Affect & Historical Empathy: Conclusion

The affect present in students’ tweets demonstrated what they cared about, why they cared, and how they expected people in the past and present to enact care. Their concern for women in the past especially showed a deep concern for the impact of unfair policies and practices on women’s lives. This care was appropriate and genuine but did not always aid students’ understanding of the past. Instead, intense affect sometimes posed a barrier to seeking more information and developing a fuller understanding of context. By contrast, care mingled with curiosity motivated students to ask questions, express uncertainty, and pursue new knowledge of the sources and places studied in the course.

These findings are important because students themselves highly value empathy and wish to practice it in their day-to-day relationships on- and offline. In preparation for our discussion of the ethical philosophy Confucius lays out in the Analects, I asked students: “What virtues/morals or virtuous/moral actions do you think are most necessary in the world today? Which would make the world better? Which are missing?” Students responded: kindness, respect, compassion, honesty, empathy.

In students’ tweets, empathy is an essential part of bettering the world. Practicing empathy, though, requires more than invoking the need for virtue in the world. One student’s response defines empathy as an effort to “consider others” and to “understand” or “feel for” them.

Empathy – We are getting more absorbed in ourselves and often fail to consider others or try to understand / feel for them. #hwc111 #c13 (Tweet from protected account; ID: 841446890071715840.)

Like scholars of historical empathy and everyday empathy, the student’s tweet articulates care and understanding as twin aspects of empathy. Other students did not use “empathy” in their tweets but nonetheless called for practices associated with empathy, including withholding judgment and listening to others:

Having respect for each other and to LISTEN OMG LISTEN to people. Sometimes people act or judge without even listening. #hwc111 #c13 (Tweet from deleted account; ID: 841862591840440320.)

Two other students explicitly tied the value of withholding judgment to contemporary issues of difference:

being accepting of people with different cultures/background than what we’re familiar with is smth that we can work on as well #hwc111 #c13 (Tweet from protected account; ID: 841859499891679232.)

Withholding judgment, listening, understanding, and showing care are important practices because students understand the world as hostile to difference. They viewed empathy as an indispensable skill for living with and understanding difference in nonviolent ways.

The rapid pace and intense emotions present on social media make it more difficult for students to practice the care and understanding they value. Yet parallels between students’ definitions of empathy and those promoted by Levstik, Barton, Endacott, Brooks, Kohlmeier, and Brown suggest that historical empathy can indeed be training ground for everyday empathy. By helping students understand the ways affect influences their care for and understanding of past peoples, educators can cultivate students’ awareness of affect’s impact on their consideration and judgment in day-to-day circumstance. The emotional and intellectual skills students develop through their practice of historical empathy prepare them to encounter the world with care, curiosity, and a desire to understand the lives and emotions of people different from themselves.