May 30 2020

Cultivating Informational Empathy

Ann Hidalgo, The Ohio State University
Drew Baker, Claremont School of Theology

Empathy by John Edward Marin

Framing Information Empathy

Prior to jumping straight into the classroom with the goal of encouraging students to cultivate empathy, instructors need to be clear about the precise nature of their goal. What is empathy? We understand empathy to be a collective term for a set of complex capabilities that share at least one feature: understanding something from another’s perspective. In the context of religious studies, teaching empathy might include myriad topics ranging from the historical (like helping students understand the Peoples Temple through the eyes of practitioners) to the practical (like helping students develop effective skills for successful interreligious dialogue sensitive to multiple perspectives). Being clear about one’s goals is an essential element in effective teaching practice.

As instructors, one of the goals we have set in our classes is informational empathy. We understand informational empathy to be a subset within the broader concept of empathy that focuses specifically on encouraging students to consider the actual practice of learning from others’ perspectives in addition to their own. Informational empathy is grounded on the idea that there are always multiple ways of understanding particular information. Teaching informational empathy involves helping students to understand that their methods for accessing information are not the only ways to access that information. For example, in a classroom discussion on the topic of microaggressions, some students might reach an understanding of the term primarily through a formal definition, while others might grasp it through example video clips using ordinary conversational dialogue, and still others might understand by reflecting on their personal experiences of microaggressions.

In our experience, most instructors understand that informational empathy is an essential characteristic for successful teaching. Because students access learning differently in different contexts and through different experiences, providing a variety of access points to material helps more students successfully engage with it. Less common is the idea that informational empathy is a worthwhile skill to teach to students. In particular, instructors who employ a transmissional pedagogy see students as passive receptacles of information rather than agents in their own learning. For these instructors, the process of understanding the material does not really matter as long as the student understands the material in some form. This teaching style, however, is ultimately ineffective because students who fail to understand multiple access points to information fail to have command of the material beyond the shallowest of terms. Without an understanding of multiple ways of accessing material, students cannot truly communicate those concepts to others outside the artificial terms of the classroom. They often cannot even engage each other within the classroom to help each other learn. In our experience, students who understand that there are multiple ways to comprehend material have a deeper understanding of the material. We have noted that they appear both to retain information more effectively and to strengthen their skills in information-seeking. In short, cultivating informational empathy is essential for successful learning.

Understanding the importance of informational empathy as a pedagogical concept is the first step toward integrating the concept into the classroom experience. The next step: how does one successfully teach informational empathy? How does one integrate informational empathy into learning experiences in the religious studies classroom in ways that enhance content learning rather than distracting from it?

Metadata and Informational Empathy

As many have noted, one of the markers of our current academic era is the rise of academic positions that involve increasingly more varied responsibilities. As both professors and librarians at a relatively small, graduate-level seminary, we fall within this trend. Our experiences as librarians and religious studies professors have simultaneously enriched our perspectives on effective teaching and librarianship. When it comes to informational empathy, our experience as librarians provided helpful strategies for teaching informational empathy in the religious studies classroom.

In our roles as librarians, we are responsible for metadata generation and curation. Metadata is the description of information (including everything from title to subject keywords and beyond) to enable the discovery of that information. While few are familiar with the formal term, in our information age, everyone engages metadata on a day-to-day basis. Every time someone types into the Amazon search box, every time someone uses a map app to get from point A to point B, and even every time someone searches for the perfect .gif to tease a friend, metadata is put to use. Anyone involved in metadata generation and curation has to consider likely strategies people will employ in order to find specific information so that they can include such description. In short, anyone involved in metadata work needs informational empathy.

Librarians are no strangers to this phenomenon. When librarians add books, videos, archival material, and anything else to the library catalog, they reflect on what searchable description will be most helpful for library users in the discovery of those items. Librarians know that users do not search for the same items in the same ways; they must anticipate this fact and develop robust and diverse description in order to be helpful to as many library users as possible.

We came to realize the potential pedagogical applications of metadata work when we developed training materials for our library student workers on effective strategies for metadata generation and curation. Through this training, we realized that our students had to cultivate informational empathy in order to succeed; they could not simply provide the descriptions of information that they found relevant, but had to consider the diverse avenues different people might use to search for that information. As we witnessed our students recognize that there is more than one way to search for information in the library, we began to wonder: could metadata work be used to help students learn that there is more than one way to learn in the classroom?

A few years ago, we began to experiment with integrating metadata generation and curation into our religious studies courses. We rebuilt traditional assignments like annotated bibliographies in order to focus more explicitly on communal learning and informational empathy through metadata work. We created metadata games to encourage our students to reflect on informational empathy in new and fun ways. With continued refinement, these exercises have been very successful so far. We can report that students appeared to retain information more effectively in these courses; they strengthened their skills in information-seeking; and they often seemed to discover the concept of informational empathy for the first time in a classroom environment.

