THE HFG REVIEW OF RESEARCH (Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 2000)
TEACHING ABOUT VIOLENCE
Grounded, Experiential Teaching about Violence
Russel Lawrence Barsh and Chantelle Marlor
One may explain water, but the mouth will not become wet. One may expound fully on the nature of fire, but the mouth will not become hot. Without touching real water and real fire, one will not know these things.
Zen painter and tea master Takuan Soho (1573-1645)
Social science is about ourselves and what we do every day. The classroom itself is a social space, in which authority, power, and status games unfold between instructor and students, and among students. The teaching of social science nevertheless tends to be highly abstract and impersonal, with relatively little grounding in the observed and lived experiences of the instructor or students. Although social theories generally begin with subjective introspection on the part of the theorist, they are presented as facts in the classroom. Students are presumed to lack relevant ideas or experience of their own, and are reduced to passive note-takers and copyists. What counts is not the students' ability to relate theories to observed reality, but their capacity for hagiography. Contemporary social science programs thereby retain much of the authoritarian, hierarchical, and antiseptic intellectual dynamics of medieval seminaries.
The distancing of instruction from the personal experiences of both students and instructors, or "objectification" of social science, deprives social theory of relevance, significance, the ability to motivate students, and the benefit of real-life observations which may contradict the relatively abstract propositions found in textbooks. It also tends to obscure the boundary between empirical and normative propositions, disguising value-laden theories as factual while dismissing students' own feelings and experiences as ignorant and emotional.
Why Teach? | We believe that the goal of post-secondary education should be, at a minimum, to develop students' independent, critical-thinking skills: their independence from authority and dogma. Intellectual independence grounded in curiosity, skepticism, and empiricism is the foundation of science. It is also a condition of meaningful democracy. A first step is building students' intellectual self-confidence, by encouraging them to strengthen their practical understanding of the social processes in which they participate directly.
Children [should] learn that they have a responsibility for finding the best alternatives to a series of difficult problems, problems that they themselves help to pose. The process of stating the problem, finding reasonable alternatives, and implementing what seems to be the best alternative is education, in contrast to the present process of blindly obeying (or breaking) rules and unthinkingly echoing back right (or wrong) answers to questions raised by others. As long as the certainty principle dominates our educational system, we will not teach our children to think. Memory is not education, answers are not knowledge. Certainty and memory are the enemies of thinking, the destroyers of creativity and originality. (William Glasser 1969: 38).
Unfortunately, social-science pedagogy is designed to have exactly the opposite effect. Students are discouraged from questioning the assumptions which underlie social theoriessuch as the assumption that humans are "rational"or from indicating that a theory seems to be inconsistent with their own experiences. Students who challenge the assumptions or empirical "fit" of social theories frequently encounter silence or hostility, because they have challenged the authority of the instructor and of the theorist. Students thereby learn to separate school-knowledge from life-knowledge, and to accept as normal that the two should be incompatible.
Theories attempt to reduce a complex social world to relatively simple assertions of cause and effect. Most social theories are consistent with some empirical evidence but have not been tested systematically across a wide spectrum of cultures, countries, and social classes. Serious questions have been raised as to whether human culture can ever be understood "scientifically" in the same way or to the same extent that we understand electrodynamics or molecular biology (O'Meara 1997; Feynman 1998). At the very least, we must be candid with students about the limitations of our knowledge: while endowed with vast accumulations of data, we continue to repeat many of the theoretical debates that preoccupied the Stoics and Confucians two millennia ago. Knowing what theorists have said in the past is different from knowing how people behave, furthermore, and distinguishing between theory and observations is central to science. One way of helping students appreciate the role of theory (as an attempt to explain rather than to supercede observations) is to have them compare theories with their own experiences.
Classroom as Laboratory | Students often do have experiences with the topic under study, and they tend to be drawn to particular social science courses because of their experiences. Students should be regarded as important resources and fellow-explorers, rather than passive receptacles of extant data and theories.
We teach in a small Canadian Prairie city where there has been a significant level of racial violence, much of it gang-related, which for the most part has gone officially unacknowledged. One of us teaches at the regional university, with classes divided about equally between Native American students from nearby Indian reserves and non-Native students from nearby small towns and farmshistorically hostile communities. The other teaches at a tribally controlled community college with older Native students who have school-age children of their own. Violence and domination are on everyone's minds, yet most students have learned to mask their feelings. Fear and anger are thinly veiled in class discussions, behind talk about "them" and "those people." Our interest in teaching about violence grew from this experience.
