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Heather Davidson background
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Department of Communication Studies

The Empathy Emphasis: Communicating Connectedness


For a studied instructor of Communication Studies, the concept of multiculturalism makes frequent mention in disciplinary dialogue. The importance of, the challenges to, and the many approaches of educators in reinforcing the value of multiculturalism is something oft discussed. My pedagogy embraces empathy as a cornerstone to the building and sustaining of multicultural appreciation among my students. Because empathy is a term lacking consensus of definition (Batson, 2009) I offer my composite definition here: Empathy is a set of interrelated cognitive, behavioral, and biological responses that allow humans to feel, imagine, or explore the position of entities outside of themselves.

Interpresonal Closeness
Definition of Empathy - The ability to step into the shows of another person, ariming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions

Under this definition empathy is a central tenet to the presentation of multicultural perspectives because "there are as many definitions of culture as there are individuals who write about it" (Merriam, 2007, p. 223). In my experience empathy fosters a greater openness to and validation of the breadth of definition, a supportive element in positive learning climates.

In the mid-15th century the Middle English use of the word culture rose from the Latin colere as a reference to tilled, cultivated or otherwise tended land. The early 16th century saw the use of the term shift to depict a cultivation of the mind through education. In both terminological embodiments the core is rooted in rich growth. To cultivate the minds of my student-colleagues, community partners, and University affiliates I rely on the indiscriminate enfolding of all available resources into my work. This accumulation is made possible by resisting the urge to categorize and subcategorize cultural affiliations within the course curriculum. Words like multiculturalism, diversity and awareness are common nomenclature for a noble idealist approach to inclusion. Attempts to enact these concepts in academic and professional settings, however, often embody tokenism or Othering1 which can result in further marginalization through overtly divisive dichotomous presentations (i.e. Us and Them). Therefore, my pedagogical approach to infusing multicultural perspectives into curriculum hinges on engaging empathy as the default response to the vastness of human diversity instead of focusing on sub-populous cultural marginalization. It is important to recognize that while we can actively:

acknowledge that no story perfectly evokes all that is true about our lives,... we must also acknowledge that the more stories we have available to us, the richer are our resources... the more voices and narratives to which we listen, the more abundantly we experience our lives. In fact, we often find that as different from ourselves as may imagine the others who create those narratives to be, we can still find that the stories from their lives reflect something true about our own. In that case, for both their differences and their similarities, we can hardly afford to let some voices remain marginal and silenced and other voices dominant. (Brooks, 2000, p. 169).

A group of students with Professor Davidson, one student holding a giant stuffed bear.

Generating space and opportunity where students consider a variety of perspectives fosters a subtle and strategic normalization, and predicates the development of exceptional communication skills as they encounter difference and universal similarity among their future connections. A broad definition of culture transcends demographic overgeneralizations by recognizing individual experiences as a central tenant of one's cultural memberships. Calling into constant question the limitations of dichotomous diversity models I challenge my student-colleagues to engage with their education, service, professional and personal opportunities as continual prospects for mutually-beneficial growth. This approach serves as a bridge over the cultural commodification so commonly tied to industry trainings on diversity, validates every student for their unique perspective and potential contributions, and allows them to enter the workforce feeling better prepared to make the connections and communicate effectively with those who will be vital to their successes.

In short, my curriculum situates diversity as the norm instead of the exception.

A snapshot glance at the workforce in the United States offers ample evidence to support the importance of multicultural competence in the workplace, especially when moving beyond the myopia of the common categories race, religion, gender, age, ability, and sexual orientation to include the intersection of appearance, personal history, military service, learning preferences, mental health, and other micro-identities. By normalizing the validity of individual and collective experiences students learn to default to the same openness, thus promoting cohesion, collaboration, and deeper insight. The inherent validity of every perspective is an infinite resource that I have seen contribute to deeper insights, stronger demonstration of interpersonal and professional skills, and an increased capacity for lifelong learning. To this end empathy is imperative.

A passage and an image describing human empathy A photo of two brains connecting, white the title 'The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness' A definition of the word intimacy - Close familiary or friendship.

