Friday, June 28, 2013

Precursors to Practicing Empathy: The Role of Embracing Ambiguity

I am in the middle of the latest book identifying empathy as a key to innovation--Tony Wagner's Creating Innovators. He is building on, among other things, the design thinking article by Tim Brown from IDEO first seen in the Harvard Business Review in June 2008. Brown, in a fuller explication of those ideas in his book Change by Design, maintains that "empathy is perhaps the most important distinction between academic thinking and design thinking." Daniel Pink, in his 2005 book A Whole New Mind thinks that "empathy is mighty important. It helped our species climb out of the evolutionary muck." In short, empathy has been getting a lot of play lately. And while I personally think that empathy could and should be part of "academic thinking," I am happy that it is being talked about at all. But it is not something that has been thought through from a teaching and learning point of view.

I love the cornucopia of ideas that come from these authors, and I love reading books that affirm what we have been practicing at CITYterm for the past decade or so. Every time I read these books and then I look at the skills assessment sheet that we design our course of study from, I feel encouraged that we are on the right path. My problem with all of these calls for empathy is that there rarely seems to be a hands-on look at HOW one practices empathy. What is the precise plan of action? What does one do in class to make this happen? Or, looking at the problem from a reverse angle --what gets in the way of practicing empathy? What makes it difficult to do?

The way empathy gets talked about in these books, however, reminds me more of a coach I was listening to at a basketball camp one summer who was explaining how to run a fast break. He started his lengthy exposition with these words, "First, assume a rebound..." But, it seems to me, we should spend some time learning how to rebound before we start running fast breaks. If you don't have the skill of getting the ball, it doesn't help to affirm how valuable it is to run a fast break offense.

Or, as my economics professor in college said when asked about the limitations of economists' thought processes in approaching problems replied, "Well, a lot of us (economists) are like a starving sailor stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat, but a whole case of canned tuna fish has washed up next to us. So, we think, 'How shall we solve this problem?' Economists are people who are prone to approach this problem by saying something like, 'First, assume a can opener."

In the next few posts, I would like to explore what I think are some of the precursors for the practice of empathy. This particular post will be about one of the antecedents that we can't assume to be there--like the rebound in the basketball game or the can opener on the desert island. In fact, we may live in a culture that is hostile to it.

The very first concept that is important to introduce when you are trying to facilitate someone becoming an experience-based learner is the DKDK zone--what this entire blog is named for. Being able to get yourself into the DKDK zone sets in motion a entire series of cognitive skills that make the learning transformative. When I first started practicing getting students into the confusion and disequilibrium that is the inherent in the DKDK zone, I began to notice that one major obstacle kept short-circuiting the spark that needs to be part of the process. That obstacle was my student's deeply held fear of ambiguity.
 My first reaction is always to trust my student's fears, and then go looking for how I or the culture we all inhabit might be culpable in exacerbating the fears. Self-implication, the ability to see one's own part in a situation (even if it be, as Vivian Gornick writes, "frightened or corwardly or self-deceiving,") is a wonderful opening to seeing those circumstances in a new way. So, try this as an experiment--free associate the word "ambiguity." After you have done that, check the dictionary for definitions. Most people come up with words like--unclear, vague, doubtful, enigmatic, cryptic and uncertain. Certainly, none of these are descriptions that are seen as positives. One dictionary has the following definition, "inexactness of meaning, lack of decisiveness or commitment resulting from a failure to make a choice between alternatives."

But look at other words constructed using the Latin "ambi" or the Greek "amphi." People who are "ambidextrous are not "unclear" about whether they are right or left handed; they are both. (Though, as a side note, "dextrous" means right-handed, so the bias and prejudice against left-handed people is certainly contained in the word.) And as my friend Christopher pointed out to me this week at the Teaching for Experience teacher workshop, people who are "ambivalent" have simultaneous and contradictory attitudes and feelings, they are not inconclusive, irresolute, or unsure. Amphibians can live on both land and in the water; they are not unsure about where to live! And, an amphitheater is one where you can see the stage from multiple angles.

My point is this, the society we live in is fearful of ambiguity and will do anything to resolve the dilemma of something having multiple meanings. If you keep digging in the dictionary, it is only after you get down to some secondary definitions that you come to "capability of having two meanings" (which emerges in the 15th century). Dichotomies reign supreme, but so often in an "either/or" sense and not in a "both/and" sense. Look at the contemporary political and social world and notice how much we avoid complexity in exchange for oversimplification. As H. L. Mencken said, "For every complex problem, there is an answer that is simple, direct and wrong."

And because my students are being culturally trained to fear ambiguity, they are at a huge disadvantage in trying to be empathetic. It is a similar phenomenon to when I discovered that some of my students do not "wonder" at all during the course of a day. It makes "wondering and wandering" a hard skill to practice. In a similar manner, many of my students spend most of their day trying to avoid ambiguity every time they come across it.

