Patricia Kovic
Otis College of Art and Design


Patricia Kovic
Associate Professor
Otis College of Art and Design

In recent years social scientists have framed concerns about the changing character of American society in terms of “social capital.” 75% of all students rate themselves less empathetic than students 30 years ago. Digital communication replacing face-to-face interaction is often cited as the main culprit. Art and Design institutions are among those affected by these trends, resulting in campuses filled with “empathy-at-risk” millennial students.

With empathy increase as a goal, the course NEIGHBOR-GAP-BRIDGE is designed as a research laboratory and views a student’s role as ethnographer and the college’s surrounding environment as tribe.  The course is taught within the Creative Action program at Otis College, in Los Angeles and employs pedagogical tools for observation and inquiry, inviting students to actively investigate the customs, history, attitudes and peoples – in their own backyard.

NEIGHBOR-GAP-BRIDGE “Neighbors” include: a third grade class at Loyola Village Elementary School, The Westchester Senior Center, and The Custom Hotel. Our neighbors are located within 100 — 200 yards of one another; though close in proximity, they have virtually nothing in common and no connection. Gaps in culture, ethnicity, age, socio-economic level, education level and neighborhood investment abound. Students are challenged to observe and analyze the distinguishing characteristics of each site (NEIGHBOR), as well as the space that separates them (GAP); students begin to develop the visual language of reciprocity, and compassion necessary to propose design solutions to connect these spaces (BRIDGE). 

Pedagogical tools for bridging include a “Native American Potlatch,” in which neighbors exchange gifts, uses generosity as a means of resolving conflict. Nomadic classrooms replace traditional ones, allowing for learning to take place on-site, in local cafes, diners, at the elementary school or senior center. Quantitative measuring tools like “Bridge-o-Meters,” “Gap Detectors” and “Empathy Testing” as well as qualitative interview tools are employed during the semester, to measure empathy increase.

Empathy is one of the cornerstones of human behavior. It has enabled society to evolve so that we could survive and thrive in small communities. The “Empathy Deficit” is alarming, but research indicates the pre-frontal cortex does not become fully formed until our mid twenties — making this an indispensable opportunity for college educators. Art and Design educators need to seize this opportunity — making empathy-driven education and the construction of social capital, a cornerstone of Art and Design Education.