"Humans aren't as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were 'reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.'" (de Grasse Tyson, 2011)

As educators we seek to instill the principle lessons of our subject area expertise in our students, to make them experts or invoke a passion for our fields of study. I seek to create excellent communicators through the study of theory, practical application, and the development of professional, technological and interpersonal skill sets. While complimentary to the field of Communication Studies, the strategies I employ have an interdisciplinary applicability which can contribute positively to increased student satisfaction rates, achieved learning outcomes, and the transfer of learning over time.


My confluent pedagogical strategy embraces both interdisciplinary frameworks and a welcoming and foreword facing attention to the holistic well-being of students. It begins with the co-creation of safe space for students to explore ideas, assumptions, and experiences. This environment is developed through a series of syllabus inclusions, interpersonal exercises, and investigations into the human condition. By articulating and then expanding upon their experiences through exercises in empathy with each other and our larger community, our students leave with newfound skills which are universally applicable in improving communication efficacy. The development of these skills is demonstrated through participation, thoughtful analysis, community-based experiential projects, and self-reflection.

Several philosophical foundations of adult education inform my pedagogical angle, particularly those stemming from the Humanistic, Progressive, Critical, and Postmodern arenas. Inspired by the work of Malcolm Knowles (1984) and Carl Rogers (1951, 1969) and their attention to students as individuals with emotional, psychological and intellectual needs, I am driven to enact the humanistic "mission of adult educators to assist adults in becoming self-actualized and mature adults," (Elias & Merriam, p. 134). Progressive theories in higher education serve as a reminders to me that "the school is just one agency among many responsible for transmitting culture" (Elias & Merriam, p. 61), which motivates me to provide not only subject area content but also life skills to my student-colleagues. Paulo Freire's critical approach penned in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) speaks to my existential and academic inquiries into the production of knowledge and creation of culture over time, and encourages constant revision of "knowledge" through praxis. Further, I look to inspire student participation with the hopeful empowerment of Freire's structure for teacher/student relationships by "initiating and sustaining the process of dialogue on issues that are real in the lives of both" parties (Elias & Merriam, p. 166) and deconstructing the traditional teacher/student dichotomy to position each of us as agents promoting mutual self-actualization and positive social change through our actions. Lastly, postmodern theories provide me with the tools to understand, embrace, and promote the value found in relativism and a pluralism of truths. This aspect inspires me to welcome the variety of truths inherent to each class roster's registrants, and provides a practical and easily accessed site for the expansion of course curriculum for the benefit of all students. The mindful engagement of these theoretical underpinnings fosters a cohesive class climate where individuals express themselves authentically; engage actively in inquiry, discovery and the co-creation of knowledge with their colleagues; take risks; and encourage one another in moments of vulnerability or doubt. Students thrive in this context, as do I as their guide.

"She calls her classroom her 'nest' where she builds a safe place for all of her students to learn and grow, and leaves you valuable and memorable lessons." (Rate My Professor, 2015)

"Professor Davidson has an innate ability to interact and engage with her students in a remarkable and impacting way. She daily strives to challenge her students to ponder the hard issues in life and has created an incredible dynamic within the classroom that is honestly, hard for me to even explain. The honesty, safety, and vulnerability that occurs each class is unlike anything I have experienced. Professor Davidson has a keen ability to bring up very difficult subjects and engage the class and get them to interact with what she is teaching. We have covered subjects from sexual harassment, to racism, to sexism and never once has it been uncomfortable. I am a very private person, and in this class I have opened up to my classmates as if they were family." (COMM318 Student Statement, 2014)

Two students posing with a man (Ryan Stiles) in a truck and his dog. One student holds a sign saying WeAreWWU

Psychological models of adult development contribute to this strategy by encouraging coursework which promotes transformational journeys attuned with the lifecycles of adult learners. The integrative model of perspectives proposed by Magnusson (1995) demonstrates that "individuals do not develop in terms of single variables but as total integrated systems," (p. 39), to which end my goal is providing universally applicable skill sets for students to employ and refine throughout postgraduate life. Relying heavily on praxis as a model for both learning and forward propulsion of student goals, I call upon students to engage regularly in identifying assumptions based on individual ways of knowing; to move forward in actions which challenge these assumptions; to reflect upon the gaps in understanding; and to leave my courses driven to enact the empathy skills they develop as a agents of positive social change. The following curricular examples highlight ways in which these underpinnings can enhance student learning and outcomes.

