Tasking Students With Empathy: Field Observations, COVID-19, and Assessing an Anthropological Sensibility

  • Tanya King Deakin University
  • Carina Truyts Deakin University
  • Anne Faithfull


In 2019 and 2020 students in an Australian university conducted a short ethnographic exercise, a ‘journal’, with an attunement to the multiplicity of meanings evident in a single space by a range of interlocutors. We emphasised and assessed ‘empathy’ as a short-hand for the kind of anthropological sensibility we hoped to encourage. By requesting an account that represented an awareness of how ‘others’ encounter and come to ‘know’ the world we promoted their adoption of a modality which is central to the discipline. We wanted them to describe the world—the terrain, the stuff of their surroundings—based on their observations of how these others behaved. To couch it in anthropological terms, we wanted them to be attuned to a multiplicity of ‘taskscapes’, Ingold’s term for the mutual constitution of people and places through culturally politically, economically, and spiritually informed actions (‘tasks’) (Ingold, 1993). These ‘taskscapes’ were illustrated through the work of McKee (2016), whose account of multiple simultaneous experiences in the Negev desert by those living in (variously labelled) Israel/Palestine, represented an unexperienced domain for most of the Australian students. Rather than reinforcing the dated notion that anthropology is something that is done ‘elsewhere’, by asking students to focus on anthropology ‘at home’ they embodied their understanding of a transferable concept—introduced via an ‘exotic’ example—through a locally embedded experience. This paper describes the delivery of this assignment in 2019 and 2020 and explores in detail the content of five student journals and their evidence of the targeted learning.

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