Book By: Sharon Todd
Review By: Sarah Champlin-Scharff
Undergraduate Program Administrator, Committee on Degrees in Social Studies
Harvard University

All academic advisors -- faculty, full-time professionals, and peer advisors -- participate in student learning. Simply stated, we facilitate learning for those we advise. We help students sort through new and often difficult experiences; we counsel them about useful study patterns; we help them form strategies to successfully approach a potential mentor. In short, we help them make sense of their college experiences as they learn to navigate their lives through the process of becoming a college student and hopefully a college graduate. Sharon Todd’s book Learning from the Other, helps us understand the vulnerability of learning, the ethical implications of education, and how best to facilitate the learning process.

This book offers a philosophical perspective on the learning process and provides deep analysis of such concepts as empathy, love, guilt, suffering, and responsibility. This analysis helps the reader understand the importance of being open to both our students and the world.  Todd argues that learning involves “facing” that which is “not me” and understanding the world from the perspective of an absolute ”Other” (p. 18).  Here learning involves challenging how we understand and relate to the world, and ultimately how we understand ourselves. Todd suggests that “students often feel that once they struggle to know something they can never be quite the same again…[e]gos are not formed…This means that the ego is continually vulnerable to the potentiality of violence, to recurrence of learning to become” (p. 20).  In this way, students egos become vulnerable and learning may be experienced as a kind of violence. Think of the tearful second year student desperately trying to determine what academic concentration to declare when all her life she thought she would be a doctor, or the first year student angry and confused about his place as a man in society after a semester of Women’s Studies.

While a large portion of the book focuses on how best to teach social responsibility -- generally not a concern for academic advisors -- the surrounding discussions can aid advisors seeking to understand how best to support students. Most useful are the analyses of empathy, love, guilt, and suffering that help uncover new ways to conscientiously relating to the vulnerable students we advise. Here we are forced to reflect upon how these emotions help or hinder our advisees’ progress and are pushed to learn new approaches to our work with students.  Despite the fact that this may not be an easy read, I would argue that Learning From the Other is an invaluable resource to academic advisors. It outlines the importance of openness and humility in our work with students and focuses our attention on the vulnerability our advisees’ experiences.

Learning From the Other: Levinas, Psychoanalysis, and Ethical Possibilities in Education. (2003). Book by Todd, Sharon. Review by Sarah Champlin-Scharff. Albany: SUNY Press. 192 pp. $16.95. ISBN 0-7914-5836-9.

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