Our teaching environment is not unique. In a recent test of our approach at an Ivy League campus with ostensibly privileged, considerably younger students, we found that nearly everyone had experienced violence as direct participants, as witnesses to violence committed against close friends, or second-hand, through their relationship with a victim who was either a close family member or an intimate friend:
Two other students reported being affected by sudden senseless deaths of family members. The most severely traumatic experiences ranged from the repeated rape of a student's sister by a schoolteacher, to patricide by an intoxicated family member, to the painful death of a best friend from "friendly fire" in combat. Reported second-hand effects included emotional alienation, failed relationships, and self-destructiveness. More than half of the students indicated that they were continuing to struggle with self-doubt, depression, fear, or anger within themselves and in the context of intimate relationships.
Students with histories of violence and victimization may be attracted to courses on violence, but this possibility strengthens our belief that courses about violence should address the experiences and feelings of those students who have witnessed violence and suffered from its after-effects. In addition, instructors should reflect on the reasons they are attracted to the study of violence. Reflecting on our own experiences with violence helps us locate points of contact with the experiences of our students and forces us to confront our own subjectivity.
Recognizing Subjectivity | As long as we are human and possess feelings, we react subjectively to the people and social processes we study. Whether or not we are conscious of our subjectivity, or acknowledge its influence on our work, it is inherent in our psychology as social beings. We participate subjectively and emotionally in every interview and experiment, even if we make our observations through a one-way mirror.
We also respond subjectively and emotionally to non-human animals and purely physical phenomena. Physical chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi argued that all knowledge is personal and necessarily reflects our humanness and human-centered scales of value:
If we decided to examine the universe objectively in the sense of paying equal attention to portions of equal mass, this would result in a lifelong preoccupation with interstellar dust, relieved only at brief intervals by a survey of incandescent masses of hydrogennot in a thousand million lifetimes would the turn come to give man even a second's notice. It goes without saying that no onescientists includedlooks at the universe this way, whatever lip-service is given to "objectivity" (Polanyi 1958: 3).
Anthropologists have embraced Polanyi's conclusion that experience exists only within particular cultural and interpersonal contexts, adopting "dialogical" methods in which the data consist of conversations between the anthropologist and her subjects, and it is recognized that the interviewer is chiefly learning about herself. In their studies of non-human social behavior, by comparison, Bernd Heinrich, Michael Fox, and Frans de Waal have drawn consciously and creatively on their subjectivity as a source of testable hypotheses: if particular chimpanzees seem to be behaving generously or unselfishly, for example, can we use this possibility to construct better experiments or more explanatory models of chimpanzee society?
Reading and talking about issues such as violence elicits feelings in students, and triggers recall of their own experiencessome of them unpleasant. Repressed memories influence our thinking and behavior even if we are completely unaware of them, or make vigorous efforts to disregard them, as considerable bodies of research on war psychiatry and the social psychology of negative stereotypes have shown. Pretending to be objective and banishing the expression of personal feelings from the classroom cannot remove the effects of unvoiced feelings and memories on students' understanding of the curriculum. We believe that it is better to identify and address students' subjectivity and the attendant attitudes and biases regarding the contents of the course.
There are ethical as well as analytical hazards in theorizing about "them" before we understand something about "us." Persistently studying social behavior in the context of others attributes societal "problems" to them. It assigns blame to them, and arrogates to ourselves the wisdom and authority to judge, correct, or punish their behavior without a candid examination of our own conduct and responsibilities. This is particularly true in the case of violence studies. Courses should not imply that others are the victims and the perpetrators of violence, exonerating everyone in the classroom and the academy. In our view, learning to blame and pity others without developing critical self-awareness may be good training for a privileged and powerful elite, but it is not good science.
Experience and Comprehension | Building on students' personal experiences with violence is not only a strategy for teaching them to recognize and address their own subjectivity. It also contributes to their comprehension of the subject matter and their ability to apply their classroom insights to concrete situations in their daily lives. Since the 1960s, a growing number of educators have endorsed "experiential" pedagogy, which helps students connect theories with action, from the primary to university levels (reviewed by Gruber and Richard 1990).