In order to be good at empathy, you have be well practiced in contradiction and multiplicity. In short, you have to understand ambiguity and embrace it. This is what I explored in an earlier post on Walt Whitman and his capacity for empathy on a cosmic scale. As Whitman warned us in "Song of Myself, "Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" Any teacher trying to move their students towards empathy would do well to have a sophisticated theory of what will be the major difficulties on that journey. One of the major difficulties will be embracing ambiguity and having a clear idea idea of where in each lesson this possibility will arise.

Interestingly,  a new study recently released by the University of Toronto addresses this precise problem. Part of the study reads, "Are you uncomfortable with ambiguity? It’s a common condition, but a highly problematic one. The compulsion to quell that unease can inspire snap judgments, rigid thinking, and bad decision-making. Fortunately, new research suggests a simple antidote for this affliction:  read more literary fiction.  The study goes on to talk about how reading fiction in certain ways may increase people's capacity for "disorder and uncertainty" and increase "sophisticated thinking and greater creativity." The reader, they conclude, "can simulate the thinking styles of people he or she might personally dislike. One can think along and even feel with Humbert Humbert in Lolita, no matter how offensive one finds this character."

And, in one of those "the world speaks to you" moments that happen in experience-based learning, a friend sent me Joss Wheldon's recent commencement address at Wesleyan University. Toward the end Wheldon's speculates,

"Our culture] is not long on contradiction or ambiguity. … It likes things to be simple, it likes things to be pigeonholed—good or bad, black or white, blue or red. And we’re not that. We’re more interesting than that. And the way that we go into the world understanding is to have these contradictions in ourselves and see them in other people and not judge them for it. To know that, in a world where debate has kind of fallen away and given way to shouting and bullying, that the best thing is not just the idea of honest debate, the best thing is losing the debate, because it means that you learn something and you changed your position. The only way really to understand your position and its worth is to understand the opposite...This connection is part of contradiction. It is the tension I was talking about. This tension isn’t about two opposite points, it’s about the line in between them, and it’s being stretched by them. We need to acknowledge and honor that tension, and the connection that that tension is a part of. Our connection not just to the people we love, but to everybody, including people we can’t stand and wish weren’t around. The connection we have is part of what defines us on such a basic level."

As is often the case in experience-based learning, it is the quality of our relationship (what Wheldon calls the "connection") that is the determining feature of what we learn. How can we learn to endure, even embrace, that tension? If we do that, I believe, we increase our capacity for empathy.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Student Comments on Empathy Protocols: Some Things I Learned

In the last couple of blog posts, I have been exploring the idea of empathy and this spring I designed a more formal protocol that I had students try six times in succession on different pieces of fiction to see what the effect would be. The idea behind doing the protocol so many times in succession is that it enhances the internalization or "muscle memory" that all performers use as they become more expert in their field. The objective is to use the protocol so many times that you don't even think about it anymore--the skill is automatic and tacit. While this did not make me particularly beloved by the students, it did put all of us into the DKDK zone in a good way.

Like most of the cognitive skills experiments I try, they get mixed results. For some students, this opened new ways to see the world and themselves; for other students it felt like homework that was a lot of work for little gain. This makes complete sense to me because we all have such different cognitive gifts.  It seems to me that a main purpose of school ought to be the identification (perhaps "diagnosis," though people tell me that word has too many negative connotations with illness) of the dominant cognitive strengths a student possesses, and then a proposal of strategies for cognitive growth. The goal is clear:  to make a student the "author of his/her own learning.

What follows are parts of three comments from students who had positive experiences with the protocols. After you read them, I want to start an exploration of what might be some of the "cognitive precursors" that would aid in practicing empathy. In other words, for empathy to blossom, it may need some fertile cognitive soil. What needs to be in the soil that will enhance the chances of growth?

From Jared:

To be frank, I hated writing empathy protocols. I have never been a fan of analyzing readings deeply, and I felt like this was forcing us to do that. I have always been the guy to sit down and just enjoy a book with no writing assignments or deep thinking required. Whenever I read anything before, I would take it completely at face value which, in my mind, means that I would look solely at the plot and analyze the chronological order of events and, overall how the book made it from the beginning to the end. It never occurred to me to empathize with the characters and to form a dialogic relationship with the text to try to understand how they see the world and understand how the characters drive the plot and perceive the other people in the story. By understanding how the characters construct their world it adds deeper elements to the plot, particularly it has helped me notice more conflict in text than I was capable of noticing before. Doing these protocols has allowed me to internalize these deeper reading skills as well. However much I hated focusing so much on analyzing readings so deeply, I am now able to subconsciously be more empathetic with characters at a much higher level than I was before. This is an element that I am still trying to work on as I feel that I should be able to relate with all characters that I read about and form a dialogic relationship with, because, after all, I am authoring the story as I read it.

