Abstract

This essay discusses the usefulness of empathetic, relational pedagogy while teaching at CUNY in the time of COVID‐19 and reflects on experiences with three students early in the author's career that led her to this pedagogical approach. A terminally ill student, a student who had been shot in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, and a student who became paralyzed in a motorbike accident led the author to reconsider the idea of the classroom as apart from the outside world. Embracing the sometimes frightening events happening beyond the classroom walls can lead to a deeper engagement with course texts as well as to a more meaningful student‐teacher relationship and a sense of the course as personally significant. By constructing classrooms as places for listening and by striving to practice antiracist pedagogy, linguistically and culturally diverse students find themselves supported, even when the world outside becomes unstable and difficult to navigate.

More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, when our understanding of everything from what constitutes a safe environment, to what qualifies as a necessary outing, to the value of an embrace has changed, it's worth reflecting on what we undertake when we enter college classrooms. We teach writing, but why? What makes us think the skill of placing words beside one another to elicit a desired response from readers is worth passing along when the daily news suggests imminent destruction by fire or by plague? How does the practice of teaching despite the world outside connect to empathy as both a rhetoric and a habit of mind? For my own pedagogy, these questions first arose through encounters with students a decade ago in Spain whose circumstances pushed against my narrowly constructed ideas of what and why we were all doing in the classroom together. Each of these students helped me shift to a more relational pedagogy that served me well when the new coronavirus arrived in New York a few weeks into the spring semester of 2020—a pedagogy that acknowledged the time and space my students and I occupy, as well as our bodily experiences far beyond the texts we discuss.

During my first semester teaching college, at an American university in Madrid, one of my students was terminally ill. She sat in the front row of class in her wheelchair every Monday and Wednesday morning, and every Monday and Wednesday morning her mother sat on the carpet in the hallway outside our classroom door, waiting to take her daughter, Alexandra, home, hoping she would be okay for the hour and twenty minutes of the lesson. Alexandra's presence affected the other students in the room just as it affected me. It softened and slowed us. Her frail appearance forced me to consider why I was teaching writing—what was the point, what could be the impact of this four-month exercise when illness was present, death imminent? When I had imagined teaching this first course, my mind had buzzed with images from undergraduate writing seminars on the power of language, of MFA roundtable discussions I remembered on questions of generic form in memoir—the places and ideas that had excited me to write, that through a circuitous path had led me to the front of a classroom in Spain, where the question of how to approach Introduction to Composition fell to me.

Alexandra's face put the lie to my notions of the urgency of learning to control language. Conversations with her mother in the weeks following her death over the winter break brought to me something stronger: the need for receptivity in the writing classroom, for awareness of the souls in the room. “Alex loved your class,” her mom told me in the school coffee shop over stale tostadas con tomaté, “she said the music you played and the writing exercises took her mind away, let her be creative and think about something other than her brittle bones. Thank you.” I told Alex's mom I couldn't believe sitting in a classroom was how Alex had wanted to spend her last months. “Why not?” she asked me. “Alex thought of herself as a student. That was what she wanted to be.” After these chats, I walked through the city toward home, at the final stretch passing the northern boundary of the Parque Oeste, Madrid's western border where a steep drop leads to the wilderness of the Casa De Campo, where small black pigs run in packs seeking acorns. Alex had wanted to be a student, I thought. Alex had wanted. All this time I'd experienced only my reactions to Alex and the other students’ reactions to the presence of a sick student whose illness medicine could not cure. The fact of her desire to study and to see herself as a person who studies—a student—never entered my mind.

And yet I wanted, want still, to be a teacher. But what does it mean to teach the dying? It took some time to process that this describes all teaching. I wondered how this way of seeing might translate into a pedagogy of living, through reading and writing. These questions again felt urgent in the spring of 2020, when daily images of horror (the portable morgues placed outside city hospitals, the mass graves on Hart Island) made all New Yorkers hyperaware of their own mortality.

