Understanding & Care: Limitations & Possibilities

I have argued thus far that students’ affective responses were evidence of care. With Levstik and Barton, Endacott and Brooks, and Kohlmeier, I view students’ care as an appropriate response to systems and events that bettered or hindered the lives of women in the past. I would be far more concerned if they were indifferent to situations of inequality and violence. Their concern for women makes sense given their present context and values, but nevertheless should be viewed as a genuine expression of concern for past peoples and not merely a presentist impulse.

Care represents a crucial step towards practicing both historical empathy and everyday empathy, but it cannot be the final step. Students’ care about women in the past was well-placed but limited in scope and effectiveness. Care about women did not necessarily produce care for women in the present and, in rare cases, resulted in students perpetuating present-day stereotypes. Care alone also did not motivate students to seek more extensive knowledge of past peoples’ lives and experiences. Instead, intense expressions of care were an obstacle to the growth of their understanding.

Care holds the possibility of developing students’ empathy skills only when it is combined with curiosity. When students asked questions or hedged their interpretations, their affective responses were less intense. Curiosity moderated, but did not negate, affective response. This suggests that the combination of curiosity and care is highly productive for developing students’ understanding of the past. Care, curiosity, and understanding are the tools necessary for students to grow empathy skills, including connecting with others, withholding judgment, and seeking nuanced comprehension of diverse values, actions, and experiences.

Limitations of Care

The Narrow Scope of Students’ Care

Students consistently displayed intense care for women in the primary sources and lecture material, but their concern typically did not extend to issues in the present. Students noted differences between past and present and sometimes celebrated improvements, but there is little evidence that care about historical events led them to identify and care about modern-day issues of equality. Moreover, students held historical figures to different standards than contemporary men and women in their comparisons between past and present. While they expected care to result in action in the past, they did not hold present-day women and men responsible for effecting change. The limited scope of students’ care is notable because it suggests that care alone does not help students connect historical empathy and everyday empathy, which is one of the goals of the affective models of historical empathy.

When students made connections between past and present, they observed the continuity of injustice but did not call for change. In their responses to Classes 04 (Mesopotamia) and 16 (Rome), for instance, students noted that sexual exploitation, objectification, and inequality seemed to be consistent between past and present.

Isn’t it weird how in history, gender inequality is always present? Was it meant to be the natural way of life? 😅#ithinknot #hwc111 #c16 (Tweet from protected account; ID: 844577437258178560.)

Although they reacted negatively to continuities between past and present, there is no evidence that students believed they had a responsibility to change ongoing inequalities. Unlike their criticisms of the past, students did not insist men and women today are responsible for effecting change.

The absence of a call to change things in the present may have stemmed from students’ belief that, despite the ongoing existence of some inequalities, the present is innately more equitable than the past. Responding to the abduction of the Sabine women in Livy’s History, @rachael_ugc wrote:

Another student critiqued the Sumerians’ concept of a hero in the Epic of Gilgamesh, noting that today this concept would be unacceptable due to feminism’s influence on societies:

In both tweets, students perceived the present as an improvement on the past and expressed gratitude that things had gotten better. They were under no obligation to tie the events in the sources to events in the present, but their tweets nonetheless glossed over parallels between past and present. Like the students who saw continuity between past and present, students who saw only difference did not reflect on the need for modern-day change. Contemporary events, such as the mass kidnapping of girls by Boko Haram and the continued elevation of men accused of sexual violence to positions of power, arguably parallel the actions described in Livy’s History and the Epic of Gilgamesh. While the students were correct that public response today often includes outrage and protest, their assumption that the present is more equitable than the past precluded the possibility of identifying injustices that have yet to be addressed.

Reproducing Injustice

On rare occasions, students’ failure to connect inequalities in the past and present the perpetuation of the injustices students condemned. In their responses to the Epic of Gilgamesh, a few students’ criticized Gilgamesh’s demand to sleep with a bride before her husband did. They intended their responses as an expression of care for women but instead reinforced the patriarchal idea that Gilgamesh committed a wrong against the husband, not the wife.

“Bros before hoes” is defined in popular sources like Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary as a “bro code,” the idea that male friends should always take precedence over (demanding or sexually available) women in men’s lives. Students used it in their tweets to suggest that Gilgamesh ought to have considered how his fellow men (but not the women) felt about the situation. In doing so, students unintentionally but uncritically accepted the text’s view of women as property. Consequently, their care could not extend to the present moment in which women’s sexual lives are still too often governed by a “bro code” and not concern for their bodily autonomy and agency.

Care as a Barrier to Understanding

Care alone does not appear to have aided students’ understanding of connections between past and present injustices. Their care about women in the past, and conviction that care required action, did not result in similar concern for the present. At times, care also became a barrier to students’ comprehension of the context surrounding past injustices. Intense care made students more certain that their interpretations of the past were correct. Students’ certainty, in turn, made them less likely to seek more information about the lives and experiences of women in the past.

