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Lessons for Living

‘My students are my inspiration,” says Jeffrey Berman, author of Empathic Teaching: Education For Life. “I begin my acknowledgments page by quoting a sentence from the Torah, ‘Much have I learned from my teachers, even more from my colleagues, but most from students, most of all.’ As the title states, empathy is such a valuable educational tool, for allowing us to glimpse the feelings and thoughts of another person, that through empathy, one can receive an education for life. I wrote Empathic Teaching not mainly for teachers,” he continues, “but for anybody who is interested in what college students are thinking, or anybody who is interested in education.” And that includes parents: “It’s all about the student-parent relationship,” he says.

Berman is a professor of English at the University at Albany, and his latest book is the fourth in a series on writing as therapy, following Diaries to an English Teacher, Surviving Literary Suicide, and Risky Writing: Self-Disclosure and Self-Transformation in the Classroom (all published by the University of Massachusetts Press). All four works utilize student writings and critiques that not only “transform the experience of learning” but also help to make that experience accessible and immediate. “Like my preceding three books, whatever power this book has resides mainly in my students’ voices,” he says. “I think my talent as a teacher is my ability to create a trusting and empathic classroom atmosphere in which students disclose very important aspects of their lives. Their disclosures are a gift to their teacher and their fellow classmates. My hope is that readers will appreciate what students’ lives are like, and what they are capable of teaching and learning from each other.”

Among the critical plaudits for Empathic Teaching is this excerpt from author Peter L. Rudnytsky: “An extraordinarily absorbing and important piece of work . . . elaborating a vision of what it means to be an English professor today that is at once radically original and eminently practical.” Despite its density of sources, the book is highly readable even for non-academics. “On the one hand, it’s a scholarly book, but on the other, it’s a very personal book,” says Berman. “I try to stay away from lit-crit jargon. That’s why I discuss several novels and films [including Good-bye, Mr. Chips; The Blackboard Jungle; and Dead Poets Society] in which teachers make a difference in their students’ lives. The corollary is that students make a difference in their teachers’ lives. You almost never hear people saying that, but it’s just as true. That reciprocity is so vital to teaching, and it’s why I love teaching so much.”

Empathic Teaching also includes chapters on “Empathy, Trauma, and Forgiveness,” which explores psychoanalytic theory in relation to students’ real-life issues; “Family Snapshots,” in which students write about their families and their families write back in reply; and “Bearing Witness to Depression,” which encompasses reader-response diaries from Berman’s Literature and the Healing Arts course.

“All the studies indicate that students are much more depressed than ever before,” says Berman, who has witnessed this change firsthand during his 30 years of teaching. “It’s a very serious situation, and there are many explanations for it. . . . Some people who read my books wonder, ‘do I attract a certain kind of student?’ and I think the answer is no, because the students I’m teaching, who are writing about conflict, are precisely representative of the students across the country who are struggling with all kinds of problems.” He adds: “Virtually 100 percent of my students tell me—either in their anonymous evaluations of the course or in their signed and unsigned letters—that while personal writing is often painful and even wrenching, they are glad that they wrote essays on these particular topics.”

Sadly, Berman’s explorations in writing-as-therapy were put into unforeseen practice during his work on Empathic Teaching. Halfway through, his wife Barbara was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and she died before publication. Berman is currently at work on a book about her illness and her life.

“There are so many powerful reasons to write,” he says. “You don’t have to be a teacher or a published writer to pick up pen and paper and avail yourself of the writing cure.”

—Ann Morrow

Schenectady Idol

Over 200 would-be stars turned up Tuesday (Feb. 8) to audition for Proctor’s upcoming Amateur Night at the Apollo. According to Proctor’s promotions and communications czarina Kathy Jarvis, the auditions continued from 4 PM ’til almost 11 o’clock. There were dancers, rappers, singers . . . you name it. At the end, 20 talented folks were picked to be in the show, and will compete for $1,000 cash and the opportunity to perform at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre. Amateur Night at the Apollo will be held at 8 PM on Saturday, March 5 at Proctor’s Theatre (432 State St., Schenectady). For more information, call 346-6204.


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