January 29 2020

Empathy and the Religious Studies Classroom: Editor’s Introduction

Jessica L. Tinklenberg, Claremont Colleges

Empathy by John Edward Marin

In 2011, Sara Konrath and her colleagues published a study indicating that college students’ empathy skills seemed to be in steep decline.1 By reviewing the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) scores of college students between 1979 and 2009, researchers concluded that “Empathic Concern was most sharply dropping, followed by Perspective-Taking” and that much of the decline in these two subcategories of dispositional empathy had taken place in the previous decade.2 Konrath et al.’s meta-analysis launched a thousand Higher Ed think pieces and spawned a bevy of initiatives to introduce empathy into the college learning environment. Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, for example, developed what it called “The Empathy Experiment,” an eight-week no-credit course to see if empathy could be taught through immersive experiences of poverty and disability.3 First-year seminar courses, pharmacy schools, and environmental educators added “empathy” to their list of desired learning outcomes4; institutions embedded service learning or community engagement general education requirements into their curricula with “developing empathy” as an explicit goal.

Teachers in religious studies and moral philosophy have long had to wrestle with what role empathy (and other emotions and dispositions) should play in our classrooms, but with recent trends and initiatives in education, we find ourselves addressing these questions anew. Is it enough to teach about the ways in which empathy has been historically evident in religious traditions, or do we have an obligation to teach students how to be empathetic toward other traditions, too? Can empathy be measured, and should it? Are efforts to teach empathy necessary in building human relationships in fraught times, or could they actually distract us from attending to the deeper, systemic disparities that allow some to ignore and demonize others? What role should empathy play in the religious studies classroom?

The authors in this volume teach in a wide variety of religious studies contexts, and their answers to these important questions vary accordingly. Christopher Richmann, who teaches traditional undergraduate students at Baylor University, suggests that focusing on historical empathy, rather than interpersonal empathy, can help educators introduce and measure the development of empathy in religious studies classrooms and curricula. In his essay, “Can We Teach Empathy? Lessons from the ‘Heretics’,” Richmann describes an intervention in which students used role-play and research on Christian heresies to develop a better understanding of both the historical context and values of nonorthodox Christians in history, concluding that students who were exposed to these interventions were less likely to offer judgmental or misinformed descriptions of various Christian groups on subsequent assessments.

Drew Baker at Claremont School of Theology and Ann Hidalgo at The Ohio State University also shift their definition of empathy away from the strictly interpersonal to focus on informational empathy, although the consequences of their work certainly have an interpersonal component. These teaching librarians note that metadata, the keywords or other descriptors used to search for resources, can be a valuable tool in developing empathy. By gamifying their instruction with a focus on metadata, the instructors were able to get their students to consider the ways their colleagues might interact with or search for sources—an act of informational empathy. Their essay, “Cultivating Informational Empathy and the Religious Studies Classroom,” also suggests ways religious studies educators can use hashtags, annotated bibliographies, and databases to improve student outcomes related to informational empathy.

In her essay “Dismantling the ‘Seat of Power’ to Enable Reflexive Inquiry,” Jade Davis of Columbia University critiques the power dynamics behind efforts to produce empathy in our students. She notes that, often, an educator’s position of authority (what she calls the “seat of power”) disciplines students to defer to that authority rather than thoughtfully interrogate the students’ own values and dispositions. In other words, empathy in the classroom becomes entirely or mostly focused on empathizing with the instructor’s values, rather than deeply evaluating one’s own. Davis argues that dismantling the hierarchy of the classroom is critical to student reflexivity, and offers several suggestions as to how to accomplish this task including first-day activities, student-led discussion and instruction, and “pop quizzes” which invite collaboration and co-teaching.

As a private high school ethics teacher, Christine Ortega Gaurkee has the opportunity to invite her students into the lives and feelings of others through various imaginative, empathy-oriented activities. Beginning with the moral dilemma in Euthyphro, Ortega Gaurkee constructs her classes at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Florida, to offer opportunities for building emotional literacy, defining individual moral identity, and enhancing perspective-taking. In this essay, “Imagining the Lives of Others in the High School Ethics Classroom,” Ortega Gaurkee argues that practicing these empathy skills are particularly important for high school students’ development as they begin to differentiate their values from their parents’ and home contexts.

Mary Hess of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, finds digital storytelling to be another promising practice for encouraging empathy. She notes that in our current technological climate, it can be challenging to get seminary students to “slow down enough to hear their own stories” and become curious about the stories of others—both of which she argues are necessary to developing empathy. In her essay “Finding a Way into Empathy Through Story Exercises in a Religious Studies Classroom,” Hess describes multiple speaking, listening, and digital translation exercises she uses in her courses including story circles, a story titling exercise, and a comprehensive digital storytelling project. Throughout the essay, she argues for the potential of assignments such as these to address neuropsychological, religious, and communal aspects of empathy.

Finally, Erin Runions of Pomona College invites us to consider the limitations of empathy-oriented approaches in her essay “Beyond Empathy in Prison Education.” Runions teaches religious studies courses in two prisons in Southern California as a part of the Claremont Colleges’s Inside-Out initiative. Runions argues that discussions of “empathy” in prison education privilege the (white, outside) observer and dismiss important structural elements of race, class, and gender that intersect with instruction in the religious studies classroom. Instead of focusing on potentially fraught ideologies that emphasize this problematic view of empathy, Runions argues for a classroom that values mutual engagement, community building, and collective thinking toward change. She offers her colleagues several suggestions for building such assignments into the classroom, whether they teach inside prisons or not.

Taken together, the scholars here represent a wide variety of perspectives on empathy in religious studies instruction. Their essays indicate that (at a minimum) the role of empathy in our classrooms is not yet decided; therefore, we can and must continue to interrogate the values and limitations of this disposition in the work that we do. For their contributions and thoughts I am grateful, and I hope it aides our AAR colleagues in their work.


1 Sara H. Konrath, Edward H. O’Brien, and Courtney Hsing, “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 15, no. 2 (May 2011): 180–98, https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868310377395.

2 Ibid., 180.

3 Allie Grasgreen, “Empathizing 101,” Inside Higher Ed, November 24, 2010, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/11/24/empathizing-101.

4 See Stephanie Mangino, “Empathy in the Classroom,” Shenandoah Magazine (Spring 2017). https://www.su.edu/magazine/empathy-in-the-classroom/.

Cassandra A. Tamayo, Mireille N. Rizkalla, and Kyle K Henderson, “Cognitive, Behavioral and Emotional Empathy in Pharmacy Students: Targeting Programs for Curriculum Modification,” Frontiers in Pharmacology 7 (April 2016), https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2016.00096.

Sally Jensen, “Empathy and Imagination in Education for Sustainability,” Canadian Journal of Environmental Education 21 (2016): 89–105, available at https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1151868.


Jessica Tinklenberg is the program director for the Center for Teaching and Learning. Since 1998, Jessica has been an award-winning teacher for students in K-12 through graduate studies and is passionate about the potential of students to change the world for good. Throughout her career, Tinklenberg has published and presented nationally and internationally on active learning, student-centered course design, reflection, first-year writing, and assessment.