Feb. 29, 2024

‘Empathy activism’ and how 1 educator is creating more inclusive teaching spaces

2023 Inclusive Excellence Award recipient Safaneh Mohaghegh Neyshabouri approaches empathy as a skill that can be taught
A person in a red suit smiles at the camera
Safaneh Mohaghegh Neyshabouri Elyse Bouvier, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning

In a time when global tensions feel especially fraught, walking a mile in someone’s shoes is an old saying that still resonates. A request for understanding before judgment — an idea as important as ever before. 

“For me, empathy is the moment we question a very strongly held emotion that we have about something and try to see the other side, try to feel what the other side may feel, to ask what must have been their lived experience or their reality that brought them to think or feel that way,” says Dr. Safaneh Mohaghegh Neyshabouri, PhD, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts. 

Empathy activism is her approach to teaching and it’s what led to her recognition as the inaugural recipient of the 2023 University of Calgary Teaching Award for Inclusive Excellence. 

“Empathy is a skill and because it’s a skill, it’s something that can be taught. Literature is the best way to teach that,” says Mohaghegh Neyshabouri. “I try to bring perspectives from various sides of an issue and those perspectives are often human experiences of various historical or contemporary events, and through that, I create a sense of empathy in students.”

The award, launched in 2023, recognizes the teaching excellence of an individual educator in creating inclusive, diverse, equitable and accessible initiatives within their classroom, course, or other learning environments. 

Mohaghegh Neyshabouri’s courses in the School for Languages, Linguistics, Literatures and Cultures (SLLLC) and Gender and Sexuality Studies cover sensitive topics that often have a direct tie to things happening in the world. With students from different backgrounds in class, she navigates often-challenging subjects, feelings and emotions with a focus on creating safe spaces for discussion. 

“We have to constantly work to make academic knowledge accessible to as many people as possible,” she says. “Everybody can benefit from academic knowledge. It must be democratized as much as possible.”

For Mohaghegh Neyshabouri, students are the most inspiring element of her work. 

“Some of our students graduate to become activists in the community, or organizers of various things in the community, so it’s very exciting when I listen to what they’re doing and how they engage with forms of social justice within the university community, the Calgary community, and more global things,” she says. 

“Some of the courses I've created, I've created because students directly asked me if it was possible to create a course to address them. It challenges me to constantly think about issues and see how what I am teaching relates and helps them contribute directly to the world around them.” 

Learn more about the University of Calgary Teaching Awards

Since 2014, the University of Calgary Teaching Awards have recognized and celebrated outstanding contributions to teaching and learning. The University of Calgary Teaching Awards comprised 15 categories that recognize teaching excellence in diverse learning contexts by individuals and teams through curriculum design and educational leadership. Students, faculty and staff are encouraged to nominate individuals and groups who make outstanding contributions to enriching the quality and breadth of learning.

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