“I Changed My Mind”: Articulating Empathic Design


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.

This post is the third in a series on empathy and writing scholarship. For the full series, please see her first post and second post.

When I think about what it means to write collaboratively and productively across the curriculum, I am always attempting to determine which frameworks best help us all define empathy ontologically and pragmatically. Toward this end, in my previous posts, I have attempted to simultaneously advocate for empathy’s inclusion across the curriculum even while I have tried to better define it. Admittedly, this is a complex task, and not just for me. As Daniel Batson (1991) says, “opportunities for disagreement abound” within the framework of empathy’s theoretical uncertainties (p. 11), and even with a “liquid” understanding of empathy (Burke, Permanence and Change, 1965 qtd. in Miller, 1984, p. 158), a firm sense of definition or application can be hard to come by.

Several years ago, even before I began advocating for a composition curriculum that valued empathic design, I wondered if it conceptually spanned enough of the academic curriculum—indeed, if it would be considered “important” enough—to warrant comprehensive inclusion in the writing classroom. Furthermore, I wondered if I were the “right kind of person” in the “right kind of field” to advocate for empathy, much less for its place in writing instruction. However, I have since amended this view out of renewed respect for writing studies’ capacity to study, nurture, and seek out disciplinary languages of others. Long before I thought of myself as an “empathy theorist,” I was first a rhetorician and a compositionist. Part of my job in our discipline is to facilitate discourse as a matter of helping other disciplines to articulate their own conceptual principles, though sometimes figuring out the best way to situate a new and evolving conversation is tricky, at best.

In the course of positioning empathy as a cross-curricular conversation, I have done what we in composition and rhetoric so often do when we work across the disciplines: I have struggled to provide a uniquely rhetorical solution to an interdisciplinary problem. I say I struggled because that is what all empathy theorists are doing across the curriculum—we are struggling with the definitive language of empathy. I think neuroscientists Jean Decety and William Ickes (2009) encapsulate much of my own frustration when they ask for “a more theoretically coherent articulation of this important construct” (p. iv). As a rhetorician and emerging student of empathy, it is unsurprising that I am constantly doing my best to provide better language with which we can articulate empathy, in form and function. As I work on this challenging task, I see the social value of empathy in its solution-seeking through participatory design, even without its precise description. This is why I advocate for helping students talk about it and write about it, so that we might all work on its constructive value. Because I might agree to some degree with Mary Pipher (2007) that “academics can be revolutionaries” and that “you want to search for what you alone can say and then how you can say it most effectively” (p. 43), but I need no convincing that being the only one researching and writing about empathy probably isn’t the most effective (or evolutionarily adaptive) way to understand or practice it.

Empathy: An Adaptive Model for Changemakers

To better understand how we could define empathy in particular pedagogical situations, I designed an observational pilot study aimed at exploring empathic articulation and curricular design in D.C.’s public schools. A major goal of this study was to discover how language programs actively embraced empathy as a curricular goal and how they measured and achieved particular outcomes (namely: how were these programs helping students learn to accurately perceive and name emotion in situated context and how was this goal working to enhance or prohibit broader curricular requirements?). In the course of this study, I was fortunate to work with the social change organization Ashoka and their network of Changemaker Schools. Their program, “Start Empathy,” sets the specific goal of teaching empathy as a “new paradigm of education for changemaking in fluid environments” so that students can “thrive in a world of rapid change” (p. 6). One of the most notable takeaways from my study was that change itself was embraced while systematicity was neither expected nor necessarily valued. While some might simply call this change a valuing of “diversity,” I was quickly corrected: an ethos of empathy is one that values sameness and togetherness (though often established on emotional grounds) for the sake of unity and collaboration as much as individuality and uniqueness (often for the sake of social responsibility). With this type of change model, one can see why something like metic intelligence would naturally evolve in this educational paradigm; I think it is likely equally easy to see how creating a normative or universal definition of “empathy in composition” presents a “brave new” problematic.

Whether we are discussing empathy as a social process, an affective feature of social connection, or as classroom pedagogy, change is – ironically – the constant that emerges as a common way of talking about its features, functions, and processes. This feature of empathy is what has made it both the darling of process-based study and a thorn in the side to those who want a stable definition for it. As noted above, it is what makes empathy a valuable communicative tool for social and emotional literacy, but it is also what makes it difficult to study as such. For example, when evolutionary biologist Frans de Wall (2010) says, “Greed is out. Empathy is in,” he isn’t just talking about its current uptick in Google searches – he is also referring to the evolutionary benefits of adapting toward working together. In this way, empathy is a natural process, and almost seems like it should possess a kind of systematicity. However, when rhetoricians like Martin Luther King, Jr. are able to call upon their sense of “profound empathy” to enact social change, it is as much empathy’s capacity to stimulate a sense of togetherness amidst volatility and systemic change that allows it to operate as a tool of charismatic leadership, spoken and embodied (Robinson & Topping, 2013). In this regard, it begins to seem like a systemic destabilizer – even a force of desirable progress. Perhaps this is why a progressive like Barack Obama (2006) more directly (and some would levy strategically) mourned an “empathy deficit,” asking students to put themselves in “someone else’s shoes,” later appointing Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor based in part on her empathic capacity. While I believe empathy is generally a prosocial value, when any politician talks about it, I think it politicizes itself in complicated ways that require an evaluation of attendant values. No doubt, empathy is something we all value and attempt to articulate, but we have trouble locating how we collectively feel about empathy, itself. This is the social language we use to talk to each other about the relationships we build with across many social boundaries – academic ones included – but descriptive language is failing to accommodate the social changes that demand our empathic engagement with one another.

Of course, we need to respond better to this challenge of empathic articulation so that we might all respond with more social-emotional accuracy as we adapt to and attempt to effect systemic changes, academically and otherwise. I am happy to say that at GMU we are, indeed, beginning to do that. A major step toward integrating empathic design into our composition curriculum will be the 2016-2017 inclusion of a Well-Being themed 302-level pathway composition course as part of Mason’s “Core Engagement Series” with empathy as a directly stated course objective. This represents a definitive step toward attempting to understand and engage empathy as a strategic outcome, and there has never been a more opportune time for those of us in rhetoric and composition to help facilitate this very necessary development of social-emotional vocabulary for ourselves and for our students in our own writing classrooms. I would propose that in doing so, we must also continue to develop our own capacity to define and articulate empathy theoretically and in practice so we, as teachers and researchers, might best be able to respond to the many interdisciplinary topics that often drive change in the composition classroom. As Victor Frankl (1985) suggests, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” (p. 89). I believe an investment in empathy means we can move beyond reactivity and position ourselves within a space of listening and reciprocal growth and teach our students to do the same.

Links To Learn More:

“Nobody is Average: Every Student Deserves Personalized Learning”

“Can We Teach Empathy?


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

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

Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning. Simon and Schuster.

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

Miller, C. R. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly journal of speech, 70(2), 151-167.

Obama, Barack. “Pres. Barack Obama: Literacy and Empathy.” YouTube. YouTube, 27 July 2007. Web. 01 Oct. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGHbbJ5xz3g&gt;

Pipher, M. (2007). Writing to change the world. Penguin.

Robinson, J., & Topping, D. (2013). The rhetoric of power. Journal of Management Inquiry, 22(2), 194-210.

Startempathy.org. (2014). “Ashoka’s Start Empathy Initiative: The Next Five Years.” Changemaker Schools. Retrieved from http://startempathy.org/about/changemaker-schools

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