While metadata exercises can be valuably incorporated into classes on any topic, we have found metadata exercises particularly helpful in the religious studies classroom. Given that many students consider their own religious background a core aspect of their identity and that our students’ religious identities are widely diverse, conversations in the religious studies classroom have the potential to be very powerful, yet also run the risk of alienating students who feel their closely held traditions are not treated respectfully. By asking students to reflect on the many different ways someone might describe particular information about religion, students are encouraged to engage classmates with respect, thought, and care. Metadata exercises highlight the social construction of knowledge—an important perspective for all humanities fields—not through inaccessible theory, but rather through active practice. There are many ways to describe information; these descriptions are not set in stone; and these descriptions not only reflect the cultural context of their creators, but also include fault lines that help some access material while necessarily limiting access for others. Students also come to realize that there is no substitute for learning the language particular communities use to describe themselves. By encouraging students to be attentive to diversity and inclusivity, metadata exercises also emphasize the importance of highlighting marginalized voices in descriptive work. Students are invited to reflect on how different language can be either oppressive or liberating for marginalized groups. Wrong words can truly cause harm. Words selected with care can help.

In a field traditionally defined by solitary work and single authors, metadata exercises encourage collaboration in religious studies in new ways. Specifically, the prosocial dynamics of metadata exercises compensate well for the shortcomings of the traditional solitary nature of religious studies scholarship. Many metadata exercises work best as team-based assignments, and yet, these exercises avoid many of the common problems with group assignments because they are interactive, creative, and fun. Metadata assignments are inherently social because description is only meaningful in community. Collaboration leads to deeper, networked thinking and thoughtful innovation. By training tomorrow’s scholars to engage each other more collaboratively, instructors set the foundation for a creative and exciting future for the field of religious studies.

Metadata assignments also model the idea that the best learning is learning that helps others. In our context at a seminary working with graduate students—many of whom are already involved in professional work as pastors, teachers, chaplains, and activists—some students immediately see the advantage of being able to communicate using language that invites others into the conversation. They recognize that developing the skill of informational empathy will improve their ability to engage with others and enable them to be more effective leaders. We believe that the same benefits exist in the undergraduate classroom. Although undergraduates may not yet perceive themselves as scholars and leaders, part of claiming this identity is developing the skills and competencies needed to communicate well with others, especially those of different social and cultural backgrounds.

Sample Exercises

There are many possibilities for integrating metadata generation and curation into class assignments in order to support informational empathy as a learning outcome. Depending on context and pedagogical goals, metadata assignments can be carefully tailored to the educators’ needs. Metadata assignments can be simple or complex; they can be used in brief information literacy sessions taught by librarians or fully integrated into religious studies courses taught by instructors; they can be adapted from existing assignments or built from scratch following the latest insights into effective pedagogy. We include two of many possible exercises below.

Hashtag the Catalog!

In the age of Twitter, most people are familiar with hashtags. Far fewer know that their local library catalogs often support tagging as well. Since hashtags (and “tagging” generally) are basic forms of metadata, there is a real opportunity for instructors and librarians to take advantage of students’ knowledge and common practice by bringing tagging into the classroom. Prior to integrating any tagging into assignments, instructors should confirm that their library catalog supports user tagging. Unfortunately, in many library catalogs, librarians have turned off user tagging; in many library systems, however, turning on user tagging can be as simple as one click.

Tagging is not just about personal expression; by providing additional description for all users, the tagger has provided additional access points for the material. By inviting students to engage in the practice using course readings or research, students are naturally invited to cultivate informational empathy. In this way, the student’s role changes from consumer or beneficiary of someone else’s knowledge to contributor of knowledge in a community of collaborative learning.

Library catalog tagging in the classroom can range from simple to complex. Instructors might ask students to provide a few additional tags for each of their course readings or for all of the sources in their research papers. Even for this simple assignment, students will need to think creatively to describe sources using more than the basic bibliographic information. Or instead, instructors might layer the assignment, by asking students to find other sources that share their initial tags and identify if they are relevant for the particular course topic or research paper. Students can even be called to reflect on the process of tagging materials: Why did they select the tags that they did? Why do they think the tags will be effective in helping others find the source? While tagging appears to be a simple exercise, integrating tagging into classroom assignments in more complex, layered ways can promote deep, empathic learning.

Metadata with Taboo!

What do Pictionary, Catch Phrase, Charades, Cranium, Telestrations, Awkward Turtle, Blurt, Word Slam, Password, Guesstures, and Taboo all have in common? They are all games that ask players to describe something in order to get other players to guess what it is. In short, they are all metadata games.

With the rise of gamification in education, it is somewhat surprising that metadata generation and curation have not been used more in classrooms. From Taboo to Charades, millions have played what effectively amount to metadata games in their living rooms for decades. All of these games clearly demonstrate that the art of description and discovery can be quite fun. Why keep the fun from the classroom?

