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Compassion, Empathy, and Understanding

What is Normal?

Have you ever wondered exactly what it means to be normal? Have you ever stopped to ask yourself if you really want to be normal? Some Honors students are considering those very questions this semester in an Honors Unexpected Connections course. Taught by Dr. Mikle South (Psychology & Neuroscience) and Dr. Rex Nielson (Spanish &I Portuguese), students in HONRS 226 this semestser are exploring "What is Normal?" by looking at definitions and behavior from the perspectives of literary studies and psychology. "At it's core, the study of normalcy is really the pursuit of compassin, empathy, and understanding," Dr. South told us.

The course draws upon a variety of texts, including literary fiction, non-fiction, personal essay, film, and scientific literature to explore our concepts of normal around broad topics such as families, mental health, anxiety, and race. Dr. Nielson described how the study of liberal arts helps in approaching these topics. “Reading these literary texts about treatments of individuals who are struggling with mental health challenges and other conditions expands my own experience as a human being, and gives me some understanding of experiences I will never have.” He hopes students in the class experience the same thing. Beyond the readings, students regularly take part in discussions on how to find truth. Dr. South explained that normalcy and truth are not the same thing, but can be explored along similar lines of reasoning. “Scientists claim to search for truth, but the scientific method can’t prove things right-- it can only prove them wrong,” he noted. “Thus, this class explores the nature of truth and normalcy by studying what it isn’t.”

Dr. Nielson added that while science helps us study definitively what normal is not, the humanities are about the process of finding truth. “With the scientific method we are able to find specific outcomes; the literary method opens our eyes to the process by which we seek truth.”

The class itself is a result of an unexpected connection. When Dr. Nielson applied as an Alcuin fellow and Honors faculty, he originally had a very different course in mind. Then he met Dr. South and was intrigued by Dr. South’s research on autism, mental health, and how we as a society we respond to those who are not neurotypical. Dr. Nielson thought of a number of pieces of literature from his own field that engage with the same issues, and a new course idea emerged. Before they knew it, the two of them had created a syllabus based on their shared interest in these topics.

Alexa DeMarco, the TA for the class this semester, noted that while the professors know where they want to go with the course, they aren’t guiding every discussion to a predetermined conclusion. “They made it clear from the beginning of the semester that they aren’t trying to prove what normal is or to establish what it is to be ‘normal.’ Rather, they want to explore what normal isn’t, and to achieve some kind of idea or enlightenment through the discussions. These professors enable students to come to their own conclusions, question their own thinking, and explore their own definitions and conceptions of normalcy,” she explained.

Even the professors themselves are often unfamiliar with each other’s readings or disciplinary perspective, which has allowed them to grow in their understanding of the topic right along with their students. Their different perspectives on the same problems allow them to attack the notion of normalcy in an interdisciplinary manner as they consider various scientific, societal, political, and cultural concepts.

“We hope the course is as socially and emotionally empowering as it is intellectually edifying,” the professors explained. “Through the course, students learn to see others more compassionately. They are able to put themselves in others’ shoes more accurately. They have a deeper understanding that people are complicated, and that normal is complicated. They are kinder to other people. They have broader perspectives about how other people work, and their challenges. All of this fosters understanding and empathy between people.”

Ultimately, it seems the students are discovering that what we think of as normal is slippery. “A clear definition falls through our fingers. It is unstable, and hard to pin down,” but both Dr. South and Dr. Nielson hope this will provide their students with a healthier understanding of themselves and realistic expectations for themselves and others.

The best part of this course in Alexa’s eyes, is that it helps students rid themselves of misconceptions about what it is to be normal. “They learn that many normal stereotypical beliefs in society are, in fact, very abnormal. They also discover how often we place labels or have misconceptions without even realizing it. Students realize how abnormal our normal thinking is. We all have these ideas of what it is to be normal, and we don’t say it. Then, when it comes to putting our own thinking into words, students often say, 'wait. This doesn’t make sense,'” she explained.

The most surprising thing that Alexa has learned so far this semester is that the key to good mental health is adaptability. “We have to be able to change our views, and that’s healthy. We have to be okay living in an open-ended narrative, where we don’t always know what we are striving for, even though it’s uncomfortable.” She also noted that more of us have issues with mental health than we realize. “We try to hide it and suppress it, but it’s okay to not be okay!” Alexa said this kind of thinking has been a game-changer for her and she’s grateful for the opportunity she has to work with these amazing faculty and her fellow Honors students.

When we asked Alexa what she wishes she could tell the rest of the Honors program about this class, she said, “This class reminds me of the reason I fell in love with the Honors program in the first place!”

Pictured: Panel of volunteer students from FHSS Diversity, Collaboration and Inclusion shared their perspectives with the class. Thank you to these students and to Lita Little Giddins, the DCI coordinator.