From Maddie:

In the past, reading comprehension seemed to be a never-ending struggle for me. SAT's, Shakespeare, short stories, you name it—they’ve all been unbearably challenging.  For the longest time I felt like I understood assigned readings less than my peers and asked myself questions like: “how did she finish the reading so quickly and get so much more out of it?”  In fact, I had started to lose hope and confidence in myself when it came to reading. Through this process I have learned a lot about myself and how I think.  My mind works in metaphors, I’ve discovered, and I understand characters and plot based off of these metaphors.  Empathy protocols have shown me that by focusing on bettering my strengths, instead of attempting to improve my weaknesses, I am able to grow and make more progress as a learner. 

From Heather:

When I first started writing the empathy protocols, searching for metaphors felt like busy work. I read the chapter and then looked back at my annotations to look for similes or figurative references. This didn’t help me read though, because I was only looking for them so I could fill out the empathy protocol after I finished reading.
By the second empathy protocol, I read with a more “metaphorical lens.” Rather than looking for specific sentences that seemed metaphorical, I looked for patterns. Whenever I identified a word or idea multiple times, I marked it down as the chapter progressed. With this, I was able to put the pieces together. The interesting thing about this is that my assumptions about my metaphors changed as I read on. I would have a premise about the fish, for example, but then when it was brought up again, maybe I saw it differently. With this information, I was able to identify anomalies v. patterns, and then come up with predictions.
Without a doubt I found myself constantly focused on the metaphors. Even when I moved onto steps three and four, I continued to find more metaphors in my search for questions and assumptions. Step two definitely helped my reading the most because when I discovered metaphors/ myths, I would make assumptions and form questions based off of them.
Before CITYterm, when I read I constantly tried to connect with the characters. I felt that if I did not relate to characters, then any connection would be impossible. Through these empathy protocols, however, I have discovered that it is actually more beneficial to connect with metaphors and patterns in the text. By the end of these protocols, I realized that they were everything but busy work. While they ended up taking me at least an hour, I know for a fact that I read differently from now on. By differently I mean more metaphorically. Now, I have to start living my own life story metaphorically!

Congratulations, Mr Meglin! We've successfully removed your inner critic.

What Jared highlights in his response is the need for a "dialogic relationship" with the text. And what clearly happened for him was that he went from having an "I-It" relationship with the text to an "I-Thou" relationship.

For Maddie it was literally the realization that she thought in metaphors all the time, and that this was a huge strength when properly channeled. She had been so inculcated with the idea of the act of taking the text apart that she had begun to lose confidence in her ability to read. 

For Heather the whole protocol began to interweave in ways that I had not even considered. When I first started constructing the protocol I was trying for a kind of smorgasbord approach where one step (Deep Listening/Mindfulness/Metaphors) might appeal to one kind of reader and another step (Premises and Assumptions) to another kind of reader. What Heather showed me was that there was a greater connection amongst all of them than I had imagined. And then she took it one step further and began to see the whole approach as one she could apply to her own life. As Sartre once said,--the amazing thing about life is that we are both the author and the main character at the same time.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Empathy and Imelda Marcos: A Protocol

Nikki Giovanni has long been one of my favorite poets, and one of many poets and writers whom I am fascinated by how they do what they do. Initially I thought it had something to do with faith and belief--because Nikki Giovanni BELIEVES what she is writing--but then I came across the following quote:

"I resent people who say writers write from
experience.  Writers don’t write from experience,
though many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. I
want to be clear about this.  If you wrote from
experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three
poems.  Writers write from empathy."

One of the principles about reading that I have been testing for years is that reading and writing are more intimately connected than people think. Now, I know this is not revolutionary, right? But look at Nikki Giovanni's quote again. If that principle is true, and writers write from empathy, then readers ought to read from empathy. Then, obviously, teachers ought to teach how to read empathically. This is something that I have been talking with teachers about now for a couple of decades, but aside from material on role-playing as a way to increase an empathetic sensibility, I haven't found much.

I had been working on some ideas about "precursors" to empathy (that will perhaps become a later blog post), and then began to see that, for many people, protocols worked well as a harbinger of internalized behavior. Could I develop an "empathy protocol" that I could experiment with on the literature I was teaching this spring?

 At about the time I was implementing this protocol, CITYterm had the chance to see Here Lies Love in the previews stage of production at the Public Theater. This production, put together by musicians David Byrne and Fatboy Slim and directed by Alex Timbers is an immersive theatrical experience that "deconstructs the astonishing journey of First Lady Imelda Marcos from her meteoric rise to power and subsequent descent into infamy and disgrace." While it is an amazing show that has been extended three times, and it was fascinating to watch David Byrne walking around all in white (with matching hair) taking notes throughout, it was the "pre-talk" with Alex Timbers that gave me the most pause to ponder how one creates empathy.