Experiential learning is not new. Everyone has learned experientially, and there are many things that we cannot learn by other means. No one has ever learned to ride a bicycle or pitch a baseball from a book. These skills are learned and improved through repeated action, and by finding ways of adapting one's body to get the desired results. Indeed, Zen Buddhists argue that motor skills are best learned and performed by suspending conscious thinking altogether (the principle of No-Mind). Thinking and the use of words are distractions from the complex and subtle interrelationships of the eyes, hands, and muscles.
Everyday experiential learning is not limited to motor skills. A child entering a room filled with unfamiliar adults has already learned to be a good social scientist. She has developed the ability to identify tolerant, emotionally responsive individuals and to avoid potentially hostile ones. She has begun generalizing from her daily observations of adult behavior to construct predictive social-psychological models. As she grows older, her experiential horizons will widen to include formal education, the mass media, and membership in a variety of groups. Her models will be culturally influenced, and will merge somewhat with the models and beliefs of the people with whom she interacts.
In the 1920s, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget concluded that children are not passive receptacles of information but active explorers who generate and test hypotheses about reality based on their experiences. As children master more complex tasks, they utilize their experience to construct more powerful models. George Kelly and Lawrence Kohlberg subsequently extended Piaget's theory of cognitive development to the child's modeling of social and psychological as well as physical phenomena. Everyday social interaction is guided by the ability to engage in "mindreading," a skill developed through experience and model-building (Whiten 1991).
Children everywhere appear to reorganize their conceptions of moral and social order in paradigmatic leaps as they grow older, and each child's empirical observationsher experiencetriggers her discovery of new ways of understanding the world. This explanation of individual cognitive development parallels Thomas Kuhn's theory of the history of Western science. Kuhn suggested that "revolutions" in scientists' shared basic conceptions of reality do not simply arise from the accumulation of increasingly precise data, but are triggered by scientists' sudden realization that they have been overlooking important types of data. Scientists' efforts to reconcile old theories with new types of information can result in a complete reconfiguration of their worldview (or in Kuhn's terminology, their paradigm).
Linking Theory, Perception, and Action | We are all scientists, in the sense that we try to understand and predict the events around us (Kelly 1963). We explore the world through our senses, actions, and thoughts, and periodically develop, revise, and replace personal theories that attempt to explain how the world works. Our understanding of a phenomenon is "real" when our personal theory enables us to make reliable predictions based upon our sensory perceptions (Duckworth 1987). The theories we are taught at school do not cultivate "real" understanding, however. We can recite them, and even may be able to apply them to problems posed by instructors or in textbooks, but we do not spontaneously utilize them in relevant contexts outside the classroom.
As an example of this problem, Eleanor Duckworth tells the story of a colleague's graduate course on teaching mathematics. While learning how to demonstrate some of the principles of geometry using a geoboard (a pegboard with an array of nails on which shapes can be created and manipulated using elastic bands), one teacher "discovered" that the area of a triangle is one-half the length of its base times its height, regardless of its angles. She had been taught the familiar formula for calculating the area of a triangle years earlier, but it became "real" understanding, rather than simply recitation, only when she had learned it for herself through action.
Most of our students have already taken introductory courses in social sciences. They are hard pressed to produce examples of social dominance or aggression in their own lives, however, despite the fact that they live in a racially divided community and attend a relatively authoritarian institution! They have learned to recite any number of social science theories, but do not yet recognize the application of those theories to their everyday experience and personal choices. A mind filled with theories about the nature of racism and domination can simultaneously hold racist beliefs and violent motivations. Learning abstract ideas does not change behavior. If the goal of violence studies is to reduce violence, students' feelings must be aroused through social interaction with each other and with other victims and perpetrators of violence.
Direct, emotional contact with others, sometimes described as empathic knowing (Cell 1984), has generally been acknowledged as the most effective way to teach interpersonal skills in the health and mental health fields (Burnard 1996). There is also a growing body of experimental evidence that experiential or empathic classroom activities reduce aggressive behavior and increase cooperation among children (see, for example, Roberts and Strayer 1996).
