as great empathisers but it’s powerful in other professions. Chris Voss, an ex-FBI negotiator, also swears by it. If you know the kidnapper just wants cash to party at the weekend, you can offer a much lower ransom if you hold out until Friday evening. George Orwell is described as a master of empathy because he lived with and understood the lives of the cooks, porters and homeless people he wrote about in Down and Out in Paris and London.
Empathic teaching is a well established pedagogical principle in schools but as lecturers, we don’t often think about our audiences. We lecture, they listen. But students need to know why we think what we teach is important. Perhaps we love the content, perhaps the content is boring but underpins the module and is crucial to success. Unless we are teaching content that is unimportant, uninteresting and unsatisfying, we’ve got good grounds for empathic learning.
Take teaching students how to write. I believe the critical abilities of students could — in part — be improved by better writing. It’s not that our students don’t have good ideas; it’s that they can’t get their markers to understand what’s in their heads. I’ve taught at a Russell Group university and at a post-92 institution. The writing errors are no different (grammar and spelling errors, not answering the question, ostentatious language and structure). If left unchecked, these hiccups can compound and strangle the final degree mark because a poorly expressed idea makes for a poor argument. George Orwell put it best.
‘If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.’
Poor academic writing is equivalent to pulling over for directions. The local pedestrian can visualise their instructions (‘turn left at the junction by postbox’). The out-of-town driver can’t do this and is left with ambiguity (‘did they mean left at junction before or after the postbox?’) Likewise, a student has a mental map of their work the marker has no hope of accessing. The empathic lesson, as Turner and Thomas write in ‘Clear and Simple as the Truth’, is that writers, not their readers, shoulder the burden of coherence.
Learning this lesson is not easy for students. It requires huge empathetic effort to see their writing from the marker’s point of view. I didn’t spend my first year learning the rules of the semicolon; there was too much content to learn and fun to be had..
We don’t provide the empathic environments required to teach the lesson either. Students don’t have to mark 50 essays tackling the same question. The payoff of writing practise is not immediately apparent, particularly amongst the other clamouring demands of a degree. If a student wants a template for writing academically, they might turn to our published, peer-reviewed work. If they try to emulate it, they don’t experience the endless redrafting, reviewer 2 criticisms and tears. They might assume staff are just better writers than they can ever be.
This thought was the inspiration for a recent teaching excercise. I gave my students my most embarrassing first year essay and a second year assignment I’m chest-puffing proud of. I then asked my tutees to compare and mark them. I removed my name and told the students they belonged to ‘previous students. These students had graduated long ago (this was true), so criticism was encouraged.
I winced as they pointed out my obvious blunders. My first essay was littered with random capitalisations, double spaces and inconsistent paragraphing. They screwed up their noses at the incoherence and cringed at the flowery word choices (they saw through my blatant attempts to sound clever). They were kinder about the second essay because the writing was less taxing. After a discussion of the difference in quality, I revealed to the students it was my work. I enjoyed their reactions immensely.
There is pedagogical value beyond the mischief. One-way empathy comes when I empathise with the student’s position. I say ‘look, I get it. Academic writing is hard to learn, particularly in first year. I didn’t bother and it showed in my work. But I learned in second year and it paid off.’ Note that this is not sympathy. I’m not excusing my bad writing. I just show that I understand how easy it is to hand in something sloppy. I also show writing was something I had to practise.
Two-way empathy comes from my first year student’s marking of my work. They experience how difficult following a poorly written argument is. They must parse my unending, convoluted sentences and ignore the double spaces. They then see the value of rectifying these errors in their own work.
I asked one of the student’s for their thoughts last week. They said:
‘I agree with your point about empathy and sympathy being different. Reading your first year work didn't make us feel sorry for you, it just helped us to see where you were coming from. I also think that it allowed us to empathise with you which as a student I found useful. It's nice to see for myself that lecturers were once in the situation that we are in today.’
The approach is similar to Columbia Professor Johannes Haushofer who created a CV of his failures. By sharing our past mistakes or failures, we find common ground. If laugh at our silly errors and celebrate the substantive improvements together, we build a stronger platform for trust and empathy. At Coventry’s Geography department, we’re currently recording an online version of the excercise where a colleague and film ourselves marking our old work. I’ll share this when it’s complete.