Migration: An Empathy Exercise

This exercise was developed, and this page written, by Maureen Ryan, Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Western Washington University.
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Summary

Migration: An Empathy Exercise is a multi-step reflective exercise designed to build empathy and personal insight into processes of loss, change, and reconnection associated with the disruption of personal and cultural connections to landscape. In the first step, students reflect individually on their experiences in unfamiliar landscapes and how they might feel were they to move away from a home landscape. Second, they envision personal means of building connection with new or unfamiliar landscapes. Having considered these questions at a personal level, students read or are presented with case studies of human movement and their consequences (historical or current). Finally, students reflect on new questions that arose as they considered case studies after thinking about migration or displacement at a personal level. Overall this process is designed to 1) build personal resilience in the face of future changes, 2) enhance understanding and build empathy for displaced or migrant peoples, 3) begin to consider the role of migration (and associated loss of knowledge and/or imported preconceptions about landscapes) in past land use (e.g. in the American West). The exercise can be done in class, or as an independent assignment with follow-up in class. The sequence can be altered depending on specific pedagogical goals. The context of the exercise can vary widely, with potential focus on historical, current, or potential future migrations and displacements of human populations. It can also be used as part of a broader curriculum to examine the implications of migration and displacement on land use. (For example, this exercise can be part of a broader curriculum on the colonization and development of the American West that follows What is the West?, another exercise posted separately in the Curriculum for the Bioregion). The exercise can be broadly adapted for courses in ecological sciences, environmental studies, cultural studies, ecological anthropology, or other classes focused on the intersection of human and natural systems.

Learning Goals

The overarching goals of this assignment are to foster greater awareness of landscape as a form of relationship, to begin to explore the many possible personal and cultural impacts of disruption of relationships with land, and to consider ways to heal or form new relationships with landscape in the wake of disruption. Specific goals are to:
  1. Raise new questions about the relationship between individuals, communities, and land
  2. Enhance understanding and empathy for peoples experiencing the loss of connection to home landscapes & new experiences in new landscapes
  3. Build skills for personal resilience in the face of future changes in personal connection to landscape
  4. Begin to consider the role of migration (and associated loss and/or imported preconceptions about landscapes) in past and present land use (e.g. in the American West).

Context for Use

I designed this exercise for 300-level interdisciplinary courses with small class size (<20 people) that draw on ecology, evolution, environmental history, and cultural aspects of environmental change. Because it taps into complex intellectual terrain (cultural studies, migration & displacement studies, environmental sciences, psychology, environmental anthropology, others), it is most appropriate for upper level courses where students have some existing knowledge and recognition of the complexity of human-environment interactions and the diverse implications of human migration or displacement. Likewise, the exercise is best conducted later in the course, and in courses that are able to incorporate information from multiple disciplines (ecology and cultural or migration studies at least) in the lead-up to the exercise.

The exercise, in small classes, can be conducted as an in-class exercise or as an out-of-class assignment (with written component to record reflections) with follow-up discussion. Either way, the exercise is maximally useful if there is time for in-class discussion. The former would require a minimum of 1 hour of class time, the latter a minimum of 40 minutes of class time with additional time out of class. The contextual intellectual content of the activity is flexible and can be broadly adapted to course curricula. Several examples are listed below (assessing future climate impacts and climate refugees; current relocations or disruptions of home landscapes – e.g. tar/oil sands mining impacts on First Nations people; economic migrations – e.g. Mexico to US; historical land use decisions – e.g. species introductions as a way to try to replicate home fauna in new landscapes).

