By Owen Cantrell (

As we sit in the face of over 100,000 deaths and nearly 25% unemployment in the United States, the problems of pedagogy are hard to think of as essential. It is often difficult to know what is happening and especially how to make sense of it. As a college professor, though, I think of what we do in college as giving students to the tools to understand and interpret the world around them: what is happening—and what to do about it. I hope to offer one example of how we think about this mission as we move into an uncertain and troubling summer and fall.

          In my Honors English II course, we focus on the relationship of narrative and empathy. We approach this in a variety of ways, such as the poetry of Walt Whitman and Naomi Shihab Nye and the literature of migration (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Marjane Satrapi, and Mohsin Hamid). The course tests how—and how well—literary texts help us to empathize with experiences that are not our own. It’s relatively easy to empathize with those whose lives and experiences are like ours; it’s harder to understand lives and experiences that are different, except through incomplete analogizing. Instead, we tend to reject those experiences as invalid or exaggerated (“It can’t possibly be like that!?” “That’s exaggerated!”). All too often, that which we cannot accept we do our best to reject or invalidate. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her book Strangers in Their Own Land,  calls these our “empathy walls”: “an obstacle to the deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances” (5). One of my goals in this class was to get students to recognize these empathy walls and investigate their contours: only through this recognition and investigation could we begin to understand what we truly understood and accepted—and why.

            In the final project of the course (Community Listening Project Assignment), students partnered with a community organization to produce a useful and practical deliverable. Over the past several years, students have worked with organizations such as North Fulton Community Charities, The Drake House, Senior Services North Fulton, and Special Equestrians of Georgia to tell the stories of communities they serve. Students created short videos, infographics, and newsletters the organization used to share information with their local communities or spread the word to the larger public. The project was designed to demonstrate the importance of listening to the stories of others and curating those stories in a way that will be beneficial to those groups. While we spent much of the semester learning how stories help us to empathize, this final project helped to demonstrate the centrality of listening to others—and the necessary responsibility of carefully curating those stories in a respectful manner. Often, the final project of the course was the students’ favorite as they were able to see the real-world impact of what we learned all semester—and of their own work being put in action.

            When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Georgia in mid-March, I knew that this project would no longer be viable. Students would not be able to go and meet with these organizations and the communities they serve safely. Furthermore, I knew the already heavily burdened organizations we worked with would be further taxed by the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic. I had to quickly pivot to fulfill the meaningful learning experience that students had with the Listening Project. Fortunately, I had another project completed under such movement-based restrictions. In Spring 2019, I taught a version of this same course at a medium-security men’s prison. Since students were also not able to meet with community organizations, they worked on a Community Ethnography (Community Ethnography Assignment), in which they interviewed different communities they knew inside or outside of the prison and wrote up a short ethnographic essay based on their Prewriting, Observations, Journaling, and Interview Guides. Since this project had been impactful for students in Spring 2019, I thought it would be a useful pivot during the difficult conditions of Spring 2020.

For this version of the project, I asked students to interview any groups of people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since this was likely anyone they knew or were in contact with, I thought this would give them a wide range of potential participants. After introducing this project to students, I had them read Seth Kuhn’s essay “Putting Ethnographic Writing in Context” from Writing Spaces: Reading on Writing, Volume 2. In this essay, Kuhn addresses the “two major ethical problems plaguing ethnographers,” based on origins in missionary and travel writing. The imperial critique “contends that ethnographers bring cultural assumptions and agendas with us when we enter new cultures, and (almost) inevitably try to impose those agendas and values on those cultures…” (186-187). The colonial critique, on the other hand, “emerges more directly from the habits of travel writing, positing that simply taking data from a culture without giving anything back exploits the members of those cultures for personal gain” (187). I warned student that these considerations should be central as they completed this project: consider what assumptions or agendas they may bring to those interviews (and how they could mitigate those assumptions or agendas in the final essay), as well as how the groups they would interview would benefit from those interviews (and from the final essay).

Students began the project with Prewriting to reflect on their potential biases and preconceptions when entering the project. I told them to be as honest as possible, since without this activity was central to avoiding the imperial gaze of the ethnography. Second, they made Observations about the group and then Journaled about the meaning of the observations. Finally, students created an Interview Guide in which they wrote down specific questions that they planned to ask group members when sitting down for a Zoom or Skype interview with the participants. For the project, students interviewed family members, co-workers, friends, and others they knew well enough to talk with via video or audio. Their projects demonstrated the global reach of the COVID-19 pandemic—from family and friends throughout the world—as well as the local impact on essential workers in metro Atlanta and elderly citizens frightened to go outside for fear of infection. These stories were thoughtfully and carefully curated by students as a way to help them understand what was happening to the people they were interviewing—and to them. I was extremely proud of what they accomplished, and I think they were as well.

As plans begin for an uncertain fall semester, I think about the importance of the stories my students shared. And of their stories. And of our stories living during this time. Last week, the New York Times published the names of 1,000 people who have died during this pandemic. With each name came a short description: “Saw friends at their worst but brought out their best” (Bassley Offiong, 25, Michigan); “Hotel banquet worker and Bangladeshi leader” (Kamal Ahmed, 69, New York City); “Nicknamed ‘Boxcar Bob’ for his luck in shaking dice” (Robert L. Crahen, 87, Waunakee, Wis.). These stories are important, since stories are what make up our lives. Helping to share the stories of others during a crisis can help them to understand their own stories—and the story of our world during this pandemic. For me, that’s about the best we can do right now.