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PWR 2DHB: Feel Me? Empathy and Its Complications

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Fall 2021: Section 1 TTh 11:30AM-1:15PM, Section 2 TTh 1:30PM-3:15PM

Winter 2022: Not offered

Spring 2022: Not offered

Units: 4

Grade option: Letter (ABCD/NP) 

Prerequisite: PWR 1, ESF, ITALIC 95W, or equivalent

Course Feature: WR-2 requirement

When I worked with young people in juvenile hall, I noticed that rather than saying, “You know” or “like,” they would fill that space with, “Feel me?” I never thought much about it then, but I've been wondering in these divisive times what might happen if we could “feel” and be “felt” more by others. President Obama believed that the US would be better off focusing less on its federal deficit and more on its empathy deficit. But cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom argues that, “if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.” While Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams writes that we need to “ask ourselves not just whether empathy makes us good but what good empathy is made of.”

However, after an incredibly diverse outpouring of support for racial justice and against police brutality after George Floyd’s murder, more murders followed and 70 million Americans voted for a man whose reign has been characterized by white supremacy, we have to ask a more complicated question. Not just what good empathy is, but what is empathy good for?

To this end, we’ll be examining what empathy is—affective and cognitive and critical—what role it does, and does not, play in our everyday lives and in promoting ethical action and social justice. We’ll study psychological, biological, sociological and neurological understandings of empathy, its possibilities as a rhetorical strategy and a political tool alongside considering its limitations and other techniques for generating understanding and substantive change.

As you did in PWR 1, you’ll undertake a substantial research project about which you care deeply. You might explore the possibilities and limitations of Suburban Mothers for Black Lives in defunding the police or #MeToo movement’s ability to create connection among assault survivors as well as change the behavior of assaulters; or investigate empathy among students and teachers teaching and learning from home.

In addition to writing a research-based argument essay, you’ll also design and present a ten-minute, multimedia presentation of your findings. To prepare, we’ll watch public-facing oral performances as well as those by award-winning PWR 2 students all the while as presenting many of your own.

Major Assignments

Research Proposal

(5-minute live oral presentation; written text of 900-1200 words) You will propose a project that explores some aspect of empathy or effective communication. Investigating, for example, how Stanford students responded to Covid-19 in ways the university administration could/did not; in what ways learning conversations might build or burst filter bubbles; and the role of marginalization in creating empathic communities on college campuses and beyond.

Written Research-Based Argument

(3000-3600 words; 10-12 pages) Expanding upon the ideas in your research proposal, you will write a well-researched argument essay about some aspect of empathic communication that engages with primary and secondary sources and fieldwork.

Delivery of Research

(10-minute oral presentation with appropriate multimedia support) You will translate your written argument into a live oral presentation, using relevant media to illuminate your unique claims.

Genre/Modes Project

(2-4 mins. spoken; 1-2 pages written) You will choose a creative mode of reflecting on your research this quarter to share on the last day of class.