While many of these games can be adapted for the classroom, one obvious possibility is the game Taboo. Taboo is a game in which players take turns trying to get their teammates to guess particular phrases as quickly as possible; they can describe the phrases using any words except words in the phrase or special “taboo” words that would make the guessing experience too easy. For example, the word “red” might be one of the “taboo” words for the phrase “stop sign.”

Taboo can be adapted for the classroom by asking students to describe course relevant works, concepts, and people to each other in teams. Adapting Taboo for the classroom works best as a cumulative assignment after students have engaged a significant amount of the course material because the game is more challenging when there are more options for taboo words. Playing Taboo works particularly well as a test-prep activity because the exercise asks students to think creatively about all the works, concepts, and people studied in the class up to that point. Taboo words for the phrases can be created by the instructor or, for additional reflection, by competing teams prior to playing the game.

As one example, imagine an instructor adapting this exercise to her introductory class on Buddhism. Prior to class, the instructor would select key terms important to the course that might appear on the final exam, such as karma, dharma, vinaya, nirvana, samsara, Theravada, and Mahayana. The class would be divided into two teams. Each team would be given half of the words and asked to identify taboo phrases for their words. The number of taboo phrases should be set by the instructor and can vary based on intended difficulty, but four-to-six taboo phrases typically maximizes creativity and challenge without becoming too frustrating. Some sample taboo phrases students might select for the term vinaya might include monks, rules, or sangha. Once each team has selected taboo phrases for all of the terms, the teams will swap terms. Turning up one card at a time, individuals from each team will take turns trying to get their team members to guess as many of the terms as possible in a certain period of time. After a certain number of rounds, the game ends.

While simply asking students to describe concepts to each other can promote learning, playing Taboo is particularly helpful for learning because it encourages all students to participate and think creatively, engage each other collaboratively, reflect on course concepts in more complex ways than rote memorization, and consider informational empathy in providing multiple access points to course material. (And, it has the added benefit of being fun!) If students are asked to select taboo phrases before playing the game, the creative engagement with course material is deepened even further. While both sample exercises in this paper come with the advantages of using metadata for pedagogical purposes, adapting games like Taboo for the classroom also offers the benefits of gamifying the learning experience.

Concluding Thoughts

Through metadata exercises, students cultivate informational empathy as they learn the material. Students also learn that the creation and discovery of information is a communal process. They are invited to think critically about the dynamics that support—and limit—the access to information in addition to learning how to better evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of sources. In this process, students develop more effective strategies for future pursuit of information.

Perhaps the greatest benefit metadata exercises offer is that they ask students to practice the best kind of learning—learning that helps others. Instead of traditional exercises destined to see only two sets of eyes before ending up in the waste bin, metadata exercises inherently ask students to not only consider others as they work on the assignments, but also give students final products that help others learn. By reflecting on the ways in which identity and privilege influence the social construction of knowledge, students develop skills for engaging others with respect and care, and by discovering information and describing it empathetically, students help others to discover it.


Further Reading

Adler, Melissa. “Transcending Library Catalogs: A Comparative Study of Controlled Terms in Library of Congress Subject Headings and User-Generated Tags in LibraryThing for Transgender Books.” Journal of Web Librarianship 3, no. 4 (2009): 309–331.

Barkley, Elizabeth F., K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major. Collaborative Learning Techniques. San Francisco: Wiley, 2005.

Case, Donald O., and Lisa M. Given. Looking for Information. 4th ed. Bingley: Emerald, 2016.

Kapp, Karl M. The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Method and Strategies for Training and Education. San Francisco: Wiley, 2012.

Løkse, Mariann, Låg Torstein, Mariann Solberg, Helene N Andreassen, and Mark Stenersen. Teaching Information Literacy in Higher Education. Cambridge: Elsevier, 2017.

Wilson, Emma Annette and Mary Alexander. “When Metadata Becomes Outreach: Indexing, Describing, and Encoding for DH,” dh+lib special issue (2016). https://acrl.ala.org/dh/2016/07/29/when-metadata-becomes-outreach/.


Drew BakerDrew Baker is assistant library director, head of technical services, and adjunct professor of religion at Claremont School of Theology. He holds a PhD in religious studies from Claremont School of Theology and an MLIS from San Jose State University. He specializes in Buddhism, US religious history, postcolonialism, and religion and family life.

Ann HidalgoAnn Hidalgo specializes in Latin American theology and feminist and decolonial theory. She earned a PhD in religion, ethics, and society from Claremont School of Theology. She studies liberation theology liturgies and musical practices that empower marginalized communities. Hidalgo previously worked as the acquisitions librarian and an adjunct professor at Claremont School of Theology. She is currently the Mary P. Key Diversity Resident Librarian for Teaching and Learning at The Ohio State University.