On Empathy

Getting lost in a novel means you’re more empathetic from The Passive Voice. Speaking of novels, Reading Boosts Empathy and Reduces Discomfort With Uncertainty from the Virginia Sun and It’s Science! Novels Will Make You A Better, More Empathetic Designer from Co.Design. So it must be true. If there’s a problem that boys aren’t reading as much fiction as girls are, this would have to be it.

How, exactly, are writers eliciting empathy in readers? Is it always a good thing? Over at Edit Torrent, ‘Jenny and I got into a discussion once about how so many historical novels use “helping orphans” as a shorthand technique to supposedly make a jerky hero sympathetic. …”doing nice things to poor benighted orphans” isn’t necessarily going to make him sympathetic. (And why is sympathy the reaction we want anyway? I do think “reader involvement” might more important, and allows for characters who are more or less than sympathetic.)’

Movie Friday: Empathy Boosters from Freethought Blogs introduces a short video which might be a good thing to show to kids in a discussion about bullying.

AIDS Impairs The Ability To Recognise Emotions In Others from Medical News Today. At first I sucked inward, realising that even if this is the case, and not simply a bad study (I have no idea because I haven’t studied the study) that people living with AIDS might be further marginalised by such findings. Then I wondered if in fact ‘lack of empathy’ might sometimes be an autoimmune condition. Richard Dawkins argues a strong case in The Selfish Gene that humans have evolved to live in groups, and empathy plays a big part of that, so anyone who misses out on the ability to put themselves in another’s shoes must therefore be an evolutionary oddity. The recent American school shootings spring to mind. Another question: If food intolerances lead to other autoimmune conditions, might modern diets explain lack of empathy also?

Pajiba: The Fall Of Orson Scott Card: Democracy is empathy. It is being able to see the rest of society as people just like you are, whether they agree with you or not. It is about not ruling at the barrel of a gun, but explaining to others the way you feel, bringing them around by letting them inside. By getting them to feel what you feel, which is the very definition of empathy. There are those who think that the failure of the world to agree with them, and their embrace of violence as a solution, somehow makes them the strong ones and the world the weak ones. But violence is such an easy solution, the emotional coward’s way out of actually dealing with the existence of those who disagree as legitimate equals.

Empathy! How the fudge does it work? from Shakesville is a scary reminder that the people we elect to government may not actually be capable of empathy. Hang on, doesn’t that make them sociopaths?

Actually, I don’t have straight the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath. Are You A Psychopath? from The Good Men Project links to an interview with the author of The Wisdom Of Psychopaths, which I have yet to listen to. Anyway, I’m pretty sure both conditions concern lack of capacity for empathy.

Literature’s Ten Most Disturbing Sociopaths from Lit Reactor. (What’s the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath? I’ve heard it summarised as ‘A psychopath is a sociopath with goals’ but I get a hunch that this is too neat.)

Empathy and Disgust Do Battle In The Brain from Scientific American talks about some major theories about empathy in humans, pointing out that empathy may not work for a creature such as a rat, which is likely to carry dangerous diseases.

How could we engineer humans to have more empathy? from io9

The Good Men Project asks if women are really more compassionate than men. (Cliffs Notes version: No, women just have different expressions of compassion.)

Sometimes, learning to be empathic is hard from Jose Baldaia

Larry Ferlazzo gathers the best sites for Walking In Someone Else’s Shoes

We Need To Talk About Kevin’s Lack Of Empathy from The Guardian

Empathy as a Choice from Scientific American, and Part 2.