Grounded Theory | Experiential pedagogy is conceptually related to grounded theory, an inductive, ethnographic approach to building social theories. Combining experiential learning with grounded theory meets the complementary goals of strengthening the validity of social science theory and making the teaching of social theory more relevant and meaningful for students.
Like experiential learning, grounded theory begins with the observation that we each build social models based on our own experiences. Our models are chiefly based on interactions with members of our own group or community and therefore include shared "cultural" assumptions and beliefs. Tested by their reliability and usefulness in our own daily lives, our social models are likely to be reasonably reliable descriptions of the way members of our own group interact and how they interpret each other's behavior. Our models may also include untested or untestable hypotheses ("good people are rewarded in Heaven") as well as biasesthat is, associations we selfishly choose not to test, or to test using double standards ("most of those people are lazy").
Personal models are probably more reliable descriptions of our communities than the speculations of scholars who have never actually lived with us. Strangers may not only misinterpret our most basic gestures, such as head nodding, which has the opposite meaning in North America and South Asia, but the ways in which we make assessments of one another. Concepts such as "guilt" in English, amae in Japanese, or api'niimaatti in Blackfoot, are attempts to label very complex and somewhat vague ideas about human behavior in particular societies. They defy reliable translation. Books have been written struggling to explain them. Yet the people who live in Japan (for example) are closer to appreciating the subtle social and psychological processes which collectively are labeled amae, because they have spent lifetimes living them, watching others grapple with them, and using them in daily decision making.
The role of ethnographylistening to and sharing in a group's lived experienceis to identify concepts or categories pertinent to understanding social relations within that group. Pioneered by anthropologists a century ago, ethnography was incorporated into a general theory of "grounded" social-science methodology by Glaser and Strauss (1967). Grounded theory is inductive. Similarities in the behavior of different individuals, groups, or "cultures" suggest similar underlying processes. As more individuals and groups are studied, more inclusive and reliable generalizations may be possible. Most social theory is deductive, however. Scholars speculate about universal principles of human behavior, then seek evidence of behavior consistent with their conjectures. Deductive theorizing is not "objective," because it necessarily begins with each scholar's own cultural and social assumptions.
Deductive social science would be a good approach if all humans were much the same. Grounded theory assumes that human diversity is considerable, however, and that generalizations can only reliably be made about particular sets of individuals or groupsthe ones we have actually lived with, observed, and understood in their own terms.
A grounded approach therefore values the independent development of theories to explain the behavior of many diverse populations. A theory of Blackfoot youth gangs in Lethbridge is recognized as a useful tool for managing youth violence in Lethbridge and as a potential building-block for developing more general explanations of youth behavior. By giving a purpose to locally specific research, and promoting rigorous local theory-building and empirical theory-testing, grounded theory can provide a framework for experiential learning through the study of populations and processes on, and near, the university campus.
Grounding and Intellectual Honesty | We have argued that grounding the study of social phenomena such as violence in students' own experiences is important because it illuminates the problem of subjectivity, promotes a "real" and applicable understanding of concepts and theories, and supports a more reliable, inductive approach to building social theories. Another reason for grounding social science teaching is intellectual honesty. Grounding tends to reduce authoritarianism and obscurantism in teaching.
Social scientists are fond of promoting theories with undefined, ambiguous, or highly abstract terms that can be interpreted in multiple ways and are difficult if not impossible to translate into reproducible observations or measurements. "Social class" is one example; among other things, it can refer to income, occupation, property ownership, participation in a grouping or network of people, or characteristics of speech, dress, and interpersonal behavior. As Paul Fussell observes in his tongue-in-cheek treatise on class, moreover, "you reveal a great deal about your social class by the amount of annoyance or fury you feel when the subject is brought up" (Fussell 1979: 16). Like many other social science constructs, class is intensely subjective and impossibly complex.
Pretending that constructs such as class are not ambiguous and subjective is a way that instructors demonstrate their power over students. A student who is unfamiliar with the topic and its current jargon will find it impossible to relate the concepts and theories to her own experience, and will therefore lack any basis for evaluating or questioning its validity. The instructor cannot effectively be challenged to justify her arguments because the students can never know precisely to what she is referring. The result is an illusion of professorial infallibility which, like doctrines of infallibility in religion, place faith ahead of individual experience, reason, and empirical inquiry.