Curricular Examples

Standard Curricular Fare: All Courses

  • Inclusive language on syllabi reflecting a want, not merely an obligation, to assist all students in achieving their goals in a supported and dignified way.
  • Solicitation and integration of student and colleague feedback in an overt effort to refine and improve my teaching.
  • Welcoming of supplemental resources from student-colleagues in an effort to promote an even wider representation of perspectives.


  • In the Jukebox for Justice assignment, students are prompted to self-select a song from a playlist related to issues of social justice and causal advocacy. Engaging in analysis of the social, cultural, historical and political messages in the songs, students come to understand the struggles, victories, and calls to action contextualized therein. Based on this analysis, they then utilize the technical training facilitated between my courses and the Student Technology Center to create a visual representation of the song's message. This infographic is then presented to student colleagues with an overview of the issue at hand and the relevance of the original context to contemporary society.
    • This assignment encourages multicultural appreciation by highlighting the cross-cultural impacts of societal ills and the universal themes of trial and triumph, and promotes empathy through the connections students identify between themselves and the songs they analyze.
  • The Cause Blog assignment encourages students to promote an issue of importance to them by showcasing several components on a blog (which they individually design) dedicated to a cause of their choice. This self-selected topic becomes a defining piece of the curriculum in that students are required to delve deeper into their own interests, experience, and futures in order to inform and inspire others to act. At the term's end websites are presented to the class including the student-produced videos, photo journals, and academic research relating to their cause of choice.

COMM308: Communication in Fundraising

Holding a framed and signed picture of the students with the stuffed bear.

The #WeAREWWU campaign is an instructor-designed, student-led scholarship initiative designed to correspond with the multi-year Western Stands for Washington fundraising campaign. The project is based on a model of accessible philanthropy wherein the value of minimal financial contributions are lauded as sufficient and exemplary, placing focus on the power found in contributions of individuals to collective success. This ambitious fundraiser aims to raise $15k in scholarship funds for Western Washington University through student-driven recruitment of annual donors willing to contribute $5/mo for one year through automated deductions. Our campaign will culminate in an all-ages celebration at local hotspot Boundary Bay May 30, 2015, where we will showcase the unique and diverse aspects of the WWU community.

  • This project promotes multicultural consideration by encouraging students to see themselves and others as potential agents of positive change, and by enfolding a vast representation of institutional diversity. A focus on the value of scholarships for those who receive them offers insight into the varied paths leading a diverse student population to school and encourages empathy by prompting a connection with these recipients. A survey of scholarship channels demonstrates the wealth of cultures supported in our institution. Then, lastly, the outreach and project management required of students to implement the event requires an activation of empathic professional communication in an effort to secure support for our collective endeavor to provide access to higher education.

COMM318: Professional Communication

The lesson provided to Professional Communication students on Generating Interpersonal Closeness is perhaps the most salient example of the promotion of multicultural perspectives in my curriculum. This 2-hour lesson is veiled as the simple practice of active listening and speaking in a random pairing, but over the class period the activities crescendo in a display of the efficacy of empathic communication. Using a 3-tiered set of discussion questions offered by Arthur Aron (1997) students unwittingly engage in increasing levels of disclosure and reciprocal empathy, resulting in stronger interpersonal bonds and reports of profound growth relating to interpersonal communication with others.

Students blidnfolded swinging on ropes, tire swings

The discussion component is followed by transcending the verbal communicative realm and entering the nonverbal when students are asked to simply engage in a silent mutual gaze for a period for four minutes. This 240-second period is among the most transformative moments students experience in my course, and several students to date claim they had never engaged in a silent and fully present gaze with another person prior to the class activity. The lesson is then concluded with a video excerpt featuring Marina Abromivc's (2010) interactive exhibit The Artist is Present, a performance piece highlighting the necessity and craving of human connectedness, and debriefing on the effects of the exercise.

