Monthly Archives: October 2014

The truth about empathy in teaching

As I sat there, reconstructing the cheekbone and eye socket of my clay face, I knew I still wasn’t doing it right. I couldn’t visualize how to build up everything around the eyes so that it looked more human, more real. Sure enough, my Advanced 3D studio art professor came around another time before class was over and poked his big thumbs deep into her skull.

That’s where the eyes should be.” He must have told me three or four times exactly what I was doing wrong. And, of course, using his thumbs, he would try to help correct it. Then he would walk away.


Visualizing the types of writing that I now ask my undergrad students to do is a big part of the way I explain and teach when assigning new projects. I also draw in a notebook as the students talk in my office hours, translating what they’re saying into a visual shorthand so that we can look at the shape of the draft they are crafting. The topics, for all of my students, for all of their projects, are self-inflicted.


In undergrad studio art classes, I was increasingly unable to create anything for art’s sake. Way more devoted to abstract ideas and the process of making art than the end result, I struggled in assignments when I didn’t have an immediate concept to build from. I never trusted myself to simply create a “draft” and then make it better through revision. In fact, I don’t think I learned to properly revise writing until the end of grad school. My favorite studio pieces–both of mine and others–were those that were heavy on concept and visually intriguing. After taking an atelier at NYU between my junior and senior years, I really understood what that meant. My heart wasn’t in the things I did without concept, and they suffered.


Revision is the hardest part of writing, and it’s a foreign concept for students who’v been told their whole lives that they write well, until they take some kind of creative writing class, or are forced to do revisions in a senior seminar or other “super hard” class. I’m convinced that it’s the revisions innate in these courses that make students fall in love with [and paradoxically hate] writing, at least the ones who continue to do it well. Revisions turn people into good writers.

Today I assigned a braided narrative project in my advance writing class–made up of junior and senior undergrad students. Before class started, a draft of their previous assignment was due in an online dropbox–a spiraled essay. The spiral has traditionally been the hardest concept for the students to master, so I try every semester to make my explanations better, more thorough, to assign better examples and have more discussions about the spiral in selected readings. I know I’m not completely failing because there is at least one someone every semester that writes a spiraled essay on the first attempt; however, most drafts have to be heavily revised into a spiral once they’ve been turned in–using the revision grade up on mastering the shape instead of focusing on polish.


Today, as I went to the board and drew the familiar two-tone wave recreated in Bascom’s “Picturing the Personal Essay”–like a simplified and horizontal 2D representation of DNA–I saw recognition in their faces. For braided narratives, a writer has to submerge one storyline while talking about another. Sumberge is a good visual cue because the narrative is simply out of sight, not out of mind. A good braided narrative will utilize jargon of one narrative in descriptions of the other, to keep the relevancy of one story to the other alive in the reader’s mind. Swtich, rinse, repeat.

“What would happen if one’s ‘spiraled’ draft was actually a braid?”

“One would have to revise.” I smiled in condolence at the class–hoping that they were better than I had been as an undergrad.  At least a few students immediately understood that the essays they had turned in for me were in fact braids, not spirals, and in a week’s time when I hand them back, some of the shock will be dissipated.


I never correctly deepened the eye sockets of fake-clay-face. Even though I trusted my art prof, I didn’t trust what I couldn’t visualize myself. I ended up making a cartoonish version of a face in relief on a rectangular slab of background that I later had to bronze. We were learning the lost Renaissance art. There was no real assignment prompt for the bronze piece, and at the time, I still really needed prompts. So I settled on something I thought would be difficult to render in clay: a face concentrating, with one eye puckered closed, looking at something just past her thumb. Her hand would be in relief, coming out of the bottom right corner of the frame and her face would take up a lot of the left half. I had at first thought that maybe she was threading a needle–that’s what the face portrayed, but I never ended up creating a needle to go in her hand. Ultimately, the art object that resulted from me learning the lost wax method process was a huge failure. It wasn’t beautiful, accurate, or useful. And, it was heavy. Cast in bronze, my relief face-with-hand-in-slab was an ugly reminder that I was not cut out for this. The resulting 12″ x 18″ (and roughly 10 lbs) failure spent some years outside in my mother’s flower beds before I finally got rid of it.


“So then what is the difference between a spiral and a braid?”

I drew a random constellation of different shapes on the board under the diagram of the submerged braid. And then I connected the different ‘dots’ one at time, drawing a spiral as a I went, and explained that with each new piece of your spiral, you are still talking about the same concept. “The pieces may seem random at first, but you connect each one back to the larger idea. There is one main topic, and you keep approaching it in different ways so that readers travel with you, piecing together their own understanding until all the segments are there and a fully developed image of your one concept shows up–like a picture in a connect-the-dots-coloring book.”

After class, a student wants to talk about using his path of religion and spirituality for the braided narrative and asks if that could be two braids.

“It sounds like one narrative to me. Think about the braided narrative assignment like a really long extended metaphor or comparison of two objects that at first glance do not seem alike. Except, instead of objects, both are narratives. Once you have your first narrative in mind (for you: the story of your spirituality, how you came to be here), consider what other thing in the universe moves in the same way as that first narrative, or has similar characteristics. Surprise your reader. Alternate between the stories, using juxtaposition, to highlight their similarities.”

To me, this is a discovery moment, a moment when I feel I’ve stumbled across a new way of explaining something I’ve explained many times before. I try to harden it in amber so that I can pull it out in a later semester and use it again. But almost as quickly as my moment of victory came, and the student walked out the door seemingly on course, I started to second guess myself.


I see myself in my undergrad students. I see a good writer that doesn’t know how yet to be a good writer–and I don’t take it for granted that that kind of student is always on the verge of going elsewhere, of deciding her most recent failure is a sign to get out of this wordy mess. So, I want to always be saying the one thing that fits in the lock and opens the door. I want the essays I assign to be understood on some primal level, so that we can dig easily with our fingers below the surface where the meaning is submerged.

In grad school nonfiction workshops, I had one professor who liked to use a found metaphor of “reading tea leaves” when talking about crafting CNF. I heard and overheard her use this comparison several times with various students. It is a good comparison. Yet there are two true things I know about it: I only partially understood what she meant at the time, and I’ve never once used her comparison myself as an instructor of writing.

And so the real discovery is that the types of explanations instructors and professors latch onto are most likely the ones that help our own selves understand the concepts better. And if we don’t keep looking for more, we’ll only be teaching ourselves. I think this may factor into “The Source of Bad Writing”–or its equivalent in face-to-face instruction. I may see myself in my students, but I should continuously search for who they are when explaining concepts.


How does seeing yourself in the people you work with or work for help you empathize and understand them? Are there limitations in your field for doing this?