One of us attended an Ivy League law school. During an otherwise tedious and uneventful course on civil procedure, the instructor, a distinguished practitioner and jurist, was expounding learnedly on the legal principles applicable to a case alleging negligence in the crash of an airliner. As he was summing up his analysis, a student in the back row raised his hand. "Professor, excuse me, have you ever flown a plane? I'm a pilot, and you simply cannot fly a plane the way you've just described it."
If you are teaching a unit about sexual violence, there will be a student who says, "I've been raped." If you are teaching about war, a student will say, "I was in Bosnia." (If they do not feel free to say it they will still think it, which is worsebecause it will mean that they feel you understand nothing about the topic of your lecture.) An instructor can try to avoid such encounters. Most do. Alternatively, personal experiences can energize a course on topics such as violence, and ensure its grounding in empirical reality.
Teaching as Violence | Students learn from the social context of a course, as well as its nominal content. Authoritarian instruction is a form of domination, and implicitly legitimizes domination. Like any other large human organization, the university and its classrooms are theaters of power, domination, and aggression based on titles, degrees, tenure, age, gender, and color, among other attributes. We teach within an environment which is itself part of the topic of violence, and students are not blind to this fact. Many feel stressed, depressed, abused, and marginalized. Some have been sexually manipulated, others subjected to capricious grading or unreasonable rules and regulations. Teaching about violence as if its location is somewhere else does little to enhance an instructor's credibility as a scholar.
Social science students are strenuously taught to talk about how "they" think and act, not how "I" think and act, although the "I" is, after all, a part of human experience, too. This denigrates the relevance of students' own lives and experiences. Students thus learn to adopt an implicitly authoritarian view that they are somehow outside of human experience, but above it, in the lofty clouds of objectivity. They learn, paradoxically, that their own unacknowledged and unexpressed personal experiences and beliefs, which necessarily inform their viewpoints as students of social life, are more objective than the lived experiences of their human subjects. This, too, is a form of domination. When we talk about "them" and "their" violence, we are excusing ourselves from self-awareness, self-criticism, and personal responsibility.
Those students who have never actually been victims of violence, or the children or friends of victims of violence, see violence daily in the news and entertain themselves with violent television, films, and sports. They have experienced authoritarian teachers, preachers, politicians, and bureaucrats. They are frequently confused, angry, prejudiced, or dreadfully misinformed, but these are both resources and barriers to understanding that we, as instructors, must engage.
A "Minds-On" Violence Studies Course | We return to our premise that violence is an intensely emotional experience, not only for the perpetrator and the victim, but for witnesses as well. Most of us, and most of our students, have witnessed, if not participated in, some form of violence in childhood or youth. We think that most people fail to recognize or address the echoes of past violence within themselves. We also find that most students begin a course on violence speaking as if violence exists outside their lives and threatens to break in. They need to discover that this is an illusion, and learn to appreciate the ways in which their personalities and family relations embody past violence. Without achieving self-awareness as products of violence and actors in violence, students cannot fully understand violence among others.
Our approach creates an environment in which the student feels competent to evaluate theories on her own. We stress the empirical foundations of our knowledge of the topic, rather than focusing on the theories which are currently in vogue for organizing what we think we know empirically. We begin by grounding the course in students' own experiences, expanding that base by introducing students to the first-person experiences of others, and encouraging students to make comparisons and ask critical questions. The second stage is learning how to be rigorous and systematic in eliciting the attitudes and observing the behavior of others through field research with family, friends, neighbors, nearby groups, and communities.
As noted earlier, there is a strong tendency in university teaching to dismiss personal experience as merely anecdotal and to perceive critical questions as threatening. Students need explicit encouragement and positive feedback when they begin to relate the course to their personal experiences and to challenge assertions that are incompatible with those experiences. As instructors, we act as models by talking about our personal experiences and by being self-critical, rather than lecturing at students from a position of professorial authority.
The objectives of our curriculum are (1) to promote students' recognition of and critical self-reflection on their own life experiences related to violence; (2) to familiarize students with a wide range of forms of violence across time and cultures through the first-person experiences of others, including victims and perpetrators of violence, so that they can begin to discover patterns and similarities; and (3) to help students begin to build and test their own theories of violence. Class readings and exercises move from experience to theory-building and introduce academic theories only in aid of students' own theory construction.
