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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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 class—above 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 listening—repeating 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 way—often 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 advocates—as 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."



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