Is Empathy Enough?

Garcia (2013) posits that researchers’ own biographies “greatly influence their values, their research questions, and the knowledge they construct” (p. 41).  A researcher must have credibility (be an “insider”) to be trusted and effective with study participants (Garcia, 2013).  The sense of Garcia’s writing is that a researcher can’t really understand the plight of someone who is different and whose life experience is different. Because a researcher’s identity is intertwined with his research, he may (or should) exclude some groups, but this, in turn, renders them invisible and marginalizes them (Garcia, 2013).  This marginalization may occur even as the researcher is trying to help the subjects of a study.

Medicine Stories (Levin-Morales, 1998) also discusses the marginalization of groups by colonizing powers who try to help those they deem inferior by educating their young.  Levin-Morales states that “colonizing powers take over the transmission of culture to the young” (p. 23) in the guise of helping them.  Culture has always been the glue that holds a society together, and children are inculcated into the society and government by schools.  My own daughter started her school years in Argentina, where we lived as part of an exchange program.  Her assignments were often to draw the flag, create art representing the country, and sing songs about the motherland.  One day, her father said to her, “That’s what Argentines do.”  She furiously informed him that she was an Argentine, although we knew her to be an Anglo-American Caucasian.  Seeing this through Levin-Morales’ eyes enlightened me to a different view of these practices.

Levin-Morales (1998) also includes a thought-provoking essay about “good English.”  She feels that editors have tried to strip away part of her identity by changing her writing in the name of correcting her English to a standard that is not representative of the many Englishes spoken and written throughout the world.  This article touches on a hotly-discussed issue in linguistic circles:  world Englishes.  Who does English belong to?  British?  Americans?  Or the millions of other English-speakers?  The paradox is that, as an English as a Second Language teacher, I must teach my students something that equates to correctness.  At one level, this is English to help them communicate ideas, which must follow some set of basic norms (for example, using past tense to talk about the past, pronunciation that is distinguishable to the listener, or word order in sentences that is clear enough to express an idea).  As the fluency of English rises, my students are preparing to study in American universities, where the English used is probably the English of stuffy, white male professors.  However, if the student is to compete in this playing field, he/she must know these rules, which I teach.  Am I harming my students’ identities by trying to strip away their brand of English to replace it with one that will serve them well in an academic setting?

Pondering the ideas of Garcia & Ortiz (2013) and Levin-Morales’ Medicine Stories (1998) worried me:  can I  teach students of color if I am not a teacher of color? am I doing a disservice to the identities of my students by teaching an academically-acceptable brand of English?  These concerns were  somewhat allayed by Howard’s “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.”  According to Howard (2003), teachers must first believe that all students can succeed and make sure that their actions don’t reinforce prejudice.  They should view different cultures and the way they learn as an asset in the process and use a wide variety of teaching practices which change with the students’ strengths and weaknesses.  This left me hopeful that I can do justice to my students and be helpful to them within their own context.  I need to spend more time getting to know them individually and not labeling them with one-dimensional descriptions.  Through on-going critical self-reflection, I can confront my own learned prejudices in order to overcome them and move forward.

Garcia, S.B. & Ortiz, A.A. (2013).  Intersectionality as a framework for transformative research to special education.  Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 13(2), 32-47.

Howard, T. C. (2003).  Culturally Relevant Pedagogy:  Ingredients for critical teacher reflection, 42(3), 195-202.

Levins-Morales, A. (1998).  Medicine Stories: History, Culture, and the Politics of Identity.  Cambridge: South End Press.