Empathy: Rethinking “Student-Centeredness” in the Writing Classroom


By: Rachael Burke

Rachael Burke is a second-year Writing and Rhetoric PhD student at George Mason University.  Her research centers on empathic articulation and social-emotional design.  She has taught composition, ESL, and interdisciplinary studies, and she is currently teaching at GMU and Northern Virginia Community College.  You can reach her at rburke13@gmu.edu.

Almost every semester, there is one assignment that I approach a bit differently from many composition teachers: the metacognitive essay. I love the overall spirit of this essay and what it asks students to do, as it encourages students to understand their own writing habits and the general composition process. And I certainly support the idea that rhetorically savvy writers must possess the capacity for introspective analysis. For me, however, part of the problem with the most traditional versions of this assignment (ones where students are centering their awareness on their own writing) is that it primarily asks students to re-form a relationship with their own ideas, feelings, and processes, in addition to cultivating self-evaluative judgment. Often, I get the sense that students need more instruction on other-oriented communicative practices, so in the past ten years I have made my metacognitive essay more about helping students understand how their writing affects others and less about how their writing affects only themselves. I ask them to consider the social implications of their writing: the ethical, emotional, and intellectual questions their writing addresses in its development and production. I also ask them to consider what type of social change they might enact or what problems they might solve. Finally, I ask them to articulate why they are taking responsibility for the problem they have chosen. I think often we, as teachers, assume this lesson is taught when we discuss something like “audience” or “purpose” in class. Rather, I am talking about something more substantial and reciprocal than that—I am talking about empathic awareness. I teach empathy in the composition classroom (and I ask my students to develop a cognizant awareness of its significance in their communication with one another) because I believe it is important to develop, practice, and encourage social cognitive awareness—what Roman Krznaric would call “outrospection”—as a way to help students to consider the ways in which their dialogic practices are always, necessarily, connected to the world around them. What I am really asking my students to do is think about why we care.

As Suzanne Keen writes in Empathy and the Novel (2007), “Empathy seems so basic a human trait that lacking it can be seen as a sign of inhumanity” (pg. 6). Indeed, for most of us, basic empathy is hardwired into who we are and how we engage the world around us. But as someone who wants my students to strengthen and preserve social relationships in ways beyond the ordinary, I recognize empathy as an indispensible social and rhetorical skill that can help my students build their capacity to gauge and articulate thoughts and feelings with accuracy and authenticity. In “Empathy and the Critic,” Anne Jurecic (2011) calls empathy “multidimensional, flawed, fascinating” (p. 12), and – while some might see this as the reason why empathy can’t (or shouldn’t, even) be taught in the composition classroom – this definition is precisely why I believe empathy should be a core part of any composition curriculum. Empathy accommodates the multifaceted and, yes, sometimes messy challenges of differences, encouraging us to adapt thoughtfully to those differences.

As a teacher, I want my students to be capable of acting with ethical, emotional, and intellectual integrity in their research; in spaces of intimate familiarity; in the exploration of new and diverse concepts, cultures and ideas; and in their private moments of ideological uncertainty. I ask my students to consider empathy as a cornerstone of rhetoric in their writing because it supports them in becoming socially responsive and responsible writers. In this blog, then, I hope to begin building a discussion around empathy in composition, rhetoric, and beyond so we might all become a bit more comfortable “talking empathy.” My goal is to expand how we, in composition and rhetoric, think about and define our own relationship with empathy so that we might consider acting more empathically while encouraging more empathic values in the writing classroom. As I build a framework for this and future posts, I want to attempt to 1) provide context for how we define empathy in composition and rhetoric and place this in conversation with cross-curricular definitions, 2) explain how current practices and values in writing and rhetoric already align with empathic design and make recommendations for best practices, and 3) locate empathy within a broader curricular context as a workable rhetorical ethos. I hope that by doing this, we might be able to use empathy as a way to form stronger, more connected conversations with each other in our writing classrooms, in composition studies, and as we understand the uniquely situated goals of writing across the curriculum.

