Grounded, Experiential Teaching about Violence
Russel Lawrence Barsh and Chantelle Marlor
Barsh is Associate Professor of Native American Studies, University of Lethbridge and an HFG Grantee. Marlor is a graduate student in sociology at the University of British Columbia.
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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."

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