Students need encouragement to acknowledge their experiences and their feelings (including fear and anger), and to learn how to think about their experiences in ways that are useful for understanding their own behavior and the behavior of others. This can be achieved by students' reflecting on their own life histories and experiences, learning about the experiences of their families (their prehistory), and learning about the similar experiences of others. We have found that students respond most intensely and candidly to eloquent self-reflective first-hand accounts of violence whether in poetry, prose fiction, or autobiographical prose. Students readily identify with the authors, across time and cultures. We find that first-person readings validate students' own experiences, while third-person academic articles reinforce students' regrettable, firmly-entrenched tendency to theorize abstractly and rather meaninglessly about other people.
Challenges for Instructors | Neither of us has suffered terrible traumas such as combat or crime victimization. Nevertheless, we work in communities fighting racism, repression, and forced relocation. One or the other of us has known friends and co-workers who have been killed, faced guns in the course of our work, or been sexually harassed at our university. We have lived with people who have been victims of rape, childhood sexual abuse, violent alcoholic parents, and ethnic cleansing. Our parents were exposed to racism, warfare, and exploitation in sweat shops. We have begun to appreciate the echoes of others' experiences of violence in our own lives. Through our efforts to understand how, in different ways, our own two personalities have been shaped by violence, we think we have learned a great deal more about the causes and consequences of violence than we have ever found in textbooks.
Violence is both personal and real for us, and this empirical reality is the starting point for the journeys we take with our students. It is never easy to talk about violence in the first person, however. We felt anxiety, embarrassment, and shame when we began to use our own experiences to illustrate concepts and theories, and to make it easier for our students to talk about themselves. The difficulties we experienced are not unusual. The Swiss psychiatrist Alice Miller wrote several insightful books about emotionally abused and dominated children before she could admit her own childhood abuse to herself, as she explains in Pictures from a Childhood. Paul Fussell wrote two brilliant studies of warfare and war literature before acknowledging his own 50-year-long struggle with unresolved war trauma in an autobiographical memoir, Doing Battle.
Legitimizing self-expression in the classroom unleashes a tide of student feelings, needs, and prejudices, challenging the instructor to guide students' development morally and emotionally as well as analytically. In much of the world today, and through most of human history, the roles of teaching and counselling have overlapped in elders, healers, and grandparents. Knowledge of the world around us and self-knowledge are naturally interrelated, and both were considered part of "philosophy" by the Greeks and Romans. A division occurred only within the past few centuries, as a result of the struggle to wrest science from the church, which had asserted a monopoly over spiritual guidance to the extent of burning scientists, druids, and wise-women as witches.
As Louis Thayer (1976) recognized in one of the pioneering works on experiential pedagogy, effective teachers, counselors, and therapists share three attributes, which Carl Rogers called congruence, empathy, and unconditional positive regard. Congruence means being open, candid, and unshielded. Empathy is the ability to understand another's private world and to communicate that understanding. Unconditional positive regard is being non-judgmental: accepting and valuing what others have to say. When a teacher models these attributes, they are emulated by students, creating an environment in which students undertake the risks of greater self-disclosure and are less focused on competing for recognition or status. "The process becomes a lesson," Thayer explains.
A good instructor should be knowledgeable about the topic of a course, but must also candidly explain to students that it is simply not possible to understand any aspect of our humanity completely. We conceive of the best instructors as informed facilitators and as perpetual students who will forever be learning from students while guiding them. The best answer to a penetrating question from a student may be, "I don't know, so let's think of a way to find out." The best response to an outburst of feelings elicited by course material can be, "I know how you feel, I've been there myself."
Six Skills to Explore
Clarify expectations | Students must be informed of your approach to teaching the course, and of the candor, self-disclosure, and mutual respect that will be expected of them. In the same way as any experiment that involves some risk of stress or emotional pain, students should have an adequate basis for giving their informed consent. They should appreciate the nature and amount of work they will need to do for a course that provokes questions instead of providing authoritative answers. As part of this the instructor must introduce herself fully as a person, as well as a professional; someone who merits trust at a very personal level, not just someone who has earned intellectual respect; a considerate and supportive person as well as someone who is clever and knowledgeable.