Our Relationship with Empathy

Current research has shown that we are designed and socialized to be empathetic, so empathy is already in our classrooms facilitating our exchanges. However, our relationship with empathy—how we define it, understand it, and relate socially with it—often determines how comfortable we are including empathy as part of our academic conversation. In recent years (partly in response to President Obama’s 2006 Northwestern University commencement speech in which he talked about an “empathy deficit” and our need to address it), researchers from across the curriculum have begun taking serious interest in empathy as a scientific, practical, and theoretical field of study. Neuroscience has labeled empathy our “social glue” (Dijksterhuis, 2005) and positionality theorist Rom Harré (2009) has called it the “hinge” upon which all of our emotional vocabulary swings. For researchers and teachers who study empathy qualitatively and quantitatively (as I do), it isn’t a vague “feeling” anymore. It isn’t phenomenological, even if there are aspects of empathy that aren’t completely understood. Rather, it is measurable, observable, and teachable (Ickes and Decety, 2009).

However, the very thing that seems to make it valuable interdisciplinarily (and to humanity, in general)—its social, emotional, and cognitive togetherness—may be what has also made it a bit of a black sheep in rhetoric and composition. In “Rhetorics of Proximity: Temple Grandin and Cornell West” (1998) Dennis Lynch points out the way in which rhetorical theory, especially, has “scrutinized, critiqued, and all but abandoned” empathy leading many to believe that it is conceptually “weak, epistemologically flawed, and politically suspicious” (p. 6). This view is somewhat unfair because it limits us both in theory and practice, but what’s worse is that is that this view of empathy makes us afraid to engage with each other cognitively because we are uncomfortable with the idea of sharing ground with each other emotionally (and vice versa). Until rhetoric and composition begins working toward a clearer and more field-specific definition of (and a clearer exigency for) empathy in the writing classroom, I fear we will continue to suffer from misunderstanding.

Some of these misconceptions stem from a synonymous use of empathy with other similar but distinct concepts. For some researchers, writers, and teachers, alike, there might be a tendency to hear words like “empathy,” “sympathy,” “compassion,” or “care” (Zahn-Waxler, Robinson, & Emde, 1992; Preston and de Waal, 2002) and believe these represent the same thing: saccharine sentimentality. Pure pathos. Emotional manipulation, even. While the cognitive sciences are embracing this “emotion meets cognition” discussion[1], our response to empathy has generally been skepticism—as if emotional intelligence is a bad thing, or at the very least, something to be dismissed.

Historically, we have been a bit uncomfortable with empathic awareness in composition and rhetoric. As Susan McLeod writes in Notes on the Heart: Affective Issues in the Writing Classroom (1997), “It has always been difficult to discuss affective issues in a systematic way, primarily because of the Western cultural bias against affect as a serious topic of academic interest” (pg. 5). Certainly, we have had the cognitive work of, say, Flower and Hayes, and current trends toward affective studies bring a positive light to the emotional value of empathy. But unlike neuroscience or psychology, we haven’t continued to cogently understand it or systematize our language around it. Rather, we have ignored it, suggesting emotional cognition somehow defies logical or empirical categorization. This has made teaching practices and pedagogies involving empathy—helping students label emotions or care if their logical arguments hurt others, for example—difficult to discuss.

But for those of us who research empathy and practice it rhetorically and in the classroom, it isn’t a vague pedagogy. There is a method to our madness. As Nathaniel Teich (1992) explains, “The key issues involving empathy are … ‘empathy as a general process and a mode of analytic listening,’ empathy as balanced between ‘rational understanding’ and ‘emotionality and sympathetic and affective attunement,’ and ‘empathy as a special mode of affective communication” (p. 243). I would suggest that empathy’s place in the writing classroom is best framed not as a matter of teaching feelings or emotion themselves (as seems to be an oft-voiced fear) or trying to influence students’ values, but of teaching students how to cognitively and emotionally interact with and represent socially responsible dialogue—teaching them, in part, how to interpret and respond not simply with feeling but to communicate with social-emotional description and care. Helping them accurately interpret and describe the feelings of themselves and others and also learn how to engage in ethical argument that considers the thoughts and feelings of the audience with which they interact. Knowing when to enter the space of another and when to step back. Knowing when to engage and when to retreat. This is language of social awareness and interpersonal intelligence, as well as savvy, rhetorical writing practice. And this type of rhetorical awareness is vital if a student is going to understand how to participate in a system of socially responsibility and reciprocity. Laura Micciche (2005) says it best in “Emotion, Ethics, and Rhetorical Action” when she urges us to remember, “What counts as ethical hinges on understanding how to act and feel in ways appropriate to a situation” (p. 164). Empathic dialogue is the language of human relationships, and bringing attention to it in the composition classroom allows students to give meaning to the rhetorical relationships they are building.

