Teaching Philosophy

We submit that fiction affects ToM [theory of mind] processes because it forces us to engage in mind-reading and character construction. Not any kind of fiction achieves that, though. Our proposal is that it is literary fiction that forces the reader to engage in ToM processes. (1)

After reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence—skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking. (2) 

There’s a risk of thinking about literature in a sort of morally instrumentalist way, whereby its value can be measured in terms of its capacity to improve us … literature as PX90 workout for the soul, as a cardio circuit for the bleeding heart. (3) 

Judging by its evocative metaphors—and its critical analysis of a scientific finding—I would venture to guess that the third quotation came from English major. The writer observes that scientists’ attempts to find a link between literary fiction and empathy reveal a broader cultural anxiety about whether reading fiction is “useful.” And, though he doesn’t do so explicitly, he also hints at our society’s ongoing need to justify the humanities as a discipline. In my view, the conversation surrounding the Science study gives me and my fellow literature instructors an opportunity to show our students that the literature debate is one worth having. Even better, it demonstrates that a scientific experiment’s premises and conclusions deserve as much close reading as any literary text.

Regardless of whether literary fiction actually promotes empathy, I believe the space of the English classroom fosters it. Both fiction and non-fiction courses allow students to develop social and cultural insight, not only by exposing them to a variety of personas and scenarios, but also by encouraging interactions with their peers, whose experiences as readers and writers differ from their own. In literature classes as well as writing courses, I ask students to attend not just to their own thought processes as they respond to writing, but to the needs of their audiences and interlocutors, as well. Though the first act of Othello requires a different mode of reading than the second draft of a classmate’s close-reading essay, in each case, a productive conversation starts with understanding the social, historical, and/or academic contexts in which the text is situated. I ask students: What is the author’s purpose in writing the piece? Who are its audiences, both intended and actual? Is its purpose to inform, argue, or entertain? This identification process naturally leads to more complex analytical questions, e.g., How effective are the author’s rhetorical techniques on their intended audience? Does the structure they’ve chosen fulfill their artistic or argumentative purpose?

To answer these questions, students need to imagine the mindsets of (often unfamiliar) individuals and groups, from groundlings in an Elizabethan playhouse to potential employers reading a cover letter. They also need to identify the generic and disciplinary conventions that connect writers and their audiences. In my academic argumentation class, for example, students contrast the statistics used in an article on head trauma in the New England Journal of Medicine with the pathos of an Atlantic story on a former football player suffering from dementia. Next, we move on to higher level thinking: in an argumentation class, students learn to recognize and refute logical fallacies; in a literature course, they move from close reading to comparing a theme across multiple texts. Eventually, I ask students to employ the rhetorical techniques they’ve learned in their own researched arguments. By the end of both my literature and composition courses, students have progressed from observing a writing community to participating in it. As I see it, empathic theorizing is both a cause and an effect of this transition; it’s part of the process, and also strengthened by it.

I also try to attune students to their roles in classroom dynamics. In my Fall 2008 freshman composition course, where the analytical focus was on breaking down binary oppositions, the presidential election played a major role in our readings and discussions.  Several opinionated and politically active students had no difficulty speaking their minds, but others tended to listen quietly and refrain from offering their own thoughts. After identifying this stultifying dynamic, I changed my participation requirements. Now, participation includes group work, peer feedback, and office-hour attendance. This arrangement fosters a lively and spontaneous classroom atmosphere by removing the imperative to “perform” in public. It also encourages students to talk with me outside our brief time in class. Some of my writing students, particularly the English language learners, find regular one-on-one meetings useful for clarifying assignment expectations and verbalizing their ideas. In addition to increasing their confidence, these talks allow me to identify their strengths and difficulties early on.

Given a range of opportunities to work with their peers as colleagues rather than rivals, students begin to call upon one another’s scientific, mathematical, and sociological knowledges to deepen their analyses of course readings. One semester, I taught an introductory literature class focused on social and biological conceptions of illness and disease. Many of my students planned to pursue careers in science, sociology, medicine, and law, and their respect for their peers’ intellectual priorities shaped our discussions in fascinating ways. During one conversation about a short story that graphically described a difficult birth, a male pre-med student asked the (female) nursing students whether they thought the story accurately portrayed hospitals’ treatments of pregnant women. Whether or not he was aware of it, his deferral to the female students challenged a gender hierarchy that remains pervasive in medicine. At their best, my literature courses encourage students to draw from each others’ experiences in ways that override institutional and disciplinary boundaries.


(1) David Comer Kidd & Emanuele Castano, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” Science

(2) Pam Belluck, “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov,” The New York Times

(3) Mark O’Connell, “10 Novels to a Better You,” Slate