How much capacity for empathy do we have, for ideas and people whose worldviews are very different from our own? How much hospitality do we have in ourselves, beyond mere tolerance, for this kind of difference?

Maha Bali,  ‘Whom do you listen to? And why I’m hoping to go the US this August

At Mary Freer’s compassion lab last week I learned new things from systems researcher Fiona Kerr. Fiona advises large corporations on social neuroscience, and is a robust and articulate critic of the ways in which technology investment seeks to substitute face to face human interaction with AI, VR and robots. She speaks persuasively about the evidence that nurturing connections created between humans who trust one another transform our capacity to think, to innovate, to navigate risk and to plan with discernment. All of these are core benefits to any environment concerned with learning, so you would think that universities would be first in the line to be fostering empathic and collegial workplaces. Connectedness makes us better at the things that universities are here to do, literally.

jewellery links
Linked spirals: network diagram, photograph by Kate Bowles

There are practical problems, however, with applying these lessons to universities, first because we are hierarchical institutions with power issues; and secondly because we are naturally global organisations. The problem with the neuroscience of empathic connection is that the two activities that offer the greatest benefit in terms of brain responses are prolonged touch, and retinal eye lock. Neither transfer well into virtual environments; and prolonged touch doesn’t transfer well into many workplaces, so bear in mind that Fiona was speaking primarily to people involved in therapeutic patient care. (And even eye contact doesn’t generate such positive brain outcomes in Skype meetings as in face to face contact, which I found useful to know.)

So if we’re putting more effort into online communication (and universities really are burying themselves in email, at every level); and if we’re also positively encouraging online collaboration because it offers a wider horizon beyond collaborators who are local to us, then we need to figure out what it is that builds connection in online or virtual environments. All of us who teach also need to understand how students who are skilled in using technology to connect to others may still need support to develop those connections to a level that stimulates their capacity to empathise and then discern, in the same demonstrated way as eye contact and touch.

This has me thinking about what it means to teach empathically in diverse online environments, where we can’t always see or hear from the people we’re learning with, and we can’t assume in any fundamental way that they experience life as we do. We can take nothing for granted about the strangers we don’t meet, except through the words they offer in writing or when they talk to us through our screens. To remember to teach inclusively is to engage our own brains in thinking about the world as it is for others: over there, in that body, at that time of day, in that season, during that cultural festival, under that government, in that family structure, with those religious hopes.

The challenge of working inclusively and generously in online environments is impressive, but the opportunity that it opens up for us is something that we can’t leave to chance in this difficult world. So I am really glad to be heading to the US with my friend and colleague Maha Bali, to lead a section of the Digital Pedagogy Lab to be held at the University of Mary Washington in August. You can read more about our track here. We wrote that post together knowing that for very obvious reasons, Maha may have a tough time even entering the US as an Egyptian Muslim woman. But this is precisely why we’ve both chosen to try to show up:

we are coming to the US to lead this track because we both believe that the practical exercise of global citizenship is more important than ever. We believe that inclusive intercultural digital pedagogy is not a luxury, and can no longer be an afterthought. This time of walls and travel bans demands conviction and ingenuity from critical digital educators concerned with gestures of openness and hospitality. To change the landscape on both sides of the walls that are being built to keep us apart, we need to show up and collaborate wherever we can.

We are honoured to be making this complicated journey together. Above all, we are looking forward to working with participants at DPL Fredericksburg to shape new practices of witness, justice and empathy, and to advocate without compromise for a pedagogy of respect to the stranger, the migrant, and the refugee.

And after listening to Fiona Kerr and thinking about how our brains actually work, I’ll be asking specifically whether narrative practice in digital pedagogy is the missing dimension that enables us to form a profound sense of each other, in the absence of eye contact and touch. I’m thinking about stories that have been shared with me online, and how I retain a sense of that person through the lens of their story. To me this opens up a new way of looking at tools, platforms and practices to find those that are most likely to honour listening, without simply defaulting to likes and hearts and thumbs up. Which platforms are best to let someone know that they have been heard in this world? Which digital tools enable us to maintain a rich sense of the storied life being lived elsewhere?

So with all this in mind, I can’t say enough about the beautiful essay Sean Michael Morris has written about his practice of writing about teaching (Sean will also be leading a track at DPL in August, on this very thing.) As he puts it, all of of us who teach do so for reasons. It’s not always obvious what those are; it’s not always the case that we have been inspired by being taught formally or informally. Sometimes, we just found ourselves in the room, and stayed. That’s certainly what happened to me.

