On Teaching and Modeling Empathy and Vulnerability

On Tuesday, I tweeted about my Intro to Medical Anthropology course. I had shown an episode of the T.V. show, Family by the Ton, because I thought the ways each person described their experience, their interactions with healthcare, and their hopes and fears for the future were great examples of illness narratives. What I had not prepared for was the amount of moral indignation the students would express towards the folx featured in the show. After tweeting, I posted it on my FB page and asked for any strategies people had for addressing empathy, particularly for bodies that are seen as “not normal.” Because I know generous people, I got great feedback.  Even when I went to class today, I was mulling over how to address some of the comments from last class.

But today’s class shifted something for us in a good way.

One of the assignments for this course is a health autobiography, which I adapted from one that my friend and colleague Matt developed for one of his courses. For it, the students were to think about an experience with illness, their own perceptions of healthiness, or an engagement with some form of healthcare and write or create something that tells the story about that experience. They had freedom to decide what medium they wanted to use, as long as it both engaged a specific experience or set of experiences as well as made broader sociocultural connections.

I thought this would be a great assignment to assess how students were grasping content, and I think I also vaguely had some idea that the assignment would provide students an opportunity to explore something in a course assignment that they might not have done otherwise. What blew me away, however, was how this assignment shifted the culture of our class through students’ willingness to share difficulty experiences and the empathy that they demonstrated for each other. Their projects covered a range of topics: PTSD, birth control and stigma, alternatives to biomedicine for treating cancer, etc. One of the themes that came out in several of the projects was having to see multiple doctors before getting an accurate diagnose for what was being experienced in the body.  Several discussed how their discomfort with medical professionals influenced what information they were willing to share with physicians. One student said, “if we are saying that we had to get these second and third opinions, what would we consider a “good” doctor?” Good question.

Another thing that struck me was no matter if it was the subject of their own project or not, students connected with their peers’ experiences of PTSD and depression. There were many tears shed and tons of affirmation. While I did ask students to be mindful in choosing a topic that they would be willing to share, after the first three projects dealt with mental health, I began to feel some discomfort as I made mental notes about resources on and off campus to share after class. Teaching at a Black women’s college, however, I am acutely aware of how important it is to have these conversations with my students, and I am glad that several chose to use a structured assignment in what I hope is a safe space to share. Just the other day a student came to my office to talk about mental health and said, “here at Spelman they expect us to be superwoman but don’t teach us how to deal with that.” I

At the end of class, i shared my own health autobiography. I had prepared two options and chose to share the one focused on mental health, because it felt important to share that with students who look to me as their professor, yes, but often as a role model. For someone who is fairly selective about what I share even with people who are close to me, it is actually quite difficult. But I firmly believe in not asking my students to do things that I would not be willing to do alongside them.  But also more than that: it feels important to me that they know that even the folx they admire struggle. even the ones who lead them are still figuring it out. Also: I needed to know that as their Black woman professor, I do not have to hold tightly to the expectation that I have to perform “all togetherness” for them. I needed to be vulnerable, too.

I was concerned after Tuesday’s class. Reflecting on it, I do think I will teach those topics differently when I offer this course again. But for now, my students’ responses to each other reminded me to start where we are, to leverage the love they already have for each other, and to trust their engagement with the learning process. If we’re lucky, our students think highly of us or at least trust us to lead them in self and academic discovery. As often as I can, I try to merge those two or co-create a classroom space where both are possible, even if they are in tension with each other. This was one of those times when it felt like I got it right.

Next week, I’ll circle back to the conversation we had on Tuesday. Let’s see if we can harness that empathy we had for each other and extend it further and further and further throughout the semester. I think we can.

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