Assumptions and Autism: My child has empathy, from Blog Her

Paul Bloom, author of the new book Just Babies, argues that empathy causes nations to make disastrous choices from The Dish

When do medical students lose their empathy? from KevinMD

The Racial Empathy Gap from PS

Neurological Basis for Lack of Empathy in Psychopaths from Science Daily

Brain Surgery To Remove Amygdala Leads To Woman’s ‘Hyper Empathy’ from Huffington Post


Sympathy is a social construct, from The Dish

This Short Cartoon Will Show You the Power of Empathy Versus Sympathy and Make You a Better Person according to Fail Blog


Emotional Labor

Have you ever been told to smile? Have you ever been told to smile in the workplace? If so, you’ve been asked to perform ’emotional labour’, and it may have been part of your job. The more low-paid/low status your job, the more likely you are to be required to provide these fake emotional services on top of whatever else you’re doing, be it serving food or scanning grocery items. That’s the shitty thing about it.

Except if you’re a woman, it doesn’t matter how far up the ladder you climb, it’s likely you’ll still be expected to smile.

My first job was teaching in a girls’ high school. The principal was (and still is) a woman, who has been awarded the prime minister’s thing for leadership (by the way). Being a good leader doesn’t necessarily involve much smiling. But one year after prize giving, one of the parents said to this principal, ‘If only you cracked a smile every now and then.’

We were discussing this in the staffroom, and me being a first year teacher, lessons from teachers’ college were fresh in my mind. See, what I’d been taught as a beginning teacher — not much older than the kids I was teaching, and a lot younger than any of the parents — was to keep a neutral face. Here’s the reason: teenagers love to work teachers up. Especially young teachers in cheap polyester suits. If you walk into the classroom all happy happy joy joy, “Great! Fantastic! Awesome!” then some little asshole will try and bring you down.  Pessimistic, perhaps, but true, especially in the tough schools. I’ve accidentally walked into a group of year tens with an abundance of enthusiasm and some little asswipe piped up with, ‘You’re happy today, miss. Did you finally get some nookie last night?’

So something like that happens, and then what happens to your smile? Do you keep it pasted across your face? Nope. Any fool can recognise a fake smile a mile off. Far better to keep your face in neutral to deal with the inevitable range of emotions which will confront you in any given hour teaching in a high school full of emos teenagers.

I ran this past my boss, and she agreed that the neutral face thing was hearty advice. We all wondered if a male principal would’ve been expected to grin all during prize giving like an idiot.

Interestingly, our deputy principal was male, and he was an expert smiler. The students called him ‘Guy Smiley’ behind his back.


It was Arlie Russel Hochschild, a sociologist from University of California-Berkeley who coined the term “emotional labor” in her book The Managed Heart (1983), to describe a work situation where the requirement of literally and figuratively loving the job “becomes part of the job,” which is what you can imagine from nurses, doctors, waiters, teachers, even bill collectors and call center agents.

The Manila Times

Why Faking Enthusiasm Is The Latest Job Requirement from Fast Company

Stop Telling Me To Smile Already from The Frisky

Weight Watchers and Emotional Labor is interesting because it outlines a slightly different kind of emotional labor:

Weight Watchers’ strategy of cultivating loyalty among employees and identifying them as “leaders” is far from unique. Many jobs—particularly low-wage service sector jobs, staffed predominantly with women—have similar approaches to labor management. This is an element of what sociologists call “emotional labor“: this sort of labor encompasses not just the work that goes into demonstrating a particular feeling in front of customers, but also the ways in which managers will try to condition a particular emotional state into their employees.

Which job has the highest requirements for emotional labour? If you guessed flight attendant, you guessed right.

Bitchy Resting Face and The Tyranny Of The Smile: Why does everyone expect women to be smiling all the time? from Slate. I definitely have bitchy resting face, or probably more accurately ‘bitching concentrating face’. I appreciate the video and the concept and it needs a name but I haven’t quite put my finger on why I cringe a bit at the word ‘bitchy’. But I love this: Why I love my bitchy resting face.

Should we take heart in the fact that it’s not only members of the female dominated service industries who are subject to being told how to hold their face? Today LeBron James scowls after ‘doing something awesome’ and the media wonders why all the athletes are scowling now.

