Radical Empathy and Compassion in FYW


Engaging in social justice work is often explained as heart or love work because of the connection to compassion and empathy. This is no less true in our writing classrooms. I teach and am the writing program administrator at a small, midwest HBCU. Using empathy in my own writing classrooms has afforded me the opportunity to engage with students in a way which helps to break down barriers and promote equality. As Kevin M. Gannon writes in Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, “An approach that embraces empathy and compassion as its default orientation is foundational to a pedagogy of radical hope” (38).  Given the global pandemic and racial atrocities, it is clear that we desperately need empathy, and we must acknowledge what we owe to each other to recognize and make necessary changes in our classrooms. 

In  this post, I’m going to outline several steps I take to openly-engage in my first-year writing classes to develop compassion and empathy. Discussing these head-on in the writing classroom helps to cultivate a classroom community as a supportive place for our student writers. 

Define Empathy and Compassion

In my classes, we talk about empathy and compassion. I start by asking students what they know about empathy and compassion. I then ask them what role this plays in forming communities. I bring in some quotations and diagrams from This Book Will Make You Kinder by Henry James Garrett. We discuss explicitly what we owe to each other as a society and what we owe to each other in the classroom from a standpoint of moral philosophy.

Create or use a Charter  for Compassion

I use a Charter for Compassion with my students in all of my classes. This is the same Charter for Compassion that Asao B. Inoue uses in Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. Inoue’s contract is an adapted version of the contract used by Charter for Compassion International. As we discuss the role of compassion in our classroom, I invite students to share their stories about previous writing classes and their interactions with peers in all of their classes. We talk about how we want to treat each other in our class, and I invite students to make edits and comments on the Charter for Compassion we use. 

Talk about the role of Listening

Listening is a key component in living a more empathetic and compassionate community. I use some elements from Henry James Garrett’s book to talk about what might limit our ability to listen to the stories of others and, as he argues, these barriers might then limit our ability to empathize with others. I also spend some time talking about Krista Ratcliffe’s ideas about the cross-cultural practice of “rhetorical listening” (26), as well as Asao B. Inoue’s definition of “deep listening” (362). Using these ideas, we discuss the role of listening in the classroom space. I ask students what they want to see from each other and from me in terms of listening, and we write a document to guide our class discussions. 

Include some flexibility for students

If I ask students to have empathy and compassion for each other, then I know I must show the same from my position of power in the classroom. During the initial school closures of the pandemic and throughout Fall of 2020, I worked to use a hyflex model in the classroom. But it was clear to me that the labor-toll of this on me as professor was unsustainable, so now I give students the option to use a plea in my classes. For this, students can ask to turn in work from a time-period of up to two weeks by filling out the Plea form. Students name the assignment(s) they need more time on and are able to set a new deadline for their work. This plea form is working well right now for my classes, and most students feel comfortable just knowing that this is an option if something happens in their lives, COVID-related or not.

Don’t hold rigid standards just for the sake of standards

If we are to practice empathy and promote empathy and compassion in our classrooms, we have to listen to students and their perspectives. And we must interrogate our pedagogy and classes. As Kevin M. Gannon states in Radical Hope, we need to be careful in how we think about our complaints about “students these days.”  Gannon explains, “Missing from this litany about Students These Days is any serious examination of their perspective, of how students might be pushing back against our efforts to further marginalize them” (125). Listening to students and inviting them to share their perspectives on education, and allowing them to comment directly on my assignment sheets, syllabus, and other course materials by using Google Docs has helped me focus on engaging in critiques and questions about how and why I structure my classes and assignments the way I do. This is an active demonstration of empathy in action through critical pedagogy, allowing my classes to become more student-centered and allowing for a decolonization of the classroom. My students are centered as part of all activities in the classes. 

Celebrate Unseen Labor

In 2020, Guy Schaffer posted in a Facebook group about what he calls the “unseen work recognition portal.” Taking his idea that there is unseen labor in classrooms fit well with my thoughts on demonstrating compassion and empathy. So this spring semester, I’ve instituted an unseen labor form. This form allows students to recognize each other for the compassion and empathy they show to one another, for the labor that might not traditionally be rewarded in the classroom context.  

Talk about systems of oppression, especially linguistic oppression

In teaching writing or any sort of communication classes, I would feel remiss if I did not talk about power structures and systems of oppression. In a rhetoric and composition class, this discussion must include linguistic oppression. So I discuss how Black Language formed and why White Mainstream English is viewed as a standard for written expression. I bring in portions of Vershawn Ashanti Young’s “Should Writers Use They Own English” and April Baker-Bell’s Linguistic Justice: . I also have students read and analyze “This Ain’t Another Statement! This is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice!” Bringing in viewpoints and language variations  that are historically marginalized helps us all flex our empathy through listening.

By no means am I perfect in working empathy and compassion into my classrooms, rather teaching and learning are always works in progress, so I do what I can to disrupt unfair balances of power in the hopes of always finding ways to improve what happens in our writing classrooms.

Works Cited

Baker-Bell, April. Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity and Pedagogy. NCTE-Routledge Research Series, 2020.

Garrett, Henry James. This Book Will Make You Kinder: An Empathy Handbook. Penguin, 2020.  

Inoue, Asao B.  “2019 Chair’s Address: How Do WeLanguage So People Stop Killing Each Other, or What Do WeDo about  White Language Supremacy?” CCC vol. 71 no. 2, December 2019. 

Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, and Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.

About Author

Kathleen Turner Ledgerwood

Dr. TL is an Assistant Professor of English and the Writing Area Coordinator at Lincoln University, an HBCU in mid-Missouri. She is fortunate to work with first-year writers, future teachers, and her colleagues in growing a compassionate community for writers at LU.

Leave A Reply