Sean’s story about his father covers so much ground; it’s a love story without romance, delivered reverently, candidly and carefully. It’s a story of connectedness and frailty, that gives space to what we learn about a person after they have passed from our life. About working with learners, who are at the core of this essay and at the centre of his practice, Sean has this to say:

We are not dealing with students, but people with dreams, people who will fail and people who will succeed, people who may end up alone and people whose high point of the day may be a conversation with us. Being kind may seem counterintuitive to the academic ethos—especially when being kind can sometimes mean being wrong—but we owe it to ourselves to think outside our setting, to see past the artificial boundaries of generation, expertise, and authority. And while we’re at it: race, gender, sexuality, religion.

This is how we should write about teaching. From a place less studious and a place more generous.

He could just have said this, but it’s the story that he shared around it of his relationship with his father that expanded the possibility of connection, and helped me to concentrate on and recall what he thinks about students. The gift of Sean’s story, the small details that are still in my mind, opened a space in the present for me to imagine my own storied life as a person who teaches, especially online. So I’d really like to know more about how this sense of connectedness and this intensity of recall might show up on an MRI. But for now it’s enough that this essay (and many others, by others) was shared online and I found it.

And if you can make it to Fredericksburg August 7-11, come and join us all. We’d love to see you.

Details are here.

10 Responses

  • Christy Mattingly

    I have questions. Are universities hierarchical or distributed democratic with factions of power (faculty senate, board, administration, students, staff, various committee structures representative of facstaff/Ss)? In leadership studies, most are considered distributed like the US government though I’m not sure if academic freedom is restricted to the US as not all of our institutions are state owned.

    Isn’t prolonged touch and retinal eye lock about building intimacy? If so, how do we build connection and intimacy online I’m the absence of these things? Can the way in which we communicate help foster intimacy? Can new technology redefine how we can be intellectually intimate? WetInk has changed how writing can be taught electronically. Tiltbrush gives new meaning to action painting and if it is possible for multiple artists to share virtual space (let me paint with Banksy), wow! Unit 4’s dev team is working on “no interface” showing conversational styles to students applying to colleges via Skype bots so the human employees are free to work more deeply than data entry allows.

    Online allows broader reach. Can give diverse groups a voice. Breakout Zoom rooms provide intimacy and more talking time, as recently discussed with a Professor of Nursing who had grad students log into Zoom from home which created a decentralized power structure between teacher and students with new problems needing creative solutions (breakout rooms).

    I am a big fan of “not everything has to happen on screen”. When I taught a hybrid class on Microsoft Excel called “Problem Solving for Business”, I asked students to go meet with someone at a business who uses Excel, have them show how it is used, create a set of mock data and replicate their processes, and share with the class on a Moodle forum. Each student has a different experience to share. Many of them notes that the business was not using many of the formulas or tools they were learning. Real life connection of the value of what they were learning made a tremendous impact on my students.

    Other ideas I offer faculty…ask students to call (video or phone) each other and have a conversation about the reading and report insights in a forum. Breakout, reconnect as a whole.

    Set up a Moodle (or online) chat if using Zoom (videoconferencing) to teach regularly. The chat serves several purposes. 1. A place to communicate if someone can’t get the videoconferencing tech to work. 2. As we usually connect one classroom to another at a different location, have some students at each location discuss your lecture questions via chat to create cross-distance relationships and to keep students from being limited to those they are physically near. 3. Use as a backchannel (this idea is not popular with most faculty I know, possibly due to our small class sizes, as they are concerned about control and whether students are paying attention though it is invaluable to giving voice when the people in the room are invested – to me this is akin to using Twitter at conferences where there isn’t time for everyone to speak).

    As someone who supports faculty through technology, I have found that observing the way they teach and deliver the videoconference dance has greatly helped to develop my team’s ideas for creating a great learning experience.

    • Kate Bowles

      Hi Christy, welcome. Thank you so much for this long comment and useful survey of tools. You’re so right that the videoconference dance is an evolving one.

      My hunch is that in the strategy you describe, of using Moodle to enable students to report back on distinctive experiences, demonstrates an important thing about all this. I use Moodle and it’s fundamentally not an engaging platform. But once people bring storytelling to a platform, anything can be used to build intimacy and — this is key — trust.

      So I suspect that intimacy, trust and confidence is built online by people, not by tools. But this means we do need to find the tools that do the best thing possible. I still love watching people writing on a shared document. It makes me laugh every time, that sense of someone actually typing on the other side of the world. It’s a great thing.

