On 'Looking Upon' Art: Texts that Encourage Empathetic Thinking
Last spring, like millions of teachers worldwide, I was confronted with the question: What now? It wasn’t that learning became irrelevant, or that the importance of reading, writing, and reflecting suddenly vanished. Instead, it felt like my class fractured between what I was teaching (skills, texts) and what the students needed (wellness, empathy). Empathy and wellness have always been welcomed in my classroom, but they were those distant relatives that would show up for the major holidays, and I started to wonder: What if I invited them more often? What would happen if I treated them like a standard to be developed and curated?
Over the course of the spring, I started experimenting with some approaches and stumbled upon a lesson that allowed us to engage with a text while also practicing skills related to empathy and wellness. The class activity was simple: read, analyze, and discuss the sonnet “Ozymandias.” I asked students to pay close attention to Shelley’s view of art and the artist, and our discussion of the poem led us to a series of question(s): How does art survive the world? How does art ask us to look upon ourselves and our landscapes? For homework, students were asked to explore these questions by “looking upon” and responding to some form of art or culture.
Admittedly, this early approach was a bit haphazard; the activity wasn’t about anything more than helping students find some peace during a global pandemic. However, upon reflection, I could see the way the approach, along with various activities aimed at developing empathetic thinking, could help students reflect upon, respond to, and think about perspective.
I discovered a bit of happenstance in that my assigned summer readings—The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald and A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit—aligned naturally with reflective practices and offered strategies for helping students write empathetically. The natural alignment allowed me to shift the discussion from “what” literature means into the “how” —how does an author construct and think about meaning. This open and interpretive approach helped students think about the author’s perspective within the context of their own needs and students wrote and thought about a diverse array of ideas/texts/etc. within their own “landscapes.”
Sebald’s Rings of Saturn is a contemplative exploration of an author’s mind as he reflects upon a walking tour he took on the eastern coast of England. The narration is typical of Sebald in that it allows him to posture “an ‘empathic’ narrative approach to the past”, which models empathy for the reader and provides an example of how we can write empathetically (Ward 2). The text does not attempt to rename or possess the landscapes; instead, Sebald looks upon them and thinks about himself in relation to them, “which forms a simultaneous gesture of proximity (identification, subjectivity) and distance (objectivity, critical understanding)” (2).
The text is also full of reflective, contemplative moments that ask us to reflect on ourselves and our own views of the world. Take, for instance, this passage, which I used to ask students to think and write about their own difficulties with writing:
I recall now how he once said to me that one of the chief difficulties of writing consisted in thinking, with the tip of the pen, solely of the word to be written, whilst banishing from one's mind the reality of what one intends to describe. (Sebald 186)
The passage is rich from an interpretative standpoint, which allowed us to practice close reading skills while also developing reflective practices, and throughout the unit, I built activities from specific textual details (such as the one above) that allowed for the development of reflective skills. Sample prompts included: 1) Listen to a song from your past... where does it take you? 2) Sit and observe your thinking for five minutes. Build an intertextual web about your thinking 3) Pick a text (song, book, poem, etc.) and respond to the text from your own perspective.
Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost offered a nice balance to Sebald’s meandering narrative. Like Sebald, Solnit is concerned with “distances,” and, throughout the text, she offers strategies for finding comfort in the distances of the world, for example the unknown and our emotions. In talking about distances, Solnit writes, “the world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water” (29). She notes that distance is held in blue, something she phrases “the distance of blue,” and explores these distances throughout the essays.
Her explorations range from topics of loss to rock-and-roll and the diversity of her essays provide models for students to engage with their own “distances of blue.” Throughout the unit, students were asked to do a series of activities aimed at developing their ability to reflect, listen, and think. Students created “blue playlists”, got lost in a song/walk/drive, looked at an old photograph and wrote about the distances traveled, spent ten minutes daydreaming; all these were modeled from textual details seen in Solnit’s essays.
Solnit’s “distance of blue” also became the basis for the students' first essay, which required them to “write their own deserts,” a phrase borrowed from Solnit. Like Sebald/Solnit, the students were expected to incorporate intertextual references, and since they had spent much of the unit sitting and listening to themselves and texts they had a wealth of resources to draw upon. Here, I wanted students to understand and respond to perspective and to look at these texts in relation to their thinking. Once completed, the students created diverse “landscapes” ranging from the experience of hearing Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” for the first time to the difficulty of understanding the world if we accept the abstractions of numbers.
I often take for granted that reading is an empathetic act. I assume students will just be able to read and understand the texts without simply discovering themselves in the interpretative meaning of them. Putting aside the obvious—i.e. we always interpret through self—I found that picking texts that naturally align with conversations of empathy and wellness helped me be more intentional in developing empathetic, reflective skills that helped students recognize and engage with perspective. More importantly, it helped me close the gap between classroom learning and the students’ needs.
**Afterthought: One could also use these kinds of approaches with texts that are more narrative driven. For instance, my class explored Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star through the idea of meta-narrative (writing about writing), and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony through the lens of cultural healing—both of which provided nice avenues into the “hows” and “whos” of writing/reading.
Sebald, W.G. Rings of Saturn. Trans. Michael Hulse. New Directions, 2016.
Solnit, Rebecca. A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Penguin, 2016.
Ward, Lewis. “A Simultaneous Gesture of Proximity and Distance: W.G. Sebald's Empathic Narrative Persona.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 36, no. 1, 2012.
Corby Baxter received his doctorate from University of Texas at Arlington with a special focus in Native American Literature; he spent much of that time teaching sections of Freshman and Sophomore English. Upon graduation, he started teaching at Ursuline Academy, where he has worked the last eight years as an English teacher and the last four years as the professional learning coordinator. He has presented at conferences such as National Coalition of All Girls Schools and OESIS on topics related to teaching and learning. Corby is a collector of books, a reader of the stars, and a librarian among the shelves of the Library of Babel.