To discern the impact of intense affect and certainty on students’ interpretations of course content, I coded the Women Subset for tweets that included “qualified” or “asserted” responses. Qualified responses included questions or hedge words like “perhaps,” “maybe,” or “I don’t understand.” I coded any response that included a declarative statement to the effect of, “this is the way it was” as “asserted.” I read each tweet as a whole and categorized the tweet based on the overall expression. This means tweets that technically contain questions but ultimately declare a position are “asserted” instead of “qualified.” The questions in tweets of this nature are typically rhetorical:

The average sentiment of the 666 (of 985) tweets coded as “asserted” was 0.13051, well above the average for the Women Subset overall (0.10275). The higher average sentiment suggests that greater certainty produced more intense affective responses from students. Students displayed a mix of positive and negative reactions in the “asserted” tweets, but their responses were often extremely positive or negative.

When students felt sure of their interpretation, they tended to express strong feelings regarding the topic. This suggests an inverse relationship between the intensity of students’ care and the growth of their understanding. Developing deeper understanding requires what Margery Dillenburg calls “historical humility;” that is, a willingness to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” in response to unfamiliar historical material. The asserted tweets, by definition, did not include statements associated with historical humility. Highly positive or negative affective responses were rarely accompanied by the historical humility necessary to seeking more extensive knowledge of the course topics and readings.

Care + Curiosity Creates the Possibility of Understanding

By contrast, the 310 tweets I coded as “qualified” showed an average sentiment of 0.04383 — a score much closer to neutral than the average sentiment of the “asserted” tweets. These were definitionally tweets that included historical humility. Students asked questions, admitted confusion, and requested more information about the behaviors and actions exhibited in the primary sources. In response to topics other students found appalling or disturbing, some students showed the willingness to hedge their interpretations:

Students’ willingness to ask questions is an encouraging response in no small part because curiosity is a valuable asset in everyday empathy as well as historical empathy. In a 2018 interview for the podcast On Being, hosted by Krista Tippett, social researcher Brené Brown described her vision for connection in the face of political, religious, and social disputes:

“When you are really struggling with someone, and it’s someone you’re supposed to hate because of ideology or belief, move in. Get curious. Get closer. Ask questions. Try to connect. Remind yourself of that spiritual belief of inextricable connection: How am I connected to you in a way that is bigger and more primal than our politics?”

Brené Brown, “Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart,” On Being.

Confronted with unfamiliar, uncomfortable topics, students sometimes did exactly what Brown counsels. They got curious, asked questions, and tried to figure out how their own values connected to those of people in the past. Their affective responses were by no means negated by these habits; the qualified tweets still exhibit care for the treatment and portrayals of women in ancient and medieval civilizations. However, the addition of curiosity to students’ care moved them toward understanding in a way that care, and certainty about that care, could not. The development of both historical empathy and everyday empathy hinges on the intersection of care and curiosity, which produces a desire to understand the lives and experiences of others.


  1. See Affect as Evidence of Care in Affect & Historical Empathy.

  2. On a few occasions, students did perceive the past as better than the present. For instance, @celissecqe tweeted: “the story of Hatshepsut:the fact that there was a greater equality for women in the ancient time as compared to the modern days #hwc111 #c03” (Tweet from protected account; ID: 828790801836580864). Again, though, the student only observed a difference; that difference did not prompt them to consider the need for change in the present.

  3. The class took place before the height of #MeToo in late-2017 and the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. In Singapore, sexual assault/harassment are underreported and the country has not seen an inquiry like the Thomas Clarence hearings or the impeachment of Bill Clinton. The absence of recent examples of men promoted or protected despite accusations of sexual assault likely colored students’ perceptions of past and present.

  4. Wikipedia, “Bro Code,” http://web.archive.org/web/20190415024251/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bro_Code, accessed Feb 27, 2019.

  5. The course was conducted before #MeToo’s influence skyrocketed, but after the widely publicized trial of Brock Turner. Many critics expressed outrage at Turner’s light sentence (a mere six months) and at the judge’s stronger concern for the impact of the assault on Turner than on the woman he assaulted.

  6. See Methodology: Data Analysis for description of coding as a form of analysis.

  7. Average sentiment derived using sentimentr. See “Affect & Historical Empathy: Care & Understanding” in R Script in Downloads & Datasets.

  8. Researchers Jessica Covert and Micheal Stephanone at the University at Buffalo have published and are further pursuing research regarding emotion, critical thought, and social media. Their findings at present suggest that use of social media can lead to feelings of social exclusion, which can in turn limit a user’s capacity for critical thought. Jessica was one of my colleagues during the Fall 2018 semester.

  9. Dillenburg, “Understanding Historical Empathy in the Classroom,” 92.

  10. Brené Brown, “Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart,” On Being with Krista Tippett, Feb 8, 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20190418094418/https://onbeing.org/programs/brene-brown-strong-back-soft-front-wild-heart-feb2018/.