Description and Teaching Materials

Reflective assignment (Parts 1 & 2 can be done in or outside of class)

Part one: Ask students to reflect on a move they have made, or to identify an unfamiliar landscape (choose something that is very different of the familiar home landscape, but be specific – imagine an actual place) and imagine themselves moving there. To prompt their thinking, have students journal about the following questions, using specifics:

  • What general feelings arise when you think about moving?
  • What specific features of the old landscape or members of the ecological community would you miss the most? Please be specific.
  • What do you expect would feel most alien about the new landscape?
  • If you have experienced a move to a new landscape:
    • What about the new landscape felt most unfamiliar?
    • Do you still feel connected to your original place?
Part two: Ask students to imagine the new landscape again and brainstorm how they might go about trying to connect with it.
  • What is intriguing to you about the landscape?
  • Is there a place (location, kind of ecosystem, suite of species, etc) that captivates you in particular?
  • What are the feelings that arise as you think about trying to connect with your new place?
  • If you have already moved:
    • What were the places that you unexpectedly came to love?
    • Did you (and how did you) connect to your new place?

Part three: In class, discuss individual reflections.

Part four: Read about and then discuss in class case studies of migration, displacement, or relocation (see examples below). In class, ask students to identify and reflect on any new questions that arose as they considered the case studies (give them ~10 minutes), then discuss in class. Questions might include:

  • Did the exercise of thinking about movement in your own life lead you to think differently about others' experience of migration, displacement, or changing connection to home landscapes?
  • What questions do you have about the personal experiences of people in the case study?
  • What questions do you have about the experience of individuals moving into your community from other regions?
  • Are these questions new to you?

Case studies

There are a nearly endless number of cases from which to choose to contextualize the discussion, with different associated intellectual content and focus. Here are a few examples, but cases should be modified to best fit the course focus. Example case studies:
  • Climate change displacement & environmentally forced relocation
  • Displacement on home territory
    • Example case study: Alberta Oil Sands
      • Lori Lambert. 2011. Alberta's oil sands and the rights of First Nations peoples to environmental health. Evergreen College Native Cases. Available for download at http://nativecases.evergreen.edu/collection/cases/albertas-oil-sands-and-the-rights-of-first-nations-peoples-to-environmental-health.html
      • Jon Gordon. 2012. Displacing Oil: Towards "lyric" re-presentations of the Alberta Oil Sands. Pages 1-31 in Countering Displacements: The Creativity and Resilience of Indigenous and Refugee-ed Peoples. Coleman, Glanville, Hasan & Kramer-Hamstra, eds. University of Alberta Press.
      • On the science of oil sands development: Rooney, Bayley, and Schindler. 2011. Oil sands mining and reclamation cause massive loss of peatland and stored carbon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109: 4933-4937.
  • Urban movement & migration
    • Example case studies: urban Indians in the US
      • Reference: MariJo Moore, ed. 2003. Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing. Nation Books, New York. In particular, part one of the book: Keeping the Home Fires Burning in Urban Circles.
  • Colonial migration & its implications
    • Example case study: Westward migration & water development in the American West
      - Donald Worster. 1992. Freedom and Want: The Western Paradox, in Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Other examples include immigrant communities in the US from around the world, expatriot communities, global travelers (on the latter, for an interesting read, see Iain Chambers. 1994. Leaky habitats and broken grammar. Pages 243-245 in Travellers' Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement. Robertson, ed. Routledge Press, New York).


Teaching Notes and Tips

The structure of the exercise can be modified in many ways. For example, the first two sections can be done out of class to save time and/or allow more time for insights to percolate. The context of the exercise is easily modified through selection of particular case studies, of which there are an almost infinite number. As is obvious, the particular cases selected have very different implications in terms of student learning, emotional response, and associated pedagogical challenges.