Scientific American points out that ‘Facial expressions have long been thought to be reliable indicators of a person’s true feelings.‘ This may be true, but how good are we, really, at reading them? It’s dangerous to assume you know what someone is thinking based on their expression only, and few things more annoying than being told you’re in a bad mood when you’re not. The same article points to research that smiling is a form of submission, and indicates you’re probably going to lose a fight, which pretty much explains to me why LeBron James and co don’t smile. Why should they?

‘Smile Surgery’ Is Becoming Popular With South Korean Women from Slate

Related to smiling, have you ever been told not to ‘pout’? What is pouting, anyhow? Isn’t it simply an absence of smiling? In this segment of The Grahame Norton Show, Keira Knightly explains how she was told to stop ‘pouting’ on the set of Pride and Prejudice. Norton wonders if he has a pout, to which another guest replies, ‘I think you’ve got a permanent pout’. Yet something tells me that ‘absence of smile’ in a man is more socially acceptable.

Every Presentation You Have Ever Been To

I have been on both sides of presentation giving, and as a consequence, I have developed a loathing of PowerPoint. (I have even been to PowerPoint presentations on how to make a PowerPoint presentation. Beat that.)

While none of the presentations I have been to have been memorable — despite the fact that all of the presentations I have GIVEN have been memorable — to ME, MYSELF AND I, here are some memorable presentation moments:

1. The presentation delivered entirely in Maori. It lasted about an hour. There was only one other person in the staffroom who understood Maori. That was the Maori teacher, who kept saying ‘Kia ora’ the whole way through it. At the end we all clapped. For all I knew, the speaker was praising Hitler. I clapped because it was over. By the way, this has nothing to do with the fact I lament that most New Zealanders don’t speak Maori. This is a shame. (The speaker in question wasn’t a New Zealander. He was a Brit who came to New Zealand and lived for a couple of years on a marae — not something most New Zealanders ever think of doing. We grow beards/long hair, buy a Macpac, dress up in clothing from Kathmandu and go to Europe instead.)

2. The day-long presentation about technology, in which the American technology expert had expected to be allocated a computer lab, but was not. He was understandably unimpressed about this, and as teachers ourselves, I suspect the entire audience empathised with him when he told us that his entire day’s schedule relied upon us having computer access, and that he was now having to make up stuff on the spot. Since he had five hours to fill, he spoke very slowly. He started with a bad joke about women. Next, an unfortunate joke about teachers, followed swiftly by a scathing remark about high school teachers. As a female high school teacher, I felt like walking out in protest, but I was there with our associate principal so I didn’t feel that was an option. Later, in the minibus back to our home town, the associate principal told me she’d felt like doing the same. I wish we had. We could have gone shopping in Palmy.

3. The technology presentation in which technology did not work. This wasn’t me, thank goodness. This is what I always FEARED would happen to me whenever I had to give a presentation with the help of a data projector. After a room full of teachers had piled into a room at an IT conference, the carefully prepared presentation failed to work. The data projector did not work; the computer itself did not work. After ten minutes or so, the poor guy at the front shrugged his shoulders and decided to just talk about Wikipedia instead. (This was when Wikipedia was new and groundbreaking.) I remember the presentation not for what he said, but for the strident school librarian in the audience, who took over proceedings by explaining the evils of Wikipedia and other online, user-generated information. “This will be the end of research!” she decried.

4. The IT Conference guest speaker who admitted as a side-note that he’d been a high school teacher once himself, but left after only a year, and then went on to have a successful career in IT journalism. At the end of his speech, one high school teacher in the audience asked what I’d been wanting to know myself: Why had he left high school teaching? I remember his uncomfortable laugh; I also remember his sheepish reply because it fit me too, at the time: In short, the politics of education wore him down.  Two years later I left high school teaching myself, and I sometimes wonder if I would have, had it not been for people like him, whose experience in teaching paved his way into his next career. I felt less trapped. I’m sure this wasn’t the point of sending young teachers away to flash conferences, but there you have it.

The Best Kind Of Daydream

An article in Scientific American traces the development of research on the art of daydreaming.

