The School of Law: Teaching Empathy
Teaching empathy may not seem possible in classroom settings.
However, a growing number of law professors recognize the importance of teaching to the whole person and encouraging students to develop an integrated professional self capable of drawing upon both intellectual and emotional insights to support empathetic understanding. Among those is Patti Alleva, the Rodney and Betty Webb Professor of Law, former Faculty Development Fellow for Teaching and Learning at the School of Law, and a two-time recipient of UND’s Lydia and Arthur Saiki Prize for Graduate or Professional Teaching Excellence.
But how to teach empathy?
“Via literature-plus,” said Alleva, referencing her cutting-edge course, Professional Visions: Law, Literature, and the Role of Lawyers in the Social Order.
“First is tapping into the transformative power of literature to help students engage with literary characters as if they were real
clients,” said Alleva. “Then using targeted teaching strategies to help students become more self-, other-, and socially aware in exercising professional judgment on behalf of those character-clients.”
“Cultivating this tripartite awareness in students — through lawyer-client role plays, hypotheticals, small and large group discussions, and written reflections — helps them to develop a more nuanced sense of self, a deeper appreciation of others and the varied worlds they live in, and consequently, a receptivity to ideas and experiences not the student’s own — realizations central to empathy and open-mindedness,” Alleva said.
Contrary to legal education traditions, which focus on doctrinal rather than personal insights, Alleva came to see “the need to ask students to go inward before they could successfully navigate outward” into the professional realm.
“Put another way, it seemed imperative for students to become more self-conscious, in the best sense of that term, in order to uncover
mistaken assumptions about others in the service of better understanding them and developing empathy,” Alleva said.
So Alleva created the Professional Visions course to explore professional identity and the relational dimensions of lawyering, often neglected as curricular concerns.
As a 2003-04 Bush Teaching Scholar, Alleva refined the course through study and application of learning theory and SoTL research. Intentionality emerged as a paramount theme.
“That concept, perhaps more than any other, has been central to my transformation as a teacher,” Alleva said. “My growing self-consciousness as a teacher helped me to see more clearly the significance of self-consciousness in learners, and in turn, in legal professionals, who themselves must be self-aware, lifelong teachers and learners.”