Affect is everywhere on social media. Defined by Alexander Cho as: “a force or intensity that exists somewhere in between an embodied, sensorial experience and the name of an emotion,” affect is embedded in the text, symbols, and images we use to interact with one another in networked communication. It’s in Twitter threads discussing an op-ed, the emoji employed on Facebook to signal approval, anger, sadness, and laughter, and the Instagram comments praising or condemning the content of an image.
New media and internet technologies scholar Clay Shirky sees affect as an inescapable part of social media. The speed of social media encourages emotional response: “We feel faster than we think.” Shirky views this as a positive quality rather than a negative one. Commenting on Twitter specifically, he writes: “Twitter makes us empathize. It makes us part of it.” In Shirky’s view, emotions produced by social media create a feeling of belonging and therefore a sense of empathy.
Social researcher Brené Brown suggests empathy may be more complicated than merely a sense of belonging, though. Brown argues instead for a more complex definition of empathy encompassing four qualities:
- Perspective taking, or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
- Staying out of judgement and listening.
- Recognizing emotion in another person that you have maybe felt before.
- Communicating that you can recognize that emotion.
For Brown, empathy requires both a person’s
Recent scholars of historical empathy echo Brown’s intertwining of affect and intellect. Linda Levstik, Keith Barton, Jason Endacott, Sarah Brooks, and Jada Kohlmeier define historical empathy as a product of both care and understanding. Historical empathy, like everyday empathy, entails listening to the voices present in primary sources, withholding judgment in the face of difference, recognizing similar experiences between past and present, and clearly communicating understanding of both differences and similarities. Neither care nor understanding alone aid students’ development of these skills. The intermingling of care and understanding, though, provides students with the necessary tools to comprehend the past and enact empathy in their daily lives.
As care and understanding are both essential to historical empathy, asking students to set aside their concern for past peoples is both implausible and out of keeping with the way historians practice their craft. Students’ expressions of care are the result of the moral frameworks they bring to the class, but educators and historians should not dismiss students’ concerns as purely self-centered or presentist. Instead, students’ concern for the lives of past people ought to be viewed as a genuine and appropriate response to examples unfairness, injustice, and violence in the past. Although care does not always aid students’ understanding of the lives and experiences of past peoples, neither is it an innate barrier to the growth of their contextual knowledge.
In my course, students’ affective responses on Twitter were an expression of students’ empathy, and more specifically their care, for past peoples. Affect helped students resonate with and express personal reactions to course material, but at times hindered their comprehension of the actions and worldviews of past peoples. For affect to contribute to deeper understanding, students also needed to express curiosity. When students asked questions instead of asserting their interpretations, they exhibited a desire to comprehend past peoples’ actions and beliefs. This combination of curiosity and care supported the growth of students’ understanding and consequently their practice of historical empathy.
In the sections that follow, I adopt Barton and Levstik’s definition of historical empathy as a combination of care and understanding and use this definition to parse the affective responses present in students’ tweets. To situate this definition and my work within the scholarship of historical empathy, I begin with an overview of the history of research in the field of historical empathy. I then utilize sentiment analysis to investigate the presence of affect in students’ tweets.
Using the sentimentr package, I track students’ negative and positive responses, paying careful attention to the ways specific topics or activities influenced students’ affect. I turn next to a subset of the tweets focused on women. “Women” was a key theme throughout the course and students responded strongly to the roles, expectations, and treatment of women in societies studied in the class. Using both sentiment analysis and close reading, I explore when students expressed care and how care impacted their understanding.
Exploring the intersections of affect and empathy is essential for developing students’ social and digital skills. Students themselves view empathy as an essential skill in a digital age, but the rapid pace and intense emotion of social media make it difficult for them to enact their values. When asked to define the virtues most necessary in the world today, students frequently answered “empathy.” Like Levstik and Barton, Endacott and Brooks, Kohlmeier, and Brown, students defined empathy as an intersection of care and understanding. This suggests that students’ definitions of empathy align with the goals of historical empathy. Historians and educators therefore should not seek to sideline students’ affect as an expression of care in the classroom. Instead, we can best help students develop historical empathy by acknowledging their affective responses and helping them channel their responses toward curiosity and understanding.