Personalize | Use examples from your own experience as often as possible. You may feel distressed or threatened at first. It is much easier to talk in the abstract about child abuse or youth violence than to describe your own trauma as a verbally harassed child or a teenager caught in a violent fight. You must expose your vulnerability and validate your own experience, however traumatic, to set an example and open the way for students to express theirs. The way you talk about yourself will set a pattern for the evolving use of personal experiences in classabove all, for treating everyone's feelings with interest and respect. Encourage students to write using "I" rather than the third person, moreover, and to make explicit comparisons between their own experiences and those of people they read about.
Yield power to students | Engage in active listeningrepeating or rephrasing what students say instead of agreeing or disagreeing with them. Active listening helps students clarify what they are thinking or trying to say, and offers them the opportunity to correct themselves. Consider arranging the classroom in a circle format, rather than the familiar rectangle in which students face the instructor rather than one another. Sit in a different part of the circle every time the class meets, so that you avoid creating an invisible focal point around your chair. Avoid trying to fill every moment with words. Accept a silence as students' opportunity to gather the courage to speak and, if none of them feels secure enough to break the ice, break it first by talking about yourself.
Create safe environments | Students must feel safe enough to express themselves fully, knowing that their self-disclosures will be respected and never repeated outside the classroom. Never pressure students to talk about themselves: it can be a form of violence. A supportive environment will maximize voluntary disclosure without the instructor's prodding. We help students overcome their fears of self-disclosure by assigning them to teams of between four and eight participants, and giving teams tasks such as preparing group presentations and conducting off-campus research, which require cooperation and promote camaraderie. Team activities are ideal settings for students to share their own experiences with a wide margin of emotional safety and with adequate time for probing conversations. Teamwork has been especially useful in breaking down barriers between students of different "racial" and ethnic backgrounds.
Arrange for back-up | A course on violence attracts students who have unresolved feelings about their own experiences with violence. Expect some tears, rage, and appeals for support. Be prepared to listen and to empathize, but also make arrangements well in advance with campus counselors, ministers, support groups and other resources to whom students can be referred when necessary. Involve counselors and "untrained" community members with relevant experience in class sessions, not only to provoke discussions and facilitate student self-disclosure, but to introduce students to people they can individually approach for help in coping with their own feelings and experiences. Adopting a facade of professorial objectivity only intensifies students' distress and frustration, which will be expressed in some other wayoften as course failure.
Everything is data | Your students will be representatives of diverse cultures and communities, and the campus itself is a subculture and community in its own right. Case histories and observational opportunities abound, from date rape and the abuse of official authority to contact sports and violent video games. Encourage students to discover and document violence in their immediate environment and to apply concepts and theories to their everyday activity. At the same time, show students how everything their classmates say and believe, however unfamiliar or offensive it may seem, is also data about some part of our social world. Even ideas which seem patently false and behavior which is morally objectionable deserve to be understood. It is not only good training for students to accept the fact that they live in a world of diverse lived realities, but to learn to be conscious and self-critical of their own world views. They should learn that everything they believe is not Truth, but everything they believe has a source in experience that they can discover.
Grounding and Empowerment | A grounded approach to learning social theory is empowering for students. They become theory builders, rather than passive receptacles of theory and data. They become participants in the scientific adventure and develop a greater emotional investment in and intellectual commitment to research. They also become more conscious of the relevance of social theory to their own lives, and to the issues that concern them the most.
Our approach to teaching about violence, and social science generally, is a radical and controversial departure from mainstream practices in our disciplines. As students, we found authoritarian teaching methods (William Glasser's "certainty principle") to be repressive and frustrating. As teachers, we feel that we have helped at least some of our students learn enough about themselves to break patterns of violence, domination, and oppression in their own lives and become better parents, teachers, healers, and community advocatesas well as fine scholars and writers. We believe, with the Bengali poet and philosopher Tagore, that self-awareness, freedom, and creative thought are inextricable: "Our life, like a river, strikes its banks not to find itself closed in by them, but to realize anew every moment that it has an unending opening towards the sea."
Russel Barsh, an HFG grantee, is Associate Professor of Native American Studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. Chantelle Marlor is a graduate student in sociology at the University of British Columbia completing a study of ethnic relations in Lethbridge.
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