One of the questions that one of the students asked was precisely that--how does an author enter so deeply into Imelda Marcos' head that they could believe they understood her and make the audience believe that as well?

Alex's response (from my cribbed notes) was something like this, "Well, we started by avoiding the obvious cliches of her shoe fetish which might have flattened her; it was too much of a heavy handed symbol and a judgment on her. We were exploring. So one thing that emerged was her love of disco and Studio 54. And the techno-club music became a kind of metaphor for the totalitarian kind of rhythm but also the kind of euphoria of the dance club was the kind of euphoria of being in power."

At this point another student asked, "But how do you know where to start?"

Alex responded, "Well, in this case, we went back to the beginning. To certain assumptions she had about life right from the start. And those assumptions frequently took the form of questions she asked herself--Is it a sin to love too much? Is it a sin to care? and, ultimately, Why don't you love me? That is the question that drove her."

"How do you come up with these metaphors, assumptions and questions?" I asked.

"Actually much of it is kind of intuitive at first. They come to you after you have immersed yourself, but then you start to look at them critically to see if they actually work together to give you a full sense of who she is." Alex ended, and we headed up to the show. On the way up the stairs one of the students asked me, "Did you pay him to say that stuff?"
In asking this question the student was making reference to the "empathy protocol" that the class had been using to explore some short stories the week before. What follows below is the exact "empathy protocol" the students received in class:

                                                 How to practice EMPATHY?
                                                       A Beginners guide

To start with:

For now, let’s start with a definition that views empathy as "the capacity to imagine the thoughts and feelings of the inner life of another person—deeply understanding how someone else constructs the world.” In order to practice empathy you obviously have to be able to change your perspective, but you also have to try to see the world the way the other person ”constructs” it. When we construct the world we have certain feelings, certain thoughts, certain metaphors and myths that are the foundations of our world, and we also access and apply our past experience.

Empathy is, almost by definition, an act of the imagination.  You are not another person; you are you.  Therefore, practicing empathy may be more like calculus than algebra.  You are trying to get as close as you can to the objective, but you will probably never completely reach it. Everyone says, "imagination is more important than knowledge”—let’s see if that is true.

Finally, empathy is the ability to inhabit someone else’s way of constructing the world—intellectually, emotionally, psychologically and physically.

What skills might help us do this?

1) Avoid Judgment: I bring this up only because we are so conditioned to be judgmental (in good and bad ways). I wonder, in fact, if this is the goal of high school and our prime way of being in the world? Being judgmental does NOT help, however, in being empathetic.

2) Deep Listening/Mindfulness/Metaphors: Be fully present when you are trying to be someone else. Prepare yourself to listen for the METAPHORS that are the foundation of how this character constructs the world. The premise here is that we have "metaphors we live by" that are foundational. These may take the form of stories, mottos, slogans, or myths. They will be revealed in what the character does and does not say, by their actions, and sometimes by the most nuanced of gestures. Some of them may be explicitly stated, but, oftentimes, they will be embedded and only implicit.

3) Group Identity Identifiers: We think of ourselves as individuals, but also a members of different groups.  Being empathetic would require being aware of the degree and intensity of the identification on the part of any given individual on a given occasion. Are there groups (race, gender, religion, nationality, geography, age, sexual orientation, etc) that are particularly important to this character in constructing how they see the world? When does the character see themselves as an individual? When as a member of a group?

4) Premises and Assumptions: Premises are foundational beliefs that we are aware that we hold; assumptions, however, are often more deeply embedded and we are unaware that we hold them. However, both premises and assumptions can be inferred and deduced from people’s words and behaviors. Sometimes these are individual to the particular person, but sometimes they are group assumptions. For example, to be an American is to have internalized the children's story of The Little Engine That Could. The culture inculcates a sense of, "I think I can, I think I can."

5) Questions characters are asking themselves: We are all in the process of asking ourselves different questions as we live our lives. What are the questions your character is asking? The trick here is to be really precise in your phrasing of the question(s) you think they are asking.

The Role of Intuition in practicing Empathy:

Don’t think of yourself as trying to “answer” these questions that might pop up. Think instead of being spontaneous.  This will allow you to tap the creative unconscious part of your mind to develop.  Don’t “analyze” the data you have collected to answer it, just answer it.  We can then, later on, see if it seems to be accurate.  The paradox is that the more you know from your protocol, the more you can “forget” it and just “be the other person.”

I am off to start what will be wonderful week exploring at the Teaching for Experience workshop we run each summer, but in the next blog post I will discuss some reactions and responses that I got from students about this process. It certainly did not work for everyone; but for some people it became a very powerful reading technique that produced some remarkable results.