Abstract

Drawing from feminist traditions, this article is a dialogical inquiry between two authors who have written previously about the role of empathy in music education. Coming from differing vantage points (one psychological, one sociological), we address varying definitions, assumptions, potentials, and problems related to empathy and consider how empathy might be useful versus harmful within music education relationships. We use a relational approach to create a transdisciplinary synthesis and interrogate our own assumptions while creating more nuanced understandings of empathy. Noting the dangers of empathic exchanges, we compare empathy to a hiking journey and offer 14 “cairns” (stone mound landmarks denoting resting places or different paths, which help travelers maintain a sense of direction) to consider pathways that music teachers might take to avoid reinforcing harmful or oppressive practices and move toward authentic attunement. These cairns include: centering student voices, ensuring that minoritized voices are centered in empathic interactions, listening with openness, recognizing that understanding is likely impossible, fostering a balanced emotional and energetic exchange, recognizing one's own positionality and bias, letting go of assumptions about what is right or best for students, recognizing students’ strengths and potentialities, being open to learning from and with students, refusing to commodify the Other's story or recenter the dominant Self, focusing empathy-based action on changing oppressive structures rather than “helping” oppressed people, acknowledging privilege and complicity in oppressive structures, practicing continual self-reflection, and emphasizing repair in vulnerable empathic exchanges. We conclude by describing how this inquiry expanded and deepened our understandings of empathy.

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