So when I ask my students to write their metacognitive essay—to engage their writing retrospectively—I ask them to think about the relationships they have built (or, have not built). I ask them to assume what Carl Rogers (1961) would call an “as if” condition—a momentary de-situation from oneself so that one might occupy the space of another. The “as if” description of metacognitive writing implies a few valuable things that help me more effectively understand and teach this essay. First, it suggests what social scientists would consider metacognitive awareness, and this is the first step to caring for or appreciating the position of another. This type of awareness is what prompts us to engage in pro-social problem solving. Also, this type of metacognitive writing develops a Theory of Mind[2], the developmental shift from simply sharing the social emotions of others to understanding the social and emotional reasoning, intentions, constructs, and reactions of others (Artinger et al., 2014). But true empathy—the empathy we all know in practice that doesn’t need teaching—is an attempting to find common, kind ground in any given rhetorical situation. Listening. Caring. Trying. This is the real “as if” condition, and it is the one I hope my students discover when they think about their compositional practices in relationship with others. I want them to genuinely attempt to understand each other: because when we move forward “as if” understanding might be possible, it often is.


Artinger, F., Exadaktylos, F., Koppel, H., Sääksvuori, L., & Krueger, F. (2014). In Others’ Shoes: Do Individual Differences in Empathy and Theory of Mind Shape Social Preferences? PLoS ONE, 9(4), PLoS ONE, 2014, Vol.9(4).

Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social-psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Batson, C. D. (2009). These things called empathy. In Ickes, W. and Decety, J. (Eds.), The social neuroscience of empathy (pp. 3-15). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

de Waal, F. (2010). The age of empathy: Nature’s lessons for a kinder society. Broadway Books.

Dijksterhuis, A. (2005). Why we are social animals: The high road to imitation as social glue. In S. Hurley and N. Chater (Eds.), Perspectives on imitation: From cognitive neuroscience to social science: Vol. 2. Imitation, human development, and culture. (pp. 207– 220). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Eisenberg, N. & P. Miller. (1997). Empathy, sympathy, and altruism. In Nancy Eisenberg and Janet Strayer (Eds.), Empathy and Its Development (pp. 299-302). Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Harré, R. (2009). ““Emotions as Cognitive-Affective-Somatic Hybrids.” Emotion Review October 2009 vol. 1 no. 4 294-301.

Ickes, W., and Decety, J. (2009). The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Krznaric, Roman. ‘Roman Krznaric’s Blog On Empathy And The Art Of Living’. Outrospection 2015. Web. 20 July 2015.

Lynch, D.A. (1998) “Rhetorics of Proximity: Empathy in Temple Grandin and Cornell West.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Winter, 1998), pp. 5-23

McLeod, S. H. (1997). Notes on the Heart: Affective Issues in the Writing Classroom. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP.

Micciche, L. (2005). Emotion, Ethics, and Rhetorical Action. JAC, 25(1), 161-184.

Obama, B. (2006). Obama to Graduates: Cultivate Empathy: Northwestern University News. Retrieved May 2, 2015, from http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2006/06/barack.html

Preston, S. D., and de Waal, F. B. M. (2002). Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25, 1– 72.

Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Teich, N. (Ed.). (1992). Rogerian perspectives: Collaborative rhetoric for oral and written communication (Vol. 23). Greenwood Publishing Group. Chicago.

Zahn-Waxler, C., Robinson, J. L., and Emde, R. N. (1992). The development of empathy in twins. Developmental Psychology, 28, 1038–1047.

[1] Currently, across the disciplines, there are 8 recognized forms of empathy (Batson, 2009): 1) Cognitive; 2) Affective; 3) Neural/Mimicry­ Action; 4) Imagine­Other/PerspectiveTaking; 5) Intuiting/Situational Projecting; 6) Projective; 7) Sympathy; 8) Personal Suffering.

[2] Some researchers differentiate empathy from ToM, and some do not. I am still refining my view on this, and I would welcome any comments from readers to help me with developing a more concrete separation.


This post in the first of a series.  Please check back soon in two weeks for the next installment of Rachael’s work!

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