A Novel Approach to Developing Empathy: Using Fiction to Train Street-Level Bureaucrats in Skill and Emotion

Empathy is widely hailed as a crucial trait for public administrators and human service workers, especially those who work at the front lines of service delivery. It is these street-level bureaucrats who interact with clients, make decisions, and overall impact the lives of citizens by the ways they implement public policy. Thus, we expect our public administrators to be technically trained, while also emotionally equipped to interact with the citizens they come in contact with.

However, research shows that current and recent college students have lower levels of empathy than students of previous generations. Many have lamented what this means individual students, the classroom setting, and society at large. Fortunately, rather than an innate trait, empathy is a skill that students can learn and develop. However this task is not immediately clear for professors of public administration and human services administration. This project explores the use of fiction as a way to foster empathy in undergraduate students.

In this paper, I seek to answer the question: can the use of fiction improve students’ understanding of the concept of empathy, as well as their ability to apply empathy in a real-life scenario. To explore this, I had students in undergraduate human services courses read one of six novels that focus on a character wrestling with a major social issue, including domestic violence, homelessness, eating disorder, mental health disorders, child welfare, and substance abuse. Throughout the semester students relied on these characters’ stories to drive our discussions and activities. Additionally, rather than a traditional final exam, students focused on developing a client case file for the character in their novel which includes not only reading the entire novel, but also developing a relationship with the main character. As an extension of the project, students were given multiple opportunities to develop understanding of the character and their decisions, as well as to share in their feelings.

Class discussions, student journals, and final project submissions indicate that the students were not only more familiar with the concept of empathy but were also able to demonstrate their increased understanding of empathy. Pulling from recent literature on empathy and empathy-building techniques, I argue that fiction is an ideal tool to encourage the growth and development of students.

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