Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Academic Empathy - my interview with Carl Gombrich

In December of 2013, Mr. Carl Gombrich wrote an essay, “Academic Empathy; A concept bearing in mind?” I was very excited when I saw this article, here was another person talking about how we can use empathy to make our lives better! In his case, he was talking about how to use it to improve academic thinking and spur growth. I asked him to share his thoughts on empathy with me, so I could then share them with you.

Before I get into the discussion, let me just say it was so much fun to have this talk. Carl was clearly very happy to be talking about his topic - and I was glad to listen. I learned that he is a good friend of Roman Kznaric (whose RSA-animate inspired this blog), and that they also discuss empathy a lot.

Here’s a taste of what we talked about. I hope you’ll find this interesting and perhaps you’ll check out his essay too.

“What inspired you to write it?

Recently, Carl was given the opportunity from the University College London (UCL) to build a new degree, Arts and Sciences. This is a very different type of program for the U.K., because it’s multi-disciplinary.

Here in the U.S. as well as in other countries, our colleges generally require a certain amount of basic learning from many topics. I remember in my undergrad days we had a lot of ‘core’ classes we had to take, and then we were allowed certain ‘electives’ from our chosen field. In the UK, he said, it’s not like that – instead students learn a deep and narrow focus, from professors who teach from within their own worlds. He sees a gap in learning as a result, a lack of perspective that keeps growth limited. He added that not many in the U.K. see the value in a multidisciplinary degree; such programs are not respected.

In the article, Carl talks about how the academic world is split in two, and the scientists and the humanities groups don’t do a good job of talking to each other. For years, these two groups have fought over keeping their disciplines pure, and have made efforts NOT to understand each other. Now, there is a lot of good will for interdisciplinary study; but not much motivation. Carl and his program are trying to change all of that.

“In the UK, for the last 30 years, there’s been a narrowing of fields and an increase in specialization – there’s no interest in leaving your silo", he said. He believes that we need specialists and that they will always have value; but not to the point of being totally divorced from each other.

Carl on communication in the academic world

Carl described people as either ‘includers’ or ‘excluders’. He believes that in our world, “the includers are the ones who will make better politicians, better business people. In the past, it was about winning the battle or the war. More and more people now talk about collaboration and working together. If you want to be an includer; the best way to do that is to have a genuine meeting … some common ground.”

He believes that when an academic speaks from the perspective of their chosen profession – they do so from an emotional place. Once they are in an emotional place, it becomes that much harder to listen to each other. I agree with this – because it really jives with my experience of how people tend to react on any topic they feel strongly about (e.g. politics, religion). If I feel strongly about my position, and I spend lots of my time defending and digging my position in as deep as I possibly can, then it's really hard to see outside of the hole I've dug. I’m essentially building walls up around myself; keeping people and ideas out, keeping growth out and keeping connection out.

I asked, how do you think it helps to have a different definition of Empathy?

Academic Empathy, as Carl defines it, is being interested in what someone else is studying – to pursue a discipline on the other side of a boundary.

The normal definition of empathy is to 'feel-in' to how someone else’s emotions. He believes that” in an intellectual context, it would be helpful to see a method or knowledge from a different perspective.” He said that to really grow in our learning, we must learn to “keep ourselves as open as possible”. Academic empathy is more ‘head’ than ‘heart’; trying to get inside someone else’s ideas, to be more productive with our own.

He clarified to me that his program was about pushing on boundaries to everyone’s benefit. He believes that in our new global culture, we need programs like this to break those boundaries. He’s hoping that discussions like these will help people to stop all the fighting, and to start really participating in each other’s fields.

On pushing outside of your comfort zone

I said, “I was thinking the other day that if I’m doing something, and I’m uncomfortable, I know I’m doing something right.” He said,"Well, that can go too far. There is a tendency today to look for bad things on the internet – to experience un-comfortableness for its own sake. For example, if a kid is growing up, he may have a peer who says, “You can't judge me for taking drugs, without taking drugs yourself”, and you have to draw the line. To be empathetic you may have to experience things you don’t want to, but there may be a limit to how valuable such experiences can be.”

How do you think the teacher-student relationships can benefit from empathy?

“It's really important; essential (as part of the knowledge revolution) for undergraduates to have empathy for professors. There's no professor who knows as much as the internet, and the internet can contradict the professor in the middle of a lecture. It automatically flattens the hierarchy. Students need to be aware of the affect; they need to understand (be empathetic) to the teacher."

He went on to say that when students think of their teacher as an all-knowing authority figure (like a parent or a priest) then the system really won't work anymore. Because of the global knowledge of the internet, we're all aware of how fallible we are as people. When you realize that your teacher (your parent) is a person who makes mistakes; you can lose respect for your teacher. It would be better if we all had empathy for each other - and had mutual respect from the beginning. A true collaboration across generations may be possible.

In his ideal mind - students would do their own research and come up with their own ideas, rather than listening to an hour of a professor telling them 'how the world is'. 


Talking with Carl I'm even more convinced that most people's lives can benefit from thinking about how to bring a little empathy. What do you think?



SL said...

wonderful! loved it!

Anonymous said...

This is a good argument for bringing back a liberal arts curriculum for science majors.