Gilles arrived in my classroom almost directly from the hospital in Cairo. A student was not what he wanted to be. He'd been shot in Tahrir Square during the youth demonstrations that fueled the Arab Spring that year. From speaking to him during the first week of class, I knew he was verbally gifted. His first assignments showed that his mind cut straight through texts and speeches, perceiving both the underlying motive and the rhetorical strategies used to exercise those motives as quickly as the bullet that had crossed the frantic square and implanted itself in his left shoulder. Gilles, I thought, would be an incredible asset to the class. He had lived through an uprising the rest of the students had only read about—his voice in our room would offer an important perspective. The problem was that Gilles, in his mind, was back in Egypt with his friends, fighting, making change. Sitting in a classroom in Madrid appeared to be as life draining for him as it had been life-giving to Alex the semester before. Halfway through the term, I asked him to stay after class a minute to talk. “Gilles,” I told him, “You could do so well in this class—everything you say in discussion is so perceptive. But you have to write the essays. You have to do the assignments or you won't pass.”

“Yes,” Gilles replied, shrugging. “It's okay. I'm here recovering, but I wish to return to Cairo. Perhaps in June.”

The semester ended and brilliant Gilles failed my class. The last I heard he was making plans to get back to the revolution, and the curriculum I'd planned, down to detailed, twice-weekly lecture notes, evaporated into the high heat of a Spanish summer. In the months after Gilles's departure, I reconsidered my approach to the teaching of writing. I contemplated if there was something I could have done differently to spark his interest, to pull him, even briefly, out of the intense feeling that came of tearing down a regime with his bare hands and his shoulders and the hands and shoulders of his friends. I suspected the answer was yes but at the time had no picture of what that something might have been. I didn't then imagine that the answer would not have been to remove him from the intense feelings the Arab Spring had engendered in him.

Asking him to set those events aside, I see so clearly now, was hostile to his reality, just the way ignoring the reality of the onrushing pandemic in the late winter and early spring of 2020 would have been hostile to the experiences of my students. In that first year in the classroom, my idea of what it meant to teach writing was fixed, a piece of certainty in a quaking world. There were great texts, there were rules, standards, conventions, and tools. But this way of thinking could work only in a vacuum, not in a classroom with other bodies facing my own. Firm plans could make me feel like an expert, allowing me to decide well in advance what we would do, even what I would say. They allowed my syllabus to remain blissfully unaffected by the shifting dynamics in the vast space outside my classroom walls. But the cracks were showing. This approach, I was beginning to see, lacked the flexibility and openness required to meet students where they were and therefore had the potential to be not only ineffectual but worse, alienating. If as Eric Leake (2016: 1) writes, empathy is a “persuasive force that is situational, purposeful, and built upon identification,” I had some work to do before arrival.

That summer, I taught an intensive eight-week version of the regular composition course. I had twenty-two students from Saudi Arabia, one from the Republic of Georgia, and five Spaniards. I was alerted by the dean that, for most of the Saudis, this would be their first time with a female instructor, as well as their first time mixing genders in school. Before hearing this, I had been worried about the condensed time line of the summer schedule. I now worried about clothes—the building wouldn't be air conditioned for the first month of class, so I could expect temperatures over one hundred degrees at times. Could I get away with shorts’ and T-shirts’ revealing my legs and arms while also holding authority? A friend said, “Go for it. Your students are adaptable—they'll be fine.” Nervously, I took her word for it and geared up to begin.

As it turned out, the first problem involved neither heat nor clothes, but metaphors. Standing in class the first week, I tried to explain why you don't need to have your whole essay planned out when you start writing. I quoted one of my favorite lines from E. L. Doctorow (1986), convinced it would clarify the point: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I looked around the room and felt bewilderment—and then the implications of what I'd said set in. My female Saudi students were legally forbidden from driving. By choosing that particular example, I had inadvertently drawn yet another firm distinction between myself, a Western white woman standing in front of a classroom, happily single in her mid-twenties, clad in shorts from H&M and a scoop neck T-shirt, and them, young Middle Eastern women whose families for one reason or another had allowed them to study abroad in Europe for a year but who could not be caught dead doing any of the things I was doing or talking about doing as I attempted to form a discourse community around writing. If empathy requires awareness of difference alongside the knowledge of interdependence, perhaps this was an important moment—but the truth was I had been attempting to form common reference points with these students and had assumed similarity where none existed.

