Pedagogy of the Pandemic: Narrative Medicine and Radical Empathy

Sayantani DasGupta, Author // Ibraim Nascimento, Painter //

There is a rupture in higher education and in that rupture is an opportunity. As novelist Arundhati Roy (2020) has written, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

Even as university administrators around the country argue as to the necessity of returning to campuses in the fall, social distancing and online pandemic classrooms have given educators a chance to re-examine and re-affirm how, but more importantly, why we teach. Are we transactional workers who supply our student-clients with easily digestible packets of professional skills, afraid to appear before our computer cameras with an (unwashed) hair out of place lest we “cheapen the value of college education” (Kiser, 2020)? Are we engaging in what Brazilian educator Paolo Freire (2006) would call a ‘banking model of education’: teachers as fonts of knowledge who pour information into the empty, vault-like minds of students? Or are we engaged in a sacred vocation, teaching and learning from our students in a mutual enterprise of transformation? Do we, as bell hooks (1994) suggests, teach to transgress, viewing the art of our pedagogy as a practice of freedom? 

Ibraim Nascimento. Portrait of Sayantani DasGupta. COVERED19. July 2020.

The Narrative Medicine graduate program in which I teach is an interdisciplinary field honoring the role of storytelling and story-receiving in health care. Narrative Medicine is concerned with witnessing moments of trauma and illness, with cultivating receptivity and presence in the face of suffering. Although many of our students are working in or entering health care fields, Narrative Medicine and the broader disciplines of the Health Humanities have lessons applicable to many professions, particularly those, like education, which center listening. Indeed, a Narrative Medicine approach to pedagogy necessitates a mutuality, co-intentionality and transparency between teacher and learner, just as it does in the clinical encounter between clinician and patient.

We educators have always been witnesses to our students’ lives, but at such an overwhelming, collective level, arguably never more than now, during the convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement. Our students are hurting. As are their families and communities. As is our broader society. As are we. Whether we are online or in person in the fall, our teaching must reflect an attention to and care for this individual pain, this collective trauma. In doing so, we can mindfully re-set our educational goals and intentions, bringing a deliberate care for our classroom communities back to our post-quarantine pedagogical practices.

Pre-Covid-19, my beginning-of-class check-in time consisted of me reminding students about midterms or other class requirements, students sharing with their colleagues outside-of-class events and calls for papers. After COVID-19, my spring semester online check-ins became opportunities to touch base with each of my seminar students in turn about how they were faring in the early, terrifying days of the pandemic. I asked that they all kept their cameras on for the entirety of class, and put their screens on grid-view so that we could each see each other’s faces, Brady-Bunch style. I did this out of a deliberate determination make manifest my pedagogical philosophy: that we were all co-learners and co-problem posers (Freire), creating our educational practices together. In my spring online classrooms, I would deliberately go square by square, calling each students’ name, as a gesture to each one of their value to our classroom community. Never did I felt more imperatively bell hooks’ notion that caring for the souls of our students is an essential precursor to true learning. In hooks’ words (13):

To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.

Instead of plunging right away into a discussion of that week’s readings, my students would talk about how they were dealing with the isolation of social distancing. Many had travelled home from college, but a few were still in their New York City dorms or apartments, where, in late spring, the endless sounds of ambulances were a droning, horrific norm. One student of mine, sharing space and bandwidth with several younger siblings, took our Zoom classes from her car. Some of my students had ill parents or grandparents, or were ill themselves. Many were not sleeping, or found themselves unable to focus on their work. They were struggling, lonely, and scared. We as a classroom community did not have answers, but our full-hearted attention was our gift to one another. We were enacting the very theory which we had so long discussed as narrative medicine scholars—we were bearing witness to one another in moments of trauma, even as we were witnessing one another’s processes of witnessing. In the words of psychoanalyst and Holocaust scholar Dori Laub (1991, 58), “The listener… has to be at the same time a witness to the trauma witness and a witness to himself. It is only in this way, through his simultaneous awareness of the continuous flow of those inner hazards both in the trauma witness and in himself, that he can become the enabler of the testimony.”

We witnessed one another’s joy during these check-ins too. Some of my students spoke about their adventures in baking or knitting. They exchanged recipes through the online chat function and arranged for crafty Zoom sessions after class. It was of course mandatory that anyone with a pet at home must try to get the animal, however briefly, on camera during some point of our two-hour classes. I joked with my students they would get extra credit for such moments. Of course, what we are all really getting extra credit for is just surviving, making it through to the other side of this surreal portal intact. As educators, part of this process of survival must be making room for trauma, illness, anger, and other emotions in our classroom spaces.

One day, after check-in, I split my graduate seminar in Narrative, Health and Social Justice in small groups and had each conduct a narrative-based teaching exercise, suggesting writing prompts, coming up with discussion questions, and facilitating critical conversations among their peers without my direct interference. Although I had done this exercise many times during in-person classes, that was the first time I facilitated such an activity on line, and I was nervous about how it would translate to the digital classroom. I needn’t have been. It turned out to be one of the most moving experiences of my now almost twenty years working in higher education, and I firmly believe this was because of the extra time and attention we had been paying to one another during the past weeks— as fellow humans, as witnesses to our collective traumatic history.

