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01/07/2015 09:35 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

This Professor Uses Great Literature, Including Slave Narratives, To Teach Empathy To Future Public Servants

Kimberly Connor

When public policies go into effect, they don't always seem rooted in empathy and compassion. That's one reason an educator at the University of San Francisco is making the humanities central to a class she teaches to future public administrators.

According to Kimberly Connor, the director of Interdisciplinary Studies at the university's Department of Public and Nonprofit Administration, the best way to instill empathy in developing leaders is to not give them a one-size-fits-all blueprint, but rather share a variety of world perspectives and let them resonate naturally. Harnessing the power of the humanities, she includes only one general ethics text in her Leadership Ethics course syllabus, and surrounds it with a variety of classic literature, poetry, comedic videos and even slave narratives. This might seem like an unusual approach to teaching young professionals how to become more empathetic managers, but she says that she is simply teaching what she knows best.

"I’m trained in religious studies -- not in management," Connor told The Huffington Post. Originally hired to help working adult students make the transition to graduate school, she was asked to start teaching the course four years ago, and has found it an opportunity to apply her humanities background.

"Rather than fill up my class with stuff I wasn’t terribly familiar with, I used literary text to prompt my students’ thoughts around moral conduct and creative ways to work at problem solving," she said. "I wanted them to learn how to tolerate ambiguity, to understand that in order to be moral agents in the world, we’re constantly having to self-interrogate and understand that things are not black and white. We live in a world of many contingencies, especially for people who are public administrators and obliged to so many people in different sectors. They serve the public, but that’s a very abstract obligation."

One of the first texts explored in Connor's class is Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery, a 19th century autobiographical slave narrative that explores how Washington, born a slave, adapted to the changing world around him, and then created opportunities for others to follow in his footsteps. Without fail, it inspires the students to think beyond themselves and consider the ways they can inspire cooperation, collaboration and social change within their communities.

"When they read his work, my students are just blown away," said Connor. "All of a sudden they have a person they can model after. Leadership is a very abstract concept until you make it into a person, and that gives them the connection they need between the theory and the practice."

The luminaries and role models in this class are not people who were focused on making money or securing their reelection. They're poets, philosophers and people committed to improving the world through empathy and deep thinking. The students also explore Aristotle's classic philosophies, Benjamin Franklin's book The Art Of Virtue, Nick Hornby's short story "How to Be Good," W.B. Yeats' poem “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing," and comedian George Carlin's famous skit on soft language, among other works.

They also collectively select and discuss a different TED Talk speaker each week who embodies the leadership trait being addressed at that point in the course. Each of these focal points urges the class to contemplate the components of empathetic management from distinct cultural, religious and philosophical perspectives, helping them develop into more mindful, tolerant leaders.

While Connor thinks the week they work together on poetry is the toughest on her students, she also sees them experience individual breakthroughs when it comes to their confidence in their future abilities in the field.

"They realize they can’t do their job as a public administrator until they understand that the world communicates to them in a variety of discourses, just as their citizenry will," she said. "They need to have an ear that’s open to best practices and great ideas from any source. That may come from George Carlin reminding them about the dangers of soft language, it may come from W.B. Yeats describing what it’s like to be a friend who’s been betrayed, it could come from an ex-slave who’s writing about how he developed skills of self-sufficiency to bring others along, and I think that’s the biggest value of it. It opens them up to that world of ideas."

While Connor is not the first academic to teach practical concepts through the scope of the humanities, she represents an important piece of this growing trend in teaching the future world leaders to solve problems with open ears, open eyes and open minds. Instead of looking for a textbook's example in the workplace when they leave the classroom, they use the elements around them to create individualized, empathetic solutions that work better than any standardized model ever could.

HuffPost

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