Daydreaming is broken into 3 types:

1. Positive-Constructive Daydreaming

representing playful, wishful and constructive imagery

This not only sounds lovely; it sounds beneficial to individuals and society. Surely it’s by engaging in this sort of daydreaming that we come up with our best ideas.

2. Guilty-Dysphoric Daydreaming

representing obsessive, anguished fantasies

This sounds like a sort of post-traumatic response, or ‘stewing’, in everyday parlance. Some people seem to do this quite a lot, turning minor arguments into huge ones, but only in their own minds. For obvious reasons we should try not to let our minds engage in this sort of daydreaming.

3. Poor Attentional Control

representing the inability to concentrate on ongoing thought or external tasks 

I now imagine an old-fashioned classroom — the kind with wooden floors and chair legs scraping, and chalk screeching down blackboards, led by a cane-toting teacher scalding Jimmy for staring out of the window. That’s the classic picture of the childlike and carefree pupil of yesteryear, constrained and reined in by the school system until he is old enough to be put to work in the mines.

This kind of daydreaming can stop you from getting things done, sure.

School has changed a bit since then. But I don’t think it’s changed quite enough.

Over the course of a typical day, do schools give students (and teachers!) enough time to contemplate?

During my twenties I taught at a girls’ high school. I used to schedule quiet time into my lesson plans, though I’ll freely admit that this was for my own sanity rather than based on any conviction or sound educational philosophies; I was as green as any beginning teacher.  When older and more experienced teachers happened to visit my classroom that I saw their surprise, and realised how unusual it was, to ask your students to do something radical like listening to classical music, each in contemplative mode, after giving them something to think about. “What a wonderful, calm environment this is,” they might say. But other teachers (especially one particular P.E. teacher!) would visit my quiet classroom, see my own relaxed posture, and assume we were all slacking off. She’d say something like, “Well, this is lovely!”, deliver her messages and stalk off.

I’m not suggesting P.E. teachers need to incorporate time for thinking during a sports match, but my English students did their best creative work when they were allowed time to think. I discovered that only by accident.

What can we do, then, to encourage positive-constructive daydreaming in our children?

As parents, we might:

  • Keep TV out of children’s bedrooms, and also off in the living areas unless programmes are being actively watched.
  • Encourage books over media which plays automatically (TV, movies, and digital books on autoplay). Stories can be enjoyed in many different ways, but the beauty of books is that the reader turns the page. The reader can stop reading at any time, and the story will wait. The reader decides when to turn the page, if at all. Their reading may lead them away from the story and into their own minds, and that’s okay too.

Right now I’m taken back ten years. I’m at university, in that frantic pre-exam period where even the quietest nooks and crannies of the campus become frenetic, and it no longer seems that every Tom, Dick and Harry is living it up in the coffee house; now everyone wants your seat at the central library. That’s where I am, and I’m studying for a linguistics exam. I’m sitting in that open space on the first floor, where we’re all surrounded by students from different disciplines.

At some point I look up and I see a familiar back-of-the-head. This is the head of a boy who went to the same high school as I did. But we went to a huge high school, where even students in our own year can look like almost-strangers. I’ve never shared classes with this boy but I know of him anyway. I know from prize-givings that this young man is called Olly and that he is super bright. I want to be that bright right now, because I’m sick of studying. I wonder what’s so different about him. How does he do what he does?

Olly was always one of those young men who seemed to walk around high school in an absent-minded daze, playing chess at lunchtimes but never seeming to do any real study, then blitzing everyone in the maths and sciences. Until this moment I hadn’t really wondered about what happened to him, but now I peer over his shoulder to take a glance at his textbook. I’m not surprised to see that he’s studying something like quantum mechanics, and his book is about something even more obscure than that – wave particle duality, or some such thing.

All I can see is the back of his dark head, but I’m distracted now, probably because I’ve been studying too long and need to take a break, but if I actually get up and take a walk I’ll lose my seat forever.

