Graduate Students Teaching Writing

“Evolution not Revolution”: Empathy as Supportive Practice


By: Rachael Burke

Rachael Burke is a second-year Writing and Rhetoric PhD student at George Mason University.  Her research centers on empathic articulation and social-emotional design.  She has taught composition, ESL, and interdisciplinary studies, and she is currently teaching at GMU and Northern Virginia Community College.  You can reach her at

This post is the second in a series on empathy and writing scholarship. For Rachael’s first post, please click here.

In my previous post, I discussed what empathy is partly by talking a bit about what it is not. The challenge presented by proposing we should actively include empathy as a curricular goal is convincing writing teachers that the change is a natural and necessary one. Consequently, my previous entry began the task of examining and overturning a few misconceptions that have long plagued how we talk about empathy in rhetoric and composition (when we talk about it at all), and then suggesting that a more constructive definition of empathy might help us reinvigorate some of our problematic or confusing writing practices. In this entry, I want to continue to expand our understanding of empathy in rhetorical practice on our own disciplinary terms.

When I first began researching empathy, I was perpetually frustrated by not finding it in expected places; or, rather, I was surprised to find empathy wasn’t “in” composition and rhetoric the way I thought it would be (de Waal, 2010). Seeing empathy as a well-supported branch of study in psychology, neuroscience, sociology, human factors, history, law, conflict analysis, and other disciplines that often find themselves in conversation with WAC (and composition and rhetoric, more broadly), I considered empathy studies a naturally supportive and easily integrated concept that would only enhance many current core values central to our field. As a part of a writing curriculum, I thought of empathic design much like Sumner and Stolze (1997) say of participatory design: “evolution not revolution,” a matter of supporting best social practices. I was rather surprised that empathy wasn’t more readily visible when I began searching for it in what we do.

Once I started engaging my own practice empathically and looking at our practices not only through my personal lens, but with a bit of “nonevaluative judgment” (Rogers, 1961), or true empathy, I discovered that empathy embeds itself in much of what we do. And one of the wonderful things about empathy is that it allowed me to maximize what is familiar: it places emphasis on relationship building and collaboration, not to the exclusion of technicality and proficiencies, but to their enhancement. The field of composition and rhetoric is still coming to terms with how we might want to best negotiate our relationships with what is new and different (whether that be a cross curricular collaboration or an ever-changing writing landscape). I have discovered it is best to not quibble over what we name empathy when supportive and employable pedagogy presents itself. In my view, we are quite good at empathic intelligence in our field, call it what you will.

Case in point: over the summer, I took a PhD seminar at Mason, Teaching Technical and Professional Writing, and, quite honestly, I expected to have to finagle a way to explain “teaching empathy” in the professional and technical writing context. As I re-familiarized myself with some of the old and new tenets of this branch of the field, however, I began to realize that empathy studies supports many of the value systems and relevant discussions of what we might consider one of our most practical and pragmatic branches of study. Though, as mentioned in my previous post, empathy is often handled as a call to compassion (as it should be), it also underpins writing and its affiliated pedagogies that could hardly be accused of being sentimental. This is in large part due to its inherently social and cooperative function. As I thought about the way I might best prepare new technical and professional writers to adapt to a modern job-scape and listened to voices in the technical and professional writing/communications field, I realized that a writer’s ability to accurately empathize is a vital tool, one that is highly valued in technical communication. Consequently, in this post, I would like to discuss two ideological features that I believe empathy studies/empathy theories shares with the pragmatic pedagogy of technical and professional rhetoric: 1) a collaborative ethos of problem solving and 2) metic intelligence as flexible, adaptive learning.

Problem Solving in the 21st Century

Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy requires acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see. —Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (2014)       

This phrase Jamison uses—“horizon of context”—is one I think about often when it comes to how I teach my students. I find it difficult to imagine fully what my students must feel as they contemplate their professional futures. Students writing across the curriculum face the challenge of preparing for jobs that will require communicative skill sets that are diverse, interdisciplinary, and driven by technologies-in-the-making. How do all educators teach toward that? How do any of us keep up with a “rhetorical velocity” that may be outpacing us all? What will matter most to my students—what will help them succeed as professionals—and how can I anticipate that? These are questions I struggle with as I attempt to find the right ethos to employ in my writing classroom.

For many in technical and professional writing, many composition teachers, and many in the WAC community, finding a workable balance between the humanities and the demands of “other disciplines” seems essential to helping our students ensure future success; however, sometimes finding the right balance can seem an almost impossible task. The tension of humanities vs. “other disciplines” is perhaps felt most strongly when we look at our attempt to understand and teach writing across the sciences. With our ever more organic use of (and reliance upon) technology in the classroom and beyond, we must learn to strike this balance for ourselves and for our students, especially as they develop socially responsible communication practices that will prepare them for 21st century professionalism.

It is also important that we help our students master the technical proficiencies necessary to write with clarity and concision, but we should help our students recognize the obligation they have to be socially responsible and collaborative with their writing as well. Technical and professional writers have long recognized the need for a collaborative and integrationist philosophy in the writing classroom, and this recognition encourages empathic concern and a rhetoric of reciprocity. In her seminal article “A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing” (1979), Carolyn Miller talks about how we run the risk of “intellectual coercion” when we create divisions where they should not exist, most particularly when we refuse to see rhetoric as informing the sciences (and vice versa). As new ideas and technologies emerge, our sense of what is believable, logical, and epistemologically valid is often tied to our rhetorical capacity to name what we understand… or what we do not. “After all,” Miller (1979) notes, “if we do not see the self-evident, there must be something very wrong with us” (p. 613). This type of thinking (which Miller writes facetiously) is unhelpful, if not outright illogical considering our ever-forward movement toward new technologies and their attendant epistemologies.

