Feminine and Feminist Ethics and Service-Learning Site Selection: The Role of Empathy
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Feminine and Feminist Ethics and Service-Learning Site Selection:
The Role of Empathy

Introduction

Service-learning has emerged over the past forty or so years as a staple of higher education pedagogy within many disciplines. In that time, scholars and practitioners have argued that the model provides a wide range of benefits to students, communities, and institutions. Consistent among these claims is that participating in service-learning helps students develop empathy for their fellow human beings (Brown 853–54, 859, 861, 863; Davis and White 87; Einfeld and Collins 102, 103, 105; Wilson 210, 213–15). Generally, when service-learning scholars describe empathy, they refer to an ideal disposition of perceiving and relating to populations whom students serve based on identification rather than apathy or sympathy. The idea is that by learning about and sometimes sharing in the experiences of people served by various nonprofits and other service-learning site organizations, students will experience deeper learning that will apply beyond the immediate course context and encourage them to be better people and citizens, as well as, perhaps, better teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, scientists, poets, and engineers. In a 2011 article, Judy C. Wilson summarized much of the research on service-learning and empathy and described her study exploring the impact of service-learning experiences as demonstrated by the level of empathy expressed by students in end-of-course reflective letters. According to Wilson’s findings, “students involved in the service-learning assignment were significantly (p < 0.05) more likely to express empathy in their reflective writing than the students who did not participate in service-learning” (207). Wilson ended the article by calling for much more research on the topic, including studies that not only explore what kinds of experiences promote empathy in students, but also ask “what contributes to students’ decisions to participate (or not participate) in SL” (217). In this article we respond to that call, but we also ask other questions with significant implications for the feminist teacher: What dangers or risks might be associated with encouraging students to develop empathy for those they work with in service-learning courses? And how do the empathy and shared experiences that students bring with them to [End Page 57] our classes shape their service-learning work?

The importance of stepping back and theorizing empathy from a feminist perspective, and of troubling the notion that empathy is always an unquestionable good, came strongly to our attention during a recent conversation with a colleague regarding the etiquette of touching friends in greeting. This person recounted her experience of dealing with friends’ and colleagues’ reactions after the accidental death of her college-age son several years ago, and noted that a surprising number of people wanted to hug her and even cry on her shoulder when they saw her for the first time after hearing the news. She described her pain and discomfort in such moments and noted how alone the experience made her feel despite the often very good intentions of the people she encountered. Recognizing that complex dynamics like these surround us all the time, we posit that a feminist pedagogical approach demands that we read empathy not as a given or an ideal outcome of service-learning pedagogy but instead as a complicated and unstable element that is constantly shaped by a number of factors, including individual, social, and cultural histories and contexts. Situations like the one our colleague shared, in which people far removed from an experience try to connect with it by overidentifying with the person actually experiencing the struggle, can demonstrate a kind of empathy gone bad. So it goes with service-learning. If we allow students and ourselves to be seduced by the emotional appeal of empathy without careful attention to the implications, we can minimize and essentialize others’ experiences, deceive ourselves about our understanding of a situation, and damage the very connections we desire to strengthen (Bowdon and Scott 8). In “Empathy and the Critic,” Ann Jurecic cites scholarship on affect theory in order to warn teachers that “although these social emotions [empathy, sympathy, compassion, and so on] may seem authentically personal...