So I’m watching this young man and I’m fascinated. I’ve always been fascinated by what goes on inside the minds of people who are extremely gifted in the areas where I am not. He’s not even holding a pen. He doesn’t seem to have a ring-binder full of notes, either, or a bag. He’s just sitting there relaxing with a textbook, and more amazing than that, he’s not even reading the darn thing. He’s looking at the pages for a brief spurt; next thing he’s staring into space. He’s spending more time *thinking* about his book than *reading* it.

Maybe that’s the difference between Olly and the rest of us.

Any of Olly’s teachers would have recognised his amazing brain power, and even if they didn’t, he was the sort of boy whose reputation preceded him. I’m sure Olly was given space to daydream.

But what about the lesser mortals among us? Could it be that a major difference between Olly and less able students is partly (if not mainly) in varying abilities to daydream?

So, what can teachers do to foster positive-constructive daydreaming?

  • Value quiet time for thinking. Quiet time in the classroom is hard to achieve, but all the more important now, because some students don’t ever have quiet time at home. They might come from large families where they share bedrooms with siblings, or even from smaller households where the TV or computers are never off, even in that precious thinking time that might happen naturally between wake and sleep.
  • Moments of silence don’t necessarily need to be planned; it may simply be a matter of cultivating the habit of identifying key sentences in presentations and literally leaving pause for thought before continuing with your explanation, especially of a brand new concept.
  • When I was a student teacher we were encouraged by a former principal to include ‘compulsory pause for thought’ in our questioning. This quiet phase is implemented by asking the class a key question, then refusing to take any answers for a set period of time, maybe 20 seconds. This seems like an eternity to the most extroverted members of class, but the introverts will thank you for it. You get different answers from different students if you do this, and it’s a good way to deal with the Hermione Grangers of this world.
  • Obviously, the teacher needs impeccable classroom management skills before this is going to work. And the quiet moment does need to be enforced before a class of students gets the concept, because many have been trained all the way through school to thrust their hands into the air, or to call out an answer as soon as they think of one: this is race mentality, partly, and also one way for a teacher to foster an atmosphere of ‘energy’ in their classrooms, which always looks good to any outsider strolling by. And sometimes you do want top-of-the-head answers: during brainstorming sessions, for example. But at other times energy begins from within, and noise in the classroom isn’t necessarily a sign that the students are stifled, or that everyone is bored stiff.

Teaching the Static Image: Colour, Images, Font, Layout

Number one tip: BAN CLIP ART.

Unless it’s used ironically, in which case, okay.


Colour Theory: Quick reference sheet for designers

Colour symbolism: What colours mean

The Colors of Good vs. Evil: Comic Book Color Palettes (an infographic from Color Lovers)

How Colours Affect Our Purchases, an infographic

For students who have no sense of colour, get them to choose a palette using the ‘mathematical’ foolproof way, with Adobe Kuler, or many other similar products. Colour choice is basically a scientific thing, regardless of individual preference. (To counter that statement: Why The Science Of Design Is A Bad Idea.) Students can make their own swatches with Adobe’s colour wheel. They can download and import these swatches into Photoshop. If they don’t have Photoshop, they can still get the hexadecimal numbers for use in other programs.

See: Developing A Colour Scheme And Colour Management Tips for some great online tools for generating palettes.

Students who have Photoshop on their home computers are at an advantage when doing coursework including graphics. For this reason, I’ve taught at a school where Photoshop wasn’t allowed for internal assessments. I didn’t really agree with it then and I sure don’t agree with it now.

There are plenty of freely available Photoshop resources online. For example:

40 Fresh and Free PSD Files.

Photoshop Tutorials For Stunning Photo Effects from PS Deluxe

100 Sets of Free Photoshop Brushes from Design Modo

50 Free Photoshop Brushes Every Designer Should Have from 2ExpertDesign

8 Photoshop Tricks I Wish I Knew When I Was A Student from Onextrapixel

For students who would like Photoshop but don’t have it, direct them to the open source, free and legal version which is easier to use and does almost as much: GIMP. Give them some time in the computer lab during class and tell them the help files can all be found online. The help files aren’t all that good, but here are some online tutorials to get started. If they still moan because they haven’t got *Photoshop*, they may download a trial version onto their home computers. It lasts for one month and they can’t do it twice. This might be good for students who have problems meeting deadlines.

