Profile of a FWIS: Fiction and Empathy


FWIS 120: Fiction and Empathy

An interview with Burke Nixon, Instructor

How did you get interested in this particular topic?
I’ve been interested in fiction since I was a kid, probably since before I could even read it myself. Getting lost in a character’s thoughts and experiences—that never gets old. And writing fiction myself (and often struggling to write fiction) has led me to think a lot about what fiction does, what it’s supposed to do, what it means to take a character’s perspective, how that works. I also teach a Medical Humanities FWIS and co-teach a Literature and Medicine course with a friend of mine at Baylor College of Medicine, so I’ve become really interested in discussion about the supposed “empathy gap” that can exist between physicians and patients, as well as the related research and debates over the supposed connection between reading fiction and “improving” our ability to empathize. At some point, I decided that questions about fiction and empathy were so open to debate and so interesting (to me, at least) that I could make them the basis of their own course.

What, specifically, are you excited about teaching in your FWIS this semester?
I’m always really excited about introducing my students to the work of great writers like Junot Diaz, Yiyun Li, Edwidge Danticat, and George Saunders. I’m also excited about having them introduce me to some great authors I haven’t read.

What is one thing you hope students draw from this FWIS?
I hope the course helps my students develop a closer attention to language—in their reading and in their writing, in creative narratives and academic arguments, on the page (or screen) and in person. That’s the big goal.