My growth as a teacher over the past ten years has been synchronized with the unprecedented growth of the Internet, social media, and various human-centered technologies that have made it almost dangerous to assume anything is “self-evident” (rhetorically or scientifically). Thus, I believe we should approach the writing classroom as Fleckenstein, Spinuzzi, Rickly, and Papper (2008) have suggested: with “harmony […] a way of knowing that is congruent with the complexity and messiness of twenty-first-century meaning making” (p. 243). If we teach our students that any single epistemology or system of logic or discipline is enough, then we risk isolating them from a full horizon of context. In other words, we fail to help them realize that systems of logic change, and that a lone argument (even one that is soundly crafted) doesn’t pay attention to enough of the conditions that frequently contribute to the problems and solutions that define our time. We fail to teach them how to work together, and we leave them alone with their problems.

It makes sense that scholars like Miller and Fleckenstein and Spinuzzi (ref. above) would hesitate to commit to a single empirical perspective, resist the concept of intellectual coercion, and embrace empathic design. Certainty by consensus is more reasonable than intellectual absolutism when problems and their outcomes affect the group. I share this hesitation. I sometimes wonder if in teaching my students to write with empirical awareness, I haven’t veered into the lane of intellectual coercion. I know I have caught myself asking students to place more emphasis on evidence-laden arguments or for positing a thesis statement rather than leaving room for dialogic sharing and not knowing.

Often in the composition classroom (whether that classroom is an entry-level 101 course or an upper-level professional writing course), it seems that a student’s rhetorical skill is often measured by his/her ability to argue through a series of agonistic proofs. But what about the human problems that aren’t solvable by proofs? Ones that resist a logical plan of solution and require a flexible plan of inquiry? Ones that need cooperative idea sharing if they are to be solved at all? In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argues, “Students, as they are increasingly posed with problems relating to themselves in the world and with the world, will feel increasingly challenged and obliged to respond to that challenge” (Freire qtd. in Johnson, 2002, p. 102). I agree, though I think that expecting them to have the response formulated before they start working together toward a solution is unrealistic and counterproductive. Keeping in mind that my students must continually adapt to challenges (many of which I cannot fully anticipate) I think it is best to teach them to understand problems clearly first—to assume a position of not knowing—before moving with care toward a place of careful cooperative solution.

Metic Intelligence: Putting Cognitive Empathy In Practice

“Metis might be seen as a counterpart to phronesis, which implies the ability to carefully deliberate about rhetorical actions for the greater good, whereas metis comes into play in the unexpected, the ambiguous, and the unique situations that require flexible, innovative, on-your-feet rhetorical thinking.”—Rebecca Pope-Ruark, “A Case for Metic Intelligence in Technical and Professional Communication Programs” (2014)

When I first came across the term “metis,” I initially thought, “That’s cognitive empathy!” Cognitive neuropsychologists Decety and Moriguchi (2007) describe empathy as “social interactions with others” in which we use “reasoning” “flexibility and reflexivity” (pg. 2). As mentioned above, metic intelligence is “on-your-feet,” socially complex thinking. Or, as Spinuzzi explains in The Methodology of Participatory Design, “Tacit or craft knowledge is linked to metis: ‘Metis … is also called cunning intelligence, is the ability to act quickly, effectively, and prudently within ever- changing contexts’” (Johnson qtd. in Spinuzzi, 2005, p. 166). This type of intelligence is not only a response to change but a willingness to change—an evolution not a revolution. As a teacher, I am not entirely sure what environment my students need to prepare for; however, I do know I want my students to be prepared to adapt and cognitively empathize in context. In the classroom, I hope we are preparing them to be critical thinkers who can be “flexible and reflexive” as they attempt to transfer their writing and communicative skills to diverse environments. When Pope-Ruark refers to “the tension between making and acting for social good” (p. 324), she is asking us to consider valuing metic intelligence in writing curricula and to consider how we might develop our students ability to handle problems as they emerge, not as they currently exist.

This definitive application of empathy—adaptive, collaborative problem-solving in context—is one that is vastly under-explored in composition and rhetoric. But it is one that we can use to help our students care about, interpret, and solve the problems they encounter. I believe it is creating what Paul Bator was calling a “dialogic rhetoric of inquiry … a pluralism of values inside the classroom” (Bator qtd. in Teich, 1992, p. 234). In my next post, I will be discussing empathic design and curricula that might be best suited to the kinds of “pragmatic and realistic social situations and contexts” that will help students write confidently, together, into their future.


Decety, J., & Moriguchi, Y. (2007). The empathic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: implications for intervention across different clinical conditions. BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 1(1), 22.

de Waal, F. (2010). The age of empathy: Nature’s lessons for a kinder society. Broadway Books.

Fleckenstein, K. S., Spinuzzi, C., Rickly, R. J., & Papper, C. C. (2008). The importance of harmony: An ecological metaphor for writing research. College Composition and Communication, 388-419.

Jamison, L. (2014) The empathy exams. Minneapolis: Graywolf.

Pope-Ruark, R. (2014). A Case for Metic Intelligence in Technical and Professional Communication Programs. Technical Communication Quarterly, 23(4), 323-340.

Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Spinuzzi, Clay. (2005). The methodology of participatory design. (APPLIED THEORY). Technical Communication, 52(2), 163.

Teich, N. (Ed.). (1992). Rogerian perspectives: Collaborative rhetoric for oral and written communication (Vol. 23). Greenwood Publishing Group. Chicago.