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
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."
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