The first student teaching group guided the rest of us through a short story from Edwidge Danticat’s (2015) collection Krik? Krak!, the title referring to the Haitian storytelling practice where the storyteller asks “Krik?” and willing listeners answer “Krak!” It is a sort of shorthand for the question “Will you listen?” and the answer, “Yes, we will!” The story itself, “Children of the sea,” is told in alternating letters between two young lovers separated by violence and war—letters written for but never received by the other. The teaching students had a volunteer from the class read the words of a young man escaping from Haiti on a tiny, doomed boat: “There are no borderlines on the sea. The whole thing looks like one. I cannot even tell if we are about to drop off the face of the earth. (6)”

The digital classroom listened in rapt awe, hearing the echoes of trauma from Danticat’s story in our own lives. I hear it now as we live through two viral pandemics—COVID-19 and racist violence—which know no borders, no boundaries. “I am more comfortable now with the idea of dying,” continued the student. “Not that I have completely accepted it, but I know that it might happen.”

In the eerie silence that followed, I could swear I heard an ambulance screaming in someone’s background. I imagine even now the pain of my medical colleagues caring for the ill, protesters being beaten and teargassed by the police, each unsure if they can keep their own vulnerable bodies safe.

The teaching group then asked us to read, one sentence at a time, the following section of Danticat’s story (8), written by a young woman enduring the violence of Haiti’s Tonton Macoutes. The group didn’t assign readers, but allowed their fellow students to jump in, sometimes resulting in overlapping speakers, a community chorus of speaking and listening, our voices rising and falling together.

“At night, I can’t sleep,” read one student.

“I count the bullets in the dark,” read another.

With that ineffable power that literature has, the rest of the paragraph felt like a mirror reflecting to myself and the class our need to keep learning as an educational community even through collective trauma and historical pain.

i will keep writing like we promised to do. i hate it, but will keep writing. you keep writing too, okay? and when we see each other again it will seem like we have lost no time.  

This pandemic is a portal. And as we educators and learners walk through that portal together, we have the opportunity to create the new world we will inhabit on the other side. This new world can be different in so many important ways. Rather than viewing education in terms of economic transactions (Paxton, 2020), let us reframe it in terms of empathy, witnessing and collective health and well-being. Instead of railing against the inability to safely return to campus in the fall, let us understand the potential of online pedagogical practices to illuminate our teaching and learning altogether.

For my small part, I will keep writing, keep teaching, keep imagining and working for an educational future based not on client transactions but community care, radical empathy, and a healing practice drawn from stories. I will try and enact an ethos of Narrative Medicine, or what bell hooks calls “a practice of freedom,” in my classrooms, whether virtual or material. And when we see each other again, my students and I will continue to tell and witness, witness and tell, all that occurred as we crossed, apart but together, over this vast and turbulent sea.


Notes

The author would like to thank Zahra Kahn, the faculty associate for the class mentioned, and Sarah Mclaughlin, one of the students of the classroom exercise mentioned, as well as all her students who are, as always, her best teachers.

This text appears as part of the COVERED19 project. COVERED19 is a live painting series influenced by the experiences of quarantine. Participants are invited to send a full body photograph that represents their thoughts and feelings about the COVID19 pandemic. The photograph is used to inspire the artist, Ibraim Nascimento, to create an original painting through a live video with the participant. By creating a virtual space for discussion, COVERED 19 allows the individual to tell their story. This series explores the concept of the “new normal” and the abnormal, changes in day-to-day behavior like wearing masks, and self-reflection about the future. What will be the “new normal”? Can we go back to our way of life post COVID-19?


Contributor Bios

Originally trained in pediatrics and public health, Sayantani DasGupta, MD MPH, is Senior Lecturer in the Graduate Program in Narrative Medicine, The Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, all at Columbia University. She is also a New York Times-bestselling children’s fantasy author, and you can learn more about her work at www.sayantanidasgupta.com 

Ibraim Nascimento is an Afro-Brazilian artist based in Houston. His conceptual art is comprised of acrylic painting, mixed-media, and live performance, and explores identity, spiritual belonging, and the quotidian. Find out more about his art at https://www.ibraimnascimento.com


Works Cited

Danticat, Edwidge. Children of the sea. In Krik? Krak! Soho Press, 2015.

Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum, 2006.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994.

Kiser, Kristie. Instructors, please wash your hair. Inside Higher Ed April 16, 2020.

Laub, Dori. Bearing witness, or, the vicissitudes of listening. In Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History, Shoshana Feldman and Dori Laub (eds.) Routledge, 1991.

Paxton, Christina. College campuses must reopen in the fall. Here’s how we do it. New York Times Op-ed April 26, 2020.

Roy, Arundhati. The pandemic is a portal. Financial Times April 3, 2020.

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