Write a research paper: a lesson in empathy

November 12 2013

During the past week, I’ve taught my most advanced students how to write a research paper (for more about my time in Nepal, visit here and here). The sixteen- and seventeen-year-old monks have never heard the term research before, and words such as “references,” “introduction,” “outline,” and “conclusion” are new additions to their vocabulary.

When I first explained their assignment, their charming smiles hid their bewilderment. As I despondently watched one student copy paragraphs directly from his grade-school English book, I realized my lesson wasn’t well received. I was quickly reminded of the importance of empathic communication.

In attempting to describe the purpose of writing and the value of communicating opinion, I’ve had to consider what already exists in their world. What might help them understand the (already challenging!) writing process? I’ve drummed up analogies such as making sandwiches (“Your introduction and conclusion is like bread. You need meat in the middle for a tasty sandwich!”) and playing soccer (“The introduction is the kick-off, when the whistle blows. Your conclusion is putting the ball in the back of the net. Goal!”). I’ve asked my wide-eyed students, “What do you want someone to remember after they’ve read your writing?”

The process has reminded me of flexible thinking, the ability to consider another’s world view, and the universal demand for effective communication.

The next time you find yourself frustrated and struggling to get your point across, pause for a moment to see if there is another way to convey your message.

The medium is only half of the art. The interpretation is the rest.