Middle Ground: Reflections on Conversations and Empathy

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I have been teaching my students to think about academic writing and argument as a conversation, a metaphor which incorporates many of the characteristics I associate with civil discourse: empathy, listening, compassion, understanding, and reciprocity. But I wonder how adequate this metaphor is at a time like this – when children are separated from their families, birthright citizenship is threatened, and the essence of one’s identity can be erased with the stroke of a pen. A number of writers have lamented that the inability to have civil conversations may be a greater issue than the policies that challenge conceptions of national identity, democracy, and social justice. But what would a serious conversation in the current context look and sound like? What middle ground is there?


These are questions that have occurred to me long before the current moment. I am reminded of a discussion with my students about an Ethnic Studies class Latinx educators adopted in a Tucson public school. The class immersed Latinx students at the school in the study of history, annexation, colonization, and community activism. Class discussions fostered a sense of cultural pride, agency, and power. But the superintendent of schools in Tucson led a campaign to eliminate the class because he felt the subject matter engendered hate for America. My students didn’t follow the superintendent’s line of argument, so I asked what they would say to the superintendent.


One student offered that it wouldn’t be worth responding to someone who was so dismissive of the effort to teach students their history, instill pride, and motivate them to strengthen their communities. Others indicated a desire to engage in a conversation to better understand why the superintendent eliminated the class. I, too, wanted to pursue the reasons why an ethnic studies course felt so threatening. Perhaps there was some fundamental misunderstanding about the class and maybe there was some other way to look at the problem – a view from the middle – that would facilitate a conversation.


However, I also wonder about my role as a teacher of writing and rhetoric when a student does not see any middle ground in issues about identity, social justice, and democracy. Is it more meaningful to understand why some educators limit what is taught in schools or to find ways to support initiatives in education that are culturally sustaining?


For a moment, I want to think about NPR host Krista Tippett’s reflections on what our most difficult conversations entail. That we can have these conversations at all requires building relations rooted in trust. A good conversation is motivated by our own convictions, she explains, and includes raising good questions that reflect “genuine curiosity.” So how do we create the kinds of spaces that foster “good conversations?” And how do we find “middle ground,” as Tayari Jones asks in a recent article? Can we assume that this middle ground “represents a safe, neutral and civilized space?”


I can’t say that I have answers to the questions that Krista Tippett and Tayari Jones ask. My co-author, April Lidinsky, and I describe the metaphor of conversation at length in From Inquiry to Academic Writing and stress the idea of empathy in trying to understand arguments that differ from our own worldviews. We write that empathy is the ability to understand the perspectives that shape what people think, believe, and value. To express both empathy and respect for the positions of all people involved in the conversation, academic writers try to understand the conditions under which each opinion might be true and then to represent the strengths of that position accurately. We adopt a Rogerian approach to argument that grows out of the give-and-take of conversation between two people and the topic under discussion. In a writing, this conversation takes the form of anticipating readers’ counterarguments and using language that is both empathetic and respectful.


Developing empathy entails looking critically at how factors such as race, class, gender, faith, and sexuality inform the ways we see the world and exist in relationships to one. These factors point to the multiple forms of oppression that individuals experience everyday. Before we can empathize, we must understand how power operates and disenfranchises. As educators, we need to acknowledge with our students the nature of intersectionality and challenge normative and reductive views of identity. At a time when we live in segregated communities and our friends are scattered geographically and virtually, it’s important that students understand how abstract ideas about citizenship, power, and identity affect day-to-day experiences.


I am mindful of Jones’s argument that establishing common ground is complicated. This is especially the case when those we disagree with overlook or ignore how people are directly affected by “policies or cultural norms.” I think of my student who said he would not try to engage the superintendent. As a student of color, my student took the elimination of the ethnic studies class as a personal affront to black and brown people who have spent decades struggling for equity and justice. The superintendent was not just making an argument that seemed to invite a response; he was creating policies that change people’s lives.


What middle ground exists when a student recalls the time when ICE surrounded his house and took his father away? When children are separated from their families at the border? When elected officials challenge the very foundations of how to define citizenship and treat civil and human rights as negligible? My student hears that he does not matter in policies that center whiteness and nativism. I understand why he and others would walk away from a painful conversation.


As teachers of writing, we can and should create spaces for difficult conversations built on relationships, trust, and reciprocity. But sometimes it’s fine to let our students rage without having to reconcile their feelings of vulnerability and anger.


Photo Credit: Pilar Berguido on Flickr 02/09/05, via a CC BY 2.0 License

About the Author
Stuart Greene received his Ph.D. in English from Carnegie Mellon in Rhetoric. He is associate professor of English with a joint appointment in Africana Studies at Notre Dame. His research has examined the intersections of race, poverty, and achievement in public schools. This work has led to the publication of his co-edited volume, Making Race Visible: Literacy Research for Racial Understanding (Teachers College Press, 2003), for which he won the National Council of Teachers of English Richard A. Meade Award in 2005. He has published a monographic, Race, Community, and Urban Schools: Partnering with African American Families (Teachers College Press, 2013), edited Literacy as a Civil Right (Peter Lang, 2008) and co-edited with Cathy Compton-Lilly, Bedtime Stories and Book Reports: Connecting Parent Involvement and Family Literacy (Teachers College Press, 2011). His current research focuses on literacy, youth empowerment and civic engagement in the context of university/community partnerships. This work appears in his edited collection Youth Voices, Public Spaces, and Civic Engagement. (Routledge Press, 2016), Language Arts, Urban Education, and The Urban Review.