Teaching Reflection: Empathy Gym

One of my absolute favourite podcasts is Hidden Brain, not only does it always make me think differently but I also love the voice of Shankar Vedantam. The recent episode ‘You 2.0: The Empathy Gym’ lead me to reflect on the fact that the majority of our criminology students will be going into professions that require them (like doctors and nurses) to work with patients and clients and be empathic to their needs.

Much of the research on empathy and students focuses on those in the medical profession. The research has shown that increased empathy can be seen to increase patient satisfaction, adherence to recommendations, improved clinical outcomes and professional satisfaction. Further, research has demonstrated that empathy can be taught to maintain and enhance empathy in undergraduate students. Therefore, it made me reflect on whether I could do more to enhance empathy in my undergraduate students.

Jamil Zaki discusses on Hidden Brain that empathy is like a muscle that can be strengthened through exercise. Research has also reflected on how empathy can decline, through stress and fatigue, unstable learning environments, loss of idealism and the need for detachment.

One of the key points discussed was that we humanise people if we hear their stories. If we just read stories, there is a tendency to dehumanise people who were different. Further, it has been shown that hearing the stories of people (even if they are fictionalised) leads to empathy. The key is to get people to connect with others who are different, and that they would not usually come into contact with. We don’t want students to go through the motions of employment but be empathic to the needs and experiences of others.

One of my primary goals in planning my teaching materials this semester (for my third year subject Crime: Perspectives of Gender and Race) was to focus on increasing student’s empathy to a wide range of criminal justice issues which they may not have encountered. Topics under consideration include (but limited to) are forced marriage, asylum seekers, mothers in prison, terrorism, female genital mutilation, transgender prisoners, and intimate partner violence.

I have sought to achieve this through two methods:

  • Require students to listen to or watch a podcast or documentary before in-class activities.
  • Have a selection of service providers attend throughout the semester to provide insight into how victims access services and are impacted.

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