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Teaching Empathy in the Area Studies Classroom

Teaching Empathy in the Area Studies Classroom
Heather Panahi, Social Studies Faculty

When we talk about the skills that our students will need to be prepared for the “challenges and choices they will face as women and citizens of the world” (Dana Hall Mission Statement), the old standards are still important: leadership, critical thinking, persuasive writing, problem solving, the ability to collaborate and negotiate, etc. But what about empathy? 

In a 2021 article, sociologist, author and Senior Contributor to Forbes Magazine, Dr. Tracy Brower writes that empathy “has a new level of importance” in the workplace. Studies have shown that companies and organizations who embrace meaningful empathy strategies as part of their work ethos and philosophy, have seen significant upticks in employee engagement, retention and innovation. Further, empathetic policies build more inclusive work environments and help employees to better navigate the challenges of creating a good work-life balance. In short, empathy doesn’t breed weakness as some have argued in the past, it is rather a source of strength.

While those in the business world are only now catching on to the power of empathetic thinking, Dana Hall has been doing this (and doing it well) for well over 140 years. With Amor Caritas (Loving and Caring) as our creed, empathy has been a cornerstone of the Dana Hall experience. It’s ingrained in our language as a school, in our traditions, and of course, in our academic offerings. 

In the Social Studies Department, where I’ve made my home for 21 years, our commitment to teaching empathy is ubiquitous. My colleagues and I believe wholeheartedly that history, economics and political science means little if it loses its humanity. To change the world, one must first care about it. While this perspective is pervasive across all of the Social Studies curriculum, nowhere is it more clearly demonstrated than in our required Area Studies courses. Regardless of the area a student chooses to explore her/their sophomore year (i.e. Africa, the Middle East, East Asia), the Area Studies experience offers her/them a year-long immersion into empathetic thinking and learning. 

Through a thorough exploration of literature, poetry, documentary film, primary sources and other qualitative means, students get to see the world from the points-of-view of others on an almost daily basis. In African Studies, for example, which I have had the privilege of teaching for more than two decades, students practice honing their deep understanding and empathetic abilities in addition to their regular academic skills. What does it mean to live on the edge of the Sahel, an area deeply impacted by climate change, population growth and desertification? How might polygamy have served to help African women, not hinder them? How has the mis-interpretation and/or erasure of Africa’s historical contributions to human society impacted not only how the western world perceives Africa, but the collective African identity as well? What were the challenges that faced newly freed African colonies as they reclaimed their right to self-sovereignty? How do young African people strike a balance between traditionalism and the pull of the western world? These are but some of the questions students will explore over the year. To do so, they will read and research, resurrect and restore the experiences of African people past and present as each source tells their tales of family, friendship, conflict and colonization, development and progress from those who lived it and perhaps are still living it. We listen to the music of African pop and hip-hop stars like Burna Boy, Ayra Starr and Babes Wodumo, we sample east African cuisine, read and recite the Negritude poetry of Leopold Senghor, talk about Feminism with the aid of Nigerian author Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, listen to the story of Mali’s Sundiata as told by a West African griot, travel by YouTube to Benin and CapeTown, where we experience rites of passage firsthand, we read African graphic novels, watch movies and Ted Talks by African entrepreneurs, writers, inventors and leaders. Each new experience helps students to chip away at their own biases and stereotypes while growing their compassion and deep understanding.  

Educator, author and podcast host Brené Brown writes that “Empathy is a choice. It’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling” (Brown). Dana Hall’s Area Studies programming creates safe classroom spaces where students can make this choice every day. Where they can be vulnerable. Where they can forge meaningful connections to other parts of the world. Now more than ever, our world needs leaders who see the humanity in all human beings. I am proud to work in an institution that sees empathy as a “must-have” skill and provides the space to develop it, so that our students can truly be the upstanders and changemakers this planet so desperately needs.