Toward the end of the term, many of the students were stressed about an upcoming written assignment, so I suggested they write the essay in class in their notebooks. To my mind, this was a way of lightening their load, taking off the pressure of perfecting a take-home assignment. The day of the in-class writing came, and the students’ anxiety was palpable. “You may begin,” I said, and sat back to review homework assignments. After fifteen minutes or so, a brave young man walked up to my desk and spoke in a low voice. “Teacher? Could we please do these essays at home instead?”

“Why?” I asked, “isn't this easier?”

He seemed nervous to say it, but finally did, avoiding eye contact. “We can't write left-to-right. We learned English on the computer where it translates our way of typing to the English way. It's hard to switch your brain around and come up with ideas at the same time.”

I stood and asked everyone to put their pencils down—this assignment could be finished over the following week, at home, on the computer.

That evening, walking home along the dusty park, I shook my head at my folly. I had tried to consider the students, tried to anticipate their challenges, but I had failed, again and again. With Alexandra I'd gotten lucky—she had only wanted to be a student; being in the room was enough. With Gilles it hadn't been, and I was sensing that with these students it wouldn't be either.

Five weeks later a tall, slender Spanish boy waited to speak to me after class. I hadn't gotten to know José much that summer—he'd been quiet, and mainly what I knew of him was that he rode a motorcycle to class and always kept his helmet on the empty desk in the corner. He looked upset. I asked what was going on, and he said his father wanted him to leave school and go to work at the family auto shop. I asked him what he wanted. He said he wanted to finish his degree, but that it didn't matter. It was over. He couldn't live at home if he stayed in school, and there was nowhere else he could stay for free. I advised him to try talking to his father again, to ask if he could finish the degree and then work in the shop. He shook his head and told me thanks, but he had to go.

That night José crashed his motorcycle into a tree. No other vehicle was involved, and the weather was clear. He was put into a medical coma and emerged paralyzed from the waist down. I visited him in the hospital with several students in our class when doctors woke him up. The group made cards and played music, everyone trying to smile except his girlfriend, a beautiful girl with long shining hair and a bleak expression.

Home from the hospital, I took out my syllabus and drew a line through the remaining week of class. The world in which I had planned this course—a world where José was healthy and Alexandra was alive and Gilles was a college student in Spain, where the biggest obstacle I foresaw was the heat and an attending necessity to wear skimpy clothing—was gone. It was time to wake up to the present moment, to develop a pedagogy of mindful observation, of empathy and response. The next day I would go into class and have an open conversation with my students about how José’s accident was affecting us and how we all thought we should close out the term in light of what had happened.

Years later I drew a similar line through my spring 2020 syllabus, downloaded Zoom for the first time, and prepared to engage my students in a discussion of how we might best proceed with our class, given the unprecedented circumstances the pandemic brought on. Looking out on the oddly quiet streets in New York, I felt a pang of remembrance. The experiences I'd had over that first year teaching, with Alexandra and Gilles and dozens of other varied and lively students, had all led to the realization that, far from being a static practice, the teaching of writing, if it was to be effective at all, and transformational at best, needed to involve regularly tuning to the environment, listening to the students before me, and working to bring out in their projects the intensities of feeling brought by their particular circumstances. In other words, my writing classroom could no longer be about me.

Luckily all this happened years before COVID-19. In the time between these encounters in Madrid and the onrushing of the pandemic, I developed a pedagogy that stresses both the immense differences in embodied experience and the commonness of basic human desires. Some of the strategies I began implementing are as follows: limit readings by straight white men, favoring instead works from BIPOC and female writers when they serve the lesson (which they do 99 percent of the time) to humanize those so often othered in sociopolitical discourse, as well as to allow students to see themselves reflected in the voices deemed worthy of academic study; vary the formats of assigned “readings” to include audio recordings in the form of podcasts and music, visual experiences in the form of documentary films and recorded lectures in addition to written texts to recognize different strengths in learning, some auditory, some visual, some textual; use a combination of well-worn (by me) texts and topical articles, stories, and essays recently published in places like the New Yorker and the Atlantic to bring into our room the urgency of the outside world in the moment in which we are together, learning; and have students build rubrics with me to ensure they view them as fair. Finally, I have introduced a series of low-stakes blog-post assignments that ask students to first respond critically to a text, and then to respond personally to it. One week I'll ask them to consider in the personal section, “How has this reading challenged your thinking?” Then the next week, “can you think of any times in which you have engaged in the dehumanizing behaviors described in the reading?” With these questions, I aim to facilitate the flashes of self-awareness and empathy brought to me by a handful of students that first year in Spain.

