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Building Our Empathy Through the Research Process



My juniors and I are reading The Great Gatsby, and I was again struck by Nick Carraway’s comment that “life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all.” His assumption always makes me want to yell into the worn pages of my paperback: is it, Nick? Why is that--because it’s easier? For you, a privileged white male? Gahh! But once I settle down, I consider what Nick is saying, and it makes me meditate on point of view and how it is easy to get stuck in ruts, viewing the world “from a single window.”


Our goal as educators is to build and open as many windows as possible for our students to look through. As adults they can decide which windows remain open, but my work is complete if I have guided them to see and explore a multitude of viewpoints. Point of view feels like a foundation to community and belonging--if I can recognize that each person I encounter brings all aspects of their identity to our conversation, every time we meet, then I understand that people see the world differently, and I can step into their shoes through recognizing what affects their point of view: race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, language, culture, etc.


I have always assigned the annotated bibliography in my freshmen classes as a requirement, and then, out of my own boredom (don’t strike me down, literary gods!) I would skim these assignments and mostly grade them for citation accuracy and completion. Summary, while an important 9th grade skill, is not the most exciting thing to read. But in my work researching well-being, including empathy and identity competencies, it is occurring to me that I am wasting an opportunity with the annotated bibliography.


In the past I have never clearly explained the “why” of the annotated bibliography assignment to my students, and how research connects to literature analysis. However, this year, as I explicitly teach identity as part of student well-being in my freshman writing and literature curriculum, I developed an identity competency that states, “Through empathizing with the lived experiences of characters, I can use my writing process to engage in contemporary conversations thoughtfully and respectfully about my identity group and others.” I am realizing that research is a foundation to developing a competency in understanding our identity and therefore point of view: how can I empathize with others if I do not understand their lived experience? And learning others’ stories involves knowing the context of their lives, which, in the case of literature, can be developed through research.


In the past, my freshman annotated bibliography assignment has looked basically like this:

  • Students choose from a variety of historical topics that relate to our novel

  • Students locate and select three sources that give information about this topic

  • Students summarize the source, and complete an MLA citation for each source

There is no doubt that summary is an essential skill, and therefore necessary to teach. But I am interested in exploring not only how to make research engaging, but also how students can use the research process to support their well-being through knowing how to contextually define their own identity and the identity of others. Often, when asked about their identity, freshmen will say, “I play soccer,” or “I have a fun personality,” which are great starting points. But how do we use research to lead them towards eventually defining their identity by saying, “I am white” or “I am from a high socio-economic class,” which will lay the foundation for understanding and engaging in more difficult conversations they will encounter in college and beyond?


This year I used our first novel of the semester, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, as an accessible and enjoyable text that we could explore through the lens of identity and empathy. Set in Barkley Cove, North Carolina during the 1960s, the novel is filled with characters, including Kya the protagonist, who are excluded from the white community in town because of their race, place of residence, and / or socioeconomic class. Through analyzing how these characters’ lived experiences reflect themes such as inclusion vs. exclusion, othering, community, and resilience, my hope is that students begin exploring how our identities are impacted by our community, and why. In our assignment, we explored the following questions:




To support the students’ search, our wonderful librarian, Renee Chevallier, created a guide to search terms for the assignment:




As students began grappling with these questions and terms, I asked them to explore their question of interest and note some first thoughts:






When students write each entry for their annotated bibliography, they will summarize their source and then write an additional short paragraph that connects to public conversations today, as well as themes in the novel. I am hoping to meet students where they are and open the door for a variety of levels of identity work and future racial literacy work; some students might be ready to discuss current events, such as exclusion and racism today in the US, while some might make connections to the novel. For freshmen, this scaffolding encourages them to stay engaged and keep moving through difficult topics, versus leaving out of confusion or hesitancy.


Today the stakes feel even higher for the annotated bibliography, as it seems we are always at a cultural crossroads of information “wars” and questioning the nature and definition of facts. Rachel Davies wrote about language in Community Vernacular: Healing Community through Shared Langauge, and the power of defining complicated terms through research in her junior level American literature class. But before my students arrive in her classroom in two years, I hope to empower them to value research as opening a window, not only to difficult conversations, but also to supporting their well-being through understanding their own evolving and complicated identity, and therefore empathize with the complications surrounding the identities of others.



Kate Schenck is a collector of pigments and spices, dreamer, and builder of tables for lesser heard voices.

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