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Teaching Empathy through Literature

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Organizer: Mukti Mangharam

Co-Organizer: Danielle Haque

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This seminar asks: Is it possible to teach empathy towards those perceived as different from ourselves? Scholars have variously affirmed or denied this possibility. Lynn Hunt most famously argued that readers of novels learned to empathize across traditional social boundaries, recognizing others as having the same kinds of inner emotions. However, other scholars have accused empathy of being invoked only selectively for those we know personally, or for those who resemble ourselves. Others have pointed out that empathy's dependence on a notion of universal human emotions reduces it to a form of cultural imperialism. This seminar investigates the desirability, possibility, or impossibility of teaching empathy through texts from a variety of angles. Is empathy always bound to be compromised by its contexts? Are there particular classroom techniques, teaching experiences, or genres that lend themselves to teaching empathy or failing to do so? How can we create empathy of various kinds – whether racial, sexual, gendered or in arenas of national conflict? Does literature as a medium especially lend itself to creating empathy? The first set of papers close read a text's formal properties to consider how these redefine empathy, and even its desirability. The first paper considers how Thomas Hardy's characterization eschews easy empathy to evoke a more ethical engagement with characters. Another asks whether Kafka's abstraction evokes empathy for the racialized other better than more representational media. The third investigates how contemporary novels by Hamid and Mieville use plot to reimagine empathy as a process of rational reflection rather than as a problematic emotional identification. The last considers how a novel's Cli-Fi techniques reconfigure empathy towards nonhuman animals in its refusal of an empathy of substitution or of projection. The second set of papers asks whether particular genres of literature make it more or less possible to teach empathy. They ask: does the comic genre help students see beyond their own experience? Can the romance novel truly extend empathy to sufferers of the Kashmir conflict given the limitations of its heroic romance plot? Do films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out evoke empathy only when taught in a particular way, or can they almost inevitably solicit empathic reactions through particular filmic techniques? The last set of presentations moves on from considering the pedagogic potential of certain genres to the limits of teaching empathy. One recounts experiences teaching Afro-futurism in Norway to ask: Does teaching empathy through literature only work in classrooms lacking real diversity? Another considers the various identity fragilities of student readers, investigating how these shut down conversation that does not prioritize the dominant group. 

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