  • This exercise elevates theories of empathy and diversity to actionable opportunities by requiring students to see and be seen by another human being after a great deal of personal disclosure to an otherwise perfect stranger. While perhaps unconventional as a way to introduce multicultural validity, the core concept of human culture rises to the top each time I engage students in the lesson. By creating space for the commonalities to rise, the differences to produce added value, and the experiences to evoke compassion and connectedness, I uplift multiculturalism to a place of palpable impact.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Reflectively, fostering empathetic interpersonal communication has positively impacted my student colleagues, me, and the larger community in immeasurable ways. Teaching students how to connect with others in authentic and meaningful ways considerably bolsters their repertoires for bridging theory and practice in their postgraduate endeavors, though the immediate impacts are also difficult to overlook.

"When comparing myself to some of my friends and peers, I have always felt that their job experiences have been far more "real" than mine, and that they are already a step ahead of me in the professional world. This class has shown me the remarkable skills I do have because of my past experiences... and how proud I should be of myself for my dedication and work ethic." COMM318 Student Statement, 2014

When every individual can see themselves as a unique, valuable, and equal component to the resource pool they come to see their peers as such too. Through constant attention to the diversity and validity of experience, I seek to cultivate the embodiment of Aristotle's assertion that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," that students may go forward with the same feeling.

Looking ahead I see my pedagogy remaining under continual revision as I continue to interact with and learn from new people from different backgrounds, but permanently rooted in empathic inquiry and enactment. Feedback from students, colleagues, campus, and community partners each contribute to the constant refinement of my pedagogy but the certainty of my philosophical and theoretical frameworks are salient. These foundations not only promote, but encourage the self-actualization of my student-colleagues, and allows me to demonstrate the concepts of praxis and effective openness to lifelong learning that I seek to instill.

In conclusion, "The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves," (Horton & Freire, 1990). This quote from Paulo Freire encapsulates all that I am and hope to be: an ever-evolving participant in the innovative creation of opportunities for growth and self-actualization among students and beyond.


Aron, A., E. Melinat, E. N. Aron, R. D. Vallone & R. J. Bator. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: a procedure and some preliminary findings. State University of New York, Personality and Psychology Bulletin: April, 1997.

Batson, C. D. (2009). This thing called empathy: Eight related but distinct phenomena. In J. Decety & W. Ickes (Eds.), The social neuroscience of empathy (pp. 3-16). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Brooks, A. K. (2000). Cultures of transformation. In A. L. Wilson & E. R. Hayes (Eds.), Handbook of adult and continuing education (pp. 161-170). San Fancisco: Jossey-Bass.

de Grasse Tyson, N. (2011) Dr. deGrasse Tyson for PETA: The human-animal connection. Accessed March 20, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsjgM_GME-Y

Elias, J. L., & Merriam, S. B. (2005). Philosophical foundations of adult education. Malabar, FL: Kreiger.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Academic.

Horton, M. & P. Freire (1990). We make the road by walking: conversations on education and social change. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Magnusson, D. (1995). Individual development: A holistic, integrated model. In P. Moen, G. H. Elder, & K.

Lusher (Eds.), Examining lives in context: Perspectives on the ecology of human development (pp. 19-60). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

Rate My Professor. (2015). Heather Davidson: Western Washington University. Accessed March 23, 2015. http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/ShowRatings.jsp?tid=1945749

Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory. London: Constable.

Rogers, C. (1969). Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become. (1st ed.) Columbus, Ohio: Charles Merill.

Student Statements (2014). Excerpts from course evaluations conducted at WWU in December, 2014.


Intergenerational Differences, by Digital Differences. Cited in Fox, B. (2014). Age diversity: are we utilising all generations in the workplace? https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141013100507-45298085age-diversity-are-we-utilising-all-generations-in-the-workplace Accessed 3/20/15

1: Othering is a process that identifies those that are thought to be different from oneself or the mainstream, and it can reinforce and reproduce positions of domination and subordination.

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