When COVID-19 hit New York, these relational practices and the flexibility stemming from years of working with student-based and institutional unknowns served me well. Initially, many of the students in my majority-Asian class at Baruch College, City University of New York (CUNY), experienced a brand of blatant racism they had never before felt. Our class blog became a place to examine those encounters, to receive sympathy from other students, to feel less alone, and to confront the window this terrible moment was giving them into the racist interactions their Black and Brown peers experience daily.

One Korean American student wrote a post responding to a section of writing from Frederick Douglass and a prompt I'd given about how dehumanization worked in the book. Her response, titled “Frederick Douglass/Coronavirus” (Park 2020), linked the process of dehumanization Douglass described to what she had witnessed in New York that week:

In Frederick Douglass’ narrative, he explains how slaves were treated due to dehumanization. There was a time period where many people believed that it was okay to treat people like dogs. Matter of fact, dogs were treated better than slaves. Slave masters gave no freedom, rights, or privacy to slaves. By dehumanizing many African American slave's lives, it was easier for slave masters to treat them however they would like. By doing this, slave owners justified their horrible actions in buying, harming, and destroying many African American lives.

The student went on to describe her own recent experiences on the subway:

A couple weeks ago I was on the 6 train on the way to school and a tall guy comes into the cart [sic] I was in and starts talking about the coronavirus. Including me, there were two other grandmas who were Asian in the whole cart [sic]. I started to get a little nervous as he starts to point at the two grandmas and tell them to “fuck off back to China and take your disease with you . . . ” It absolutely broke my heart when the two grandmas started to ask each other in Korean, “what happened? Did I do something wrong?”

She then recounted her phone being stolen by a man ranting at her that “Asians are dirty and don't belong here.” It was clear from her writing that, by connecting her own lived experience to the words of Douglass, both things gained context and vividness. This, I believe, is at the core of what teaching (with and for) empathy can do.

Sometimes I wonder if the books that have affected me deeply, viscerally, will also be those that impact my students, who are growing ever younger than me, and whose backgrounds are often entirely different from mine. Does it matter if they care about James Baldwin or Mary Karr or any of the other writers I love? I wonder, if my students don't connect to the writers I do, are these the models I should be looking to when I approach the question of how to teach them writing? I mostly worry about this when I am far from the classroom between semesters, when I haven't seen my students’ faces in too long—when the breathing, feeling fact of them is foggy in my brain.

It's clear now that the question of what I teach will always be linked to who I teach and, just as importantly, when I teach, and these three considerations together, grounded in empathy and listening and looking around, will guide my pedagogy from syllabus planning to the marking of essays. Without thought to these factors, my classes would be all about me: my experiences with reading and writing, my ideas about what is exciting and what is scary and persuasive and, ultimately, how my students should proceed. The gift I received from the encounters I describe here is a merciful loosening of the grip I once thought I needed to have on each semester's syllabus and weekly lectures. I used to walk in the room ready to present a fully formed lesson: now I go in with notes, readings, questions—but instead of readying myself to talk, I prepare to listen.

Works Cited

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Leake, Eric.
2016
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Writing Pedagogies of Empathy: As Rhetoric and Disposition
.”
Composition Forum
34
(Summer). https://compositionforum.com/issue/34/empathy.php.
Park, Rosellen.
2020
. “
Frederick Douglass/Coronavirus
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English 2150: Public and Private Lives
(blog),
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11
. https://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/publicandprivatelivesspring2020/frederick-douglas-coronavirus/.