For students with access to a Mac: 30 Free Mac Apps for Web Designers.

My Secret To Color Schemes, by Erica Schoonmaker

The colour red makes you stronger, faster and more distractable.


Weird and wacky fonts should only be used as an image in their own right (e.g. as part of the picture). When combining different fonts, here are some guidelines.

For the perfect font, they can download many for free online. Don’t install too many on your computers because you’ll slow the system right down. (I speak from experience, and recently had a font cull.)

Designers will tell you there exist ‘well designed’ and ‘poorly designed’ fonts. If you get your fonts from the free font sites, many of them are poorly designed, so better to look at hand chosen lists for the best looking ones:

30 Free Hand Drawn Fonts

50 Beautiful Fresh and Free Fonts from Specky Boy

Some Brand New Fonts (designed 2011) from Design Beep

The Best Free and Brand New Fonts (of 2011) from Gonzoblog

Free Retro Fonts from Tripwire Magazine

See also:

The 5 Fonts Flavorwire never want to read ever again (a primer in font snobbery). And for an indication of how much people can hate Comic Sans, see this short imagined monologue at the McSweeneys site.

A Guide To Typography Infographic from Zubeta

How To Choose The Right Typography Font For Your Designs from Naldz Graphics, which could serve as a checklist for peer assessment.


When searching for images online, try Flickr Creative Commons Search. This tag browser is pretty. Here are some more. FlickrStorm lets you search for photos under the creative commons licence. There is also Compfight, which does the same thing. Using these engines it is easy to search for Creative Commons images.

Another7 Image Search Tools from Brain Pickings.

Also interesting: Here’s Looking At Hue.


Why Is White Space Good For Graphic Design from Design Modo

Focal Points In Design Layout from Instant Shift

For magazine quality layouts, Adobe InDesign is an industry standard. The free (GNU) version is called Scribus.


For making a movie poster, direct them to the Movie Poster Database.

For vintage posters, the Chisholm Larsson online gallery.

33 Photoshop Tutorials For Designing Posters from Design Modo

The Six Rules Of Modern Poster Design, an infographic on Flickr

The 100 Best Movie Posters Of The Past 100 Years from Paste Magazine

Thirteen Movie Poster Cliches from Uproxx

BOOK and magazine COVERS

Book covers here. It’s a blog and includes discussion. Here’s another one. Examples of bookcovers making use of letters only.

The Most Iconic Book Covers Ever, from Flavorwire

A Guide On How To Design A Magazine Cover That Stands Out from Nadlz Graphics


100 Clever and Creative Advertisements.

40 Retro Advertisements for Inspiration, from Design Modo

300 Remarkable Vintage TV Print Advertisements from The Mad Men Era.


Examples of Brochures


Logo Trends 2011

If students are making logos, Adobe Illustrator is the industry standard. The free (GNU) equivalent to Illustrator is Inkscape. This can  be downloaded for free. In Illustrator and Inkscape, students can make logos that scale to any size without loss of quality. (i.e. vector images.)

45 Beautiful High Quality Brushes for Illustrator


AWWWARDS: The awards for design, creativity and innovation on the Internet, which recognize and promote the best web designers in the world.

BEHANCE: Hundreds of thousands of creative professionals broadcast their work widely and efficiently.

DEVIANT ART: Artists upload their work for sharing and feedback.


Some graphic design portfolios.

Free abstract backgrounds from Creative Fan

65+ Awesome Free Textures from Design Modo

51 High Quality Free Textures from You The Designer

18 Creative Free Textures from Vision Widget

See Also: Kids Can Learn Graphic Design Too from Naldz Graphics