Monday 24 August 2015

The Problem of Empathy

I've been very quiet of late on the old Twittering and Blogging front because I have taken myself off to the UK for a little while to teach on a Pre-sessional. I thought that this would be a really good chance to find out how things are done EAP-wise in the UK as compared to Ireland, as well as stretching myself as a teacher. So far, it's been an absolutely fantastic experience. My colleagues are all wonderful (as tends to be the case in ELT), the course is really well organised and the facilities are excellent. As I had expected, I've been learning tons from looking at how the course has been put together and then discussing how to approach it with my fellow teachers.

On top of all that, though, I've learned perhaps even more from the students themselves and getting a little taste of what life must be like for them. Back in Dublin, I have an apartment, a car, friends, family and a routine. Over here, I've none of that. As with my students, I'm living in shared dorms, struggling with how to set up a bank account and away from what I know. Yes, the culture clash of being Irish in the UK is not nearly the same as being say, Japanese in the UK, but it has helped me get a better appreciation of how overwhelming it all must be for students. And that's before you get to the academic side of things.

To get a sense of what that must be like, I decided that I would complete the same assignments that they have to do. A lot of this was pre-reading for class discussions which I was able to manage handily enough. But the big thing is the 2,000 word essay. I chose developments in EAP as my topic, thinking it would be fairly easy and quite interesting. I was right on the second count, way off on the first. Writing a referenced, 2,000 word essay is tough. If, like me, it's been a while since you were in university, I'd recommend giving it a go. I've found it easier to explain things to students, I've learned a lot about my field and I've picked up some handy tools for referencing.

I've also given up saying stuff like "students don't know how to critically evaluate". I don't really see this as some independent skill that you can learn and apply across the board. To do this, you have to know a lot about the subject. For most of my reading on this essay, I'm nodding in agreement. Only after reading a ton of articles can I start to form my own line of thought. And I'm reading in my first language. We still talk about criticality in the classroom, not so much as an abstract concept or skill, but rather how to critically engage with the particular subject they're working on.

On a more general, abstract note, I've found myself thinking about empathy quite a bit whilst working over here. The title of this post refers to a book by the philosopher and Catholic saint, Edith Stein. I studied this book as part of my masters in philosophy nearly 15 years ago. It came back to me whilst writing this post (a chap called Kris McDaniel has a very good overview of the book here). Essentially (I hope), Stein's idea is that we recognise another person, not simply as a physical thing, but as an individual person, an I just as we are an I. Stein's objective in exploring the concept of empathy was phenomenological, mine in mentioning it, simply a way of stitching an overarching theme to this post.

If I look for connections between successful teachers, empathy seems to be a commonality (as a side note, this would be part of the argument as to why multi-lingual language teachers are especially helpful to their students). I haven't been able to find a lot on the value of teacher empathy (although there does seem to be a lot on how to teach empathy), but I believe that it is a valuable asset for EAP teachers. The problem is that our empathy can wane a bit as the gap between the present and our former student life widens. That's why a good kick up the backside, as I've been getting this last couple of weeks, is no bad thing. And it can be a self-administered kick - all that needs to be done is to loudly proclaim (it has to be loud so you can't back out) that you will stand shoulder to shoulder with your students during the assignment (unless it's a bloody learner journal! They're on their own for that one).

*I should also point out how amazing the Twitter community is - I did a shout out for sources for my EAP essay and got lots of really helpful responses.


  1. Really impressed - teaching a pre-sessional and completing the assignments is no mean feat! Are you going to try and get your essay published somewhere - maybe edited into more of an article format?

    Did your empathy for your students' situation have any practical effect on your teaching or just make you feel frustrated with the system on their behalf?

    Julie (Moore)

  2. Hi Julie,

    Thanks so much for commenting. It's not as impressive as it sounds. For a start my essay is rubbish and I had to give myself an extension. But one of the things that I've found helpful in chatting with students is being comfortable about the first draft being rubbish. I used to approach writing from the perspective of getting it perfect first time which was really stressful and self-defeating. I think a lot of my students would have a similar attitude. I'm much more inclined now to look at it as a process, the end product being improved by editing and rewriting. I told my students that before because it was the thing to say - now it is what I do and find to have helped me.

    In terms of the effect on my teaching, I'm not sure. I think that in the past I've been guilty of spoonfeeding students a little bit - what I've noticed now is that what they really need is support and an ear as they struggle with the demands of academic life. I am not sure about the feelings of frustration - so far, whatever empathy I've been able to feel has generated a sense of awe. The more I think about it, the more staggering it seems that they can travel so far and leave so much behind to follow their studies. The fact that so many people do it often means I don't appreciate how incredible it is. If I flip it, if I think that in a few years, my nephew was going to go and live and study in China for 3 or 4 years - that he was going to do his degree through Chinese - that he was going to live completely independently in a country so different to the one he grew up in - it would completely blow me away. I would be so in awe of that. And yet, the people I work it are doing the exact same thing. But perhaps I may feel more frustrated later when I understand the system a bit better :)

    Thanks again


  3. It's cool to see others doing the assignments they create and administer to EAP students! While I always thought it a good idea in principle, it wasn't until last year that I actually decided to do the major writing assignments in real-time alongside my students. I did it primarily to model, and to show them where they out to be in the process by looking at where I was (all through Google docs). But as I did it, I gained perspective on how taxing it can be to find relevant texts, evaluate them, and synthesise ideas from them to make my point, not to mention actually write the bits needed for the scaffolded steps towards the final paper. I readily admit, though, that at certain points towards the end, I didn't keep up, what with the meeting of my students to go over their writing too. I will definitely build on what I did last year this year.

    In any case, good on you for the try and the empathy built from it.

    1. Hey Tyson,

      Thanks so much for sharing. I remember talking with you before about Google docs...I must try that next time out. I think you're absolutely right. Doing the process alongside them is so valuable. I was initially worried that my efforts would be off putting, that I would be presenting an unattainable (for them) ideal. That ego bubble was soon burst. Now we're kind of struggling through together and I think it's been helpful for them. Yes, it is a real struggle giving feedback at the same time so it might not be doable every course. But even doing part of it is a real eye opener. The thing I also found really helpful was to give them grade sheets and get them to evaluate my work. We did this with a presentation I gave at elt ireland conference this year and it was a great exercise. They ripped it to shreds (very, very politely) ☺