Techno-Feeling in the Classroom: Technology, Empathy and Learning

Beth A. Robertson

Technology forms us as much as we, in turn, form technology. This is not a new idea by any means, as many scholars, from Donna Haraway to Don Ihde, have argued much the same. More than apparatuses that are used benignly to perform certain functions, technology infuses our social order, our sense of self, and how we learn. However much we might ponder this conception of technology in theory, does knowing this shape our approach to the classroom?  As I currently scramble to finalize details for teaching this Fall, I am struck by how computing technologies in particular have become ubiquitous in the modern university classroom. Whether online platforms, an array of applications or social networks, teaching at the university level requires a regular engagement with digital technologies of some form. The process by which we have arrived here has not necessarily been smooth and is still a matter of discussion—much as recent Active History posts by Sean Kheraj and Gregory Kennedy demonstrate.

Last year, I designed a reflection assignment around the use of Google Maps for a course on transnational sexualities. It was and is still my desire that this will not only develop student’s writing and research skills (although that is definitely one benefit). I also hope that students will use the assignment to rethink their own understandings of sex and intimacy in light of the experiences of others, living in different places and at different times. In other words, I integrated Google Maps into an assignment intended to foster a sense of empathy among my students on a global scale. The astute and creative reflections I received from my students while teaching this course convinced me that the assignment was (and I hope will continue to be) a success. In retrospect, I think the assignment performed another function as well. Reading the thoughts of my students about how they were ingesting the material of the course, alongside their perspective of various urban environments they ‘explored’ through Google Maps, at times made me reconsider my own thinking, or see a particular theory in a different light. Obviously Google Maps was not the only factor that encouraged my students to think critically about global processes and its consequences upon historical and contemporary patterns of sexuality. It does, however, seem apparent that the technology at least helped stimulate a way of thinking among my students, which, in turn, influenced how and what I taught.

Perhaps this exchange could have been achieved through some other means, but I don’t think it wise to completely disregard how technology in the classroom and elsewhere is changing how we relate to one another. Four years ago, the Arab Spring unleashed a sea of optimism about what effective social networking could achieve.  In late 2012, the Idle No More movement took off, and it was the savvy use of social media by young indigenous activists that was viewed as one of its driving factors. More recently, the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, which has covered Twitter with compelling images of police brutality and inventive protests, have prompted discussions about racial equality in the United States and beyond.

How much can we credit social networking technologies for persuading individuals to advocate for and empathize with others, either across the globe or in the university classroom? If so, what does this form of empathy look like and does it have the potential to reshape political and social worlds, as well as methods of learning? Much as Carolyn Pedwell might argue, empathy is far from universal, but is a complicated and culturally constituted way of feeling. It is unpredictable and does not look the same in every context. (To hear Pedwell discuss her work, follow this link.)

Arguably, one of the most frustrating aspects about technology in the classroom is that it highlights that students will learn, but in ways that instructors cannot fully control. However skillfully professors might use twitter, GIS, blogs and other forms of digital tools, it is the student who will ultimately discern and make sense of these new forms of instruction. It is students who will decide to engage with these technologies and their professors—or not.  By this, I do not mean that instructors should not care how technology is influencing student learning. What I am suggesting, however, is that technology in the classroom is one of many factors that seem to be unsettling assumed dichotomies between professor and student.  Some may find this prospect rather frightening, but it is also an opportunity.  Technology is not inherently a good thing in the classroom or elsewhere, but it does help enable students and professors to engage with and relate to one another in new ways. Importantly, some of these forms of engagement challenge the idea that professors are the only ones with something to offer in the classroom, or that students are the only ones learning. This, in itself, is a form of empathy that can help facilitate new ways of thinking on the part of the student, as well as the instructor.

Beth A. Robertson is an historian of gender, sexuality and the body who currently teaches with the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University. Her SSHRC funded dissertation, entitled In the Laboratory of the Spirits: Gender, Embodiment and the Scientific Quest for Life Beyond the Grave, 1918-1935, examines a transnational network of interwar psychical researchers from the perspective of feminist technoscience and queer theory.

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