In particular, case studies involving displaced peoples and other forms of social or environmental injustice or destruction have the potential to be emotionally overwhelming, to elicit strong guilt reactions, and to backfire by eliciting emotional rejection or anger. Likewise, focusing on potential (or current) climate change impacts can be overwhelming and lead to hopelessness. Careful, effective framing of the exercise is therefore critical. I have had the most success in articulating the point of the exercise as developing empathy as a practice in the service of deeper personal learning and deeper connection to others – i.e. as a practice that fosters curiosity, creativity, new perspectives, and enhanced understanding that may then become fodder for new solutions to complex challenges. I clearly articulate that part of the work is in learning to sit with the overwhelm, without self-judgment, and learning to move through it with compassion towards the solutions that may lie on the other side (and may not be immediately visible). Additionally, the exercise can be framed as seeking ways to better support and connect the increasingly diverse communities in which we live, which are undergoing changes all the time as populations move around the world. Providing resources for potential solutions (and hope) in the case of difficult case studies can also be very helpful – e.g. information on organizations working with migrant communities, climate adaptation information sources, etc.

The other primary challenge is avoiding oversimplification or disciplinary overwhelm that can result from the complexity of the topic, and the broad range of disciplines and materials with which the exercise overlaps (e.g. environmental sciences and studies, migration studies, cultural theory, ecological anthropology, etc, each of which have their own particular frameworks, deep theory, and complexity). As the instructor, setting clear curricular objectives and providing the students with appropriate lead-in information and intellectual support to gain traction with the assignment is critical to staying out of the trenches of stereotype, oversimplification, or overwhelm.

If used as a follow-up exercise to What is the West?, the exercise can be used to explore the ways in which colonial and migrant expectations of landscape from other regions (e.g. the more rain-abundant US East and Europe) alongside explicit framing of movement as expansion (e.g. nationalism, Manifest Destiny) impacted perspectives on the new landscapes that they encountered, land uses that were most valued in the process, and resulting natural resource laws.

Assessment

I have assessed the effectiveness of this activity in meeting the goals outlined above through a variety of means of verbal feedback and surveys. Least formal is the evaluation of the quality of student responses during the discussion portions of the exercise. I have also asked students to submit questions following the assignment to get a sense of what they have taken, and what they still want to know, from the assignment. Formal assessments include a written reflection incorporating learning from the assignment later or at the end of the course, integrated with additional course material. I often incorporate questions about specific assignments into an end-of-course survey as well to track continued reflection. Questions relative to this assignment might include: Did the assignment lead you to think differently about your own relationship with land – if yes, how? Did the exercise raise new ideas about how to connect with new or changing landscapes in your own life? Did the assignment raise questions or uncover hidden assumptions about the experience of migrants, displaced peoples, or other populations (based on the case studies) if yes, what were they? Did it raise new insights or questions about the role of human movement in past and present land use decisions – if yes, what?

References and Resources

Iain Chambers. 1994. "Leaky habitats and broken grammar." Pages 243-245 in Travellers' Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement. Robertson, ed. Routledge Press, New York.

Collectif Argos. 2010. Climate Refugees. MIT Press, Boston.

Jon Gordon. 2012. Displacing Oil: Towards "lyric" re-presentations of the Alberta Oil Sands. Pages 1-31 in Countering Displacements: The Creativity and Resilience of Indigenous and Refugee-ed Peoples. Coleman, Glanville, Hasan & Kramer-Hamstra, eds. University of Alberta Press.

Elizabeth Kolbert's (2005) three-part series in the New Yorker, Climate of Man, available for download at:
Part 1: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/04/25/050425fa_fact3
Part 2: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/05/02/050502fa_fact3
Part 3: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/05/09/050509a_fact3

Elizabeth Kolbert. 2006. Field Notes from a Catastrophe. Bloomsbury, New York.

Lori Lambert. 2011. "Alberta's oil sands and the rights of First Nations peoples to environmental health." Evergreen College Native Cases. Available for download at: http://nativecases.evergreen.edu/collection/cases/albertas-oil-sands-and-the-rights-of-first-nations-peoples-to-environmental-health.html

MariJo Moore, ed. 2003. Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing. Nation Books, New York.

Rooney, Bayley, and Schindler. 2011. "Oil sands mining and reclamation cause massive loss of peatland and stored carbon." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109: 4933-4937.

Donald Worster. 1992. "Freedom and Want: The Western Paradox," in Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Evergreen State College