  • Oh, Kate, thank you for writing about Sean’s essay here. I have been thinking about it since I read it and shared it with my closest reading colleagues at school. And exactly what you say here about investigating how we make contact with each other online without the benefit of physical touch and direct eye contact makes so much sense to me.
    It is a curious thing how connected I feel to a number of people through our online correspondence. Through writing. Especially writing about feelings, about identity, about struggles, about the ways we see and experience the world. To connect we must read carefully, which is to say listen carefully and with sensitivity. This is hard to do and we will not always get it right. Yet here in this post I see you and what captures your attention and pushes your curiosity and I feel closer to you as a person, as a colleague. When I arrived online I had no idea that this kind of connection was possible.
    Now that I have a sense of what’s possible, I have become more cautious and discerning in seeking out the communities which offer both support and opportunities to contribute fully. Listening to others becomes more central to success than ever before. Reading well – to listen, to learn, to be reached – is an intellectual emotional skill I have been able to strengthen precisely through encounters like this one. As Maha tweeted, my brain also works better when I read your work.

    • Kate Bowles

      As I grasped the brain science Fiona explained, there is a specific consequence to mental effort. Our brains are wired to follow simple patterns, it’s the basis of efficiency. So anything that disrupts this pattern, especially effort to concentrate, stimulates the brain into generally good things. Eye contact seems to have some of that effect, but I am really drawn to your instinct that “to connect we must read carefully”. The act of reading carefully is like any slowed-down thing, it asks us to show up fully in the present.

      At the retreat we did a walking meditation and I learned that this is actually very difficult. We’re so used to walking at speed, and it’s actually that momentum that keeps us up. Walking with deliberate slowness introduces a new kind of balance problem, so you have to focus your attention, or you just fall down.

      So this question of brains working better, that’s not nothing.

    • The idea of listening well probably competes with eye contact for connection. Strangely, I can listen poorly at first but succeed and keep improving my connect-ability if I sense being heard. Something in a response signals receptivity from the other. Saw a very short film clip from pretty intense student discussion on feeling disregarded and the young woman said, “I don’t want you to explain it back to me! I want you to step into me and FEEL what I’m saying!” Something in education insists an answer can be removed from context, made explainable to all and then returned without anyone noticing that it’s easier to explain because its been made comprehensible but no longer itself.

      This sounds contrary but there must be some value in the process of misunderstanding?

  • Hi Kate, I was really struck by the eye contact problem in digital media. Once of the challenges is the disconnection between the camera and the display – this is a complete technical challenge – if they could put the camera in the middle of the screen, then you would more likely be looking at the person you are talking to – actually you tend to look at them, but the camera isn’t them, so it looks like you aren’t. There is also the lag that distance causes – this lag again breaks the connection in eye contact.

    There is also there who energy thing that doesn’t translate over digital … but I also think there is a lack of priority for virtual – in that, we make space in our lives for people who are physically present – but if we don’t consciously think about it, we don’t make that same space for people who are present virtually – they don’t generally get the same priority in our lives. That too matters. Relationships that are predominantly online take a lot more effort. Although one might argue that relationships with anyone that is “different” from you also take more effort.

    • Kate Bowles

      Becky, I was really interested in Fiona’s comment on an MRI comparison study that showed that the empathic benefits of eye contact didn’t happen over Skype. I wonder if it’s for the reason you give, about that camera position issue. I know when I Skype I try to look the camera, and then forget.

      I’ve just come off a call with someone in Scotland, and throughout I found my gaze wandering to the background of his office. I was interested in some boxes on a shelf, and what looked like some sort of technology gadget. I think it would be interesting to more about how this eye-wandering may be differently permissible with online presence.

  • Lots to think about. The idea of boycotting America totally appeals to my sense of outrage. Yet at the same time I’m online in a course called Hard Conversations – Racism >><&lt; with Patti Digh and started a digital subscription to the Dallas Morning News because since leaving the US in 1975 my understanding of Americans has become confined to anger and stereotype. This is not surrender or even a well-meaning empathy towards a people I consider dangerous; only I feel incomplete to be decided and dismissive or maybe to be in a moment of tension and to remain disconnected is how we got to where we are? And of course, superior in every way for seeming tolerant…

    What would the world be like if things were easy to resolve?

    This is useful. I'm still fond of the DRAMA level:
    [4 levels of engagement + learning forward]
    Alan Seale
    Accessed 4/12/17

  • Kate Bowles

    Scott, I didn’t know about the DSCO model, thank you so much for sharing it. I find these kinds of simple schemes helpful just in managing myself and observing others. Certainly we see a lot of Drama in both education and health, and it’s useful to have a sense that we can move carefully to a more intentional way of responding. This is similar to the work that I’m doing in narrative practice coaching at the moment, which also gives us means of thinking about how we act when things happen around us.

    Thank you.

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