On Teaching and Modeling Empathy and Vulnerabilty

On Tuesday, I tweeted about my Intro to Medical Anthropology course. I had shown an episode of the T.V. show, Family by the Ton, because I thought the ways each person described their experience, their interactions with healthcare, and their hopes and fears for the future were great examples of illness narratives. What I had not prepared for was the amount of moral indignation the students would express towards the folx featured in the show. After tweeting, I posted it on my FB page and asked for any strategies people had for addressing empathy, particularly for bodies that are seen as “not normal.” Because I know generous people, I got great feedback.  Even when I went to class today, I was mulling over how to address some of the comments from last class.

But today’s class shifted something for us in a good way.

One of the assignments for this course is a health autobiography, which I adapted from one that my friend and colleague Matt developed for one of his courses. For it, the students were to think about an experience with illness, their own perceptions of healthiness, or an engagement with some form of healthcare and write or create something that tells the story about that experience. They had freedom to decide what medium they wanted to use, as long as it both engaged a specific experience or set of experiences as well as made broader sociocultural connections.

I thought this would be a great assignment to assess how students were grasping content, and I think I also vaguely had some idea that the assignment would provide students an opportunity to explore something in a course assignment that they might not have done otherwise. What blew me away, however, was how this assignment shifted the culture of our class through students’ willingness to share difficulty experiences and the empathy that they demonstrated for each other. Their projects covered a range of topics: PTSD, birth control and stigma, alternatives to biomedicine for treating cancer, etc. One of the themes that came out in several of the projects was having to see multiple doctors before getting an accurate diagnose for what was being experienced in the body.  Several discussed how their discomfort with medical professionals influenced what information they were willing to share with physicians. One student said, “if we are saying that we had to get these second and third opinions, what would we consider a “good” doctor?” Good question.

Another thing that struck me was no matter if it was the subject of their own project or not, students connected with their peers’ experiences of PTSD and depression. There were many tears shed and tons of affirmation. While I did ask students to be mindful in choosing a topic that they would be willing to share, after the first three projects dealt with mental health, I began to feel some discomfort as I made mental notes about resources on and off campus to share after class. Teaching at a Black women’s college, however, I am acutely aware of how important it is to have these conversations with my students, and I am glad that several chose to use a structured assignment in what I hope is a safe space to share. Just the other day a student came to my office to talk about mental health and said, “here at Spelman they expect us to be superwoman but don’t teach us how to deal with that.” I

At the end of class, i shared my own health autobiography. I had prepared two options and chose to share the one focused on mental health, because it felt important to share that with students who look to me as their professor, yes, but often as a role model. For someone who is fairly selective about what I share even with people who are close to me, it is actually quite difficult. But I firmly believe in not asking my students to do things that I would not be willing to do alongside them.  But also more than that: it feels important to me that they know that even the folx they admire struggle. even the ones who lead them are still figuring it out. Also: I needed to know that as their Black woman professor, I do not have to hold tightly to the expectation that I have to perform “all togetherness” for them. I needed to be vulnerable, too.

I was concerned after Tuesday’s class. Reflecting on it, I do think I will teach those topics differently when I offer this course again. But for now, my students’ responses to each other reminded me to start where we are, to leverage the love they already have for each other, and to trust their engagement with the learning process. If we’re lucky, our students think highly of us or at least trust us to lead them in self and academic discovery. As often as I can, I try to merge those two or co-create a classroom space where both are possible, even if they are in tension with each other. This was one of those times when it felt like I got it right.

Next week, I’ll circle back to the conversation we had on Tuesday. Let’s see if we can harness that empathy we had for each other and extend it further and further and further throughout the semester. I think we can.

“I Have No Dead There”: On Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard and Black Feminist Pedagogy

I read Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, for the first time in a graduate seminar called Race, Gender, and Social Justice taught by Rachel Watkins.  Moving back and forth between two voices, a narrator in the “present” and a native guard during the Civil War, the poems grapple with southern identity and experience, the ways white supremacy haunts us, time, and grief.

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It was yesterday, though, when Native Guard and Rachel’s creative pedagogy came full circle. With eight others who I know through my time as a fellow at the James Weldon Johnson Institute, I saw a stage production of Native Guard.

Nicole Banks Long’s voice flirted with the melodies flowing from Tyrone Jackson’s keyboard, while January LaVoy delivered each poem as if she was speaking to her diary alone. Thomas Neal Antwon Ghant appeared as the native guard, embodying the anguish and hope that carried our ancestors through fighting for a country that did not fight for them; that does not fight for us. In a scene that caught my breath and did not return it to me until he finished, Ghant delivered these words:

June 1863

Some names shall deck the page of history

as it is written on stone. Some will not.

Yesterday, word came of colored troops, dead

on the battlefield at Port Hudson; how

General Banks was heard to say I have 

no dead there, and left them, unclaimed. Last night,

I dreamt their eyes still open – dim, clouded

as the eyes of fish washed ashore, yet fixed –

staring back at me. Still, more come today

eager to enlist. Their bodies – haggard

faces, gaunt limbs – bring news of the mainland.

Starved, they suffer like our prisoners. Dying,

they plead for what we do not have to give.

Death makes equal of us all: a fair master.

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I have no dead there sat with me or, perhaps, wrestled with me. Thrice denied–in life, in battle, and in death–these soldiers’ anguish, grief, and hope settled into my body. I then thought about Rachel’s class and what I think is the regenerative nature of the best Black feminist pedagogy: it shows up again, in different ways, at different times to remind us that we are more than a sum total of white supremacy’s casualties; that we carry the fullness of Black humanity within us.  In Rachel’s course, we did not only read ethnographies. We read poetry, fiction, essays, and other forms of nonfiction. For our final paper, Rachel accepted a short story from me instead of a traditional paper. And when she read it, she sent the most affirming message to me through her feedback: your work and writing does not have to adhere to any of the rules you learn about being an ethnographer. Rules are meant to be broken, especially if it means there are better ways to bear witness to and write about Blackness. It was the most creatively designed class I took as a graduate student, and it showed up for me and in me while I was with a group of scholars I love and hold close. In some ways, we are a little corner of the beloved community many want to see manifest in the world.

Rachel’s pedagogy wasn’t simply creative. She used all the tools available to push us toward grappling with not only Black death but also Black life. The social sciences, anthropology included, fails at this often. Social justice agendas fail at this sometimes, too, when we are caught up solely in the facts of inequalities and the assaults on Black life and neglect continuities in Black life.

I have no dead there, General Banks declared.

In yoga, we concentrate on the breath. It reminds us that we are *here* and present.

We do, in fact, have dead there, here, and everywhere. We see their lives and deaths play out behind our eyelids. We carry them with us in each rise and fall of our chests.