For the less sophisticated and experienced students in the
next class (freshmen, many in an honors program), the goal
became to show (a) most violence is routinized, "degrading"
for all involved in both the new military and old moral sense;
(b) the effects, which don't make good visuals, are longlasting
and saddening; (c) the students were more involved, personally,
as agents, victims, and beneficiaries than they might think.
It didn't seem fair to ask students to talk about their own
lives without sharing experiences I had.
Coincidentally, I'd been working with kids in my neighborhood,
escorting a group of girl scouts to meetings, for example.
The kids talked to me, openly or in confidence, about their
lives, often describing routine cruelties that left me feeling
shaken but powerless to intervene, to "fix" things
without doing even worse damage. I realized that I needed
to emphasize how poisonous attitudes like "boys will
be boys" are, the idea that boys are "tough,"
the acceptance of school hazing as "natural," and
the dismissal of children's pain as "childishness."
But the upsetting stories from these kids fed into the disturbing
materials of the class, and vice versa, in an accelerating
Also, for student volunteers, I showed over a dozen movies.
The specificity of movie images helped bring violence to life.
"Farewell My Concubine," e.g., raises the issue
of how much brutalization it is proper to subject children
to so that for a brief period their esthetic or athletic skills
are so wonderful that we are all exalted. One day, after weeks
of talking about violence, because of a scheduling glitch
we saw both "Soldier Child" and "Night and
Fog." I came undone. Solutions to this violence seem
pitiful in comparison with the humdrum daily routine of degradation
and pain. I wept silently. Several students took this as permission
to grieve too, and did.
Commenting on the course, students said they found it disturbing.
They wept after class, they said, had nightmares and obsessive
thoughts. They suggested keeping journals of their feelings
or talking more about feelings in class. I found the class
upsetting too, and didn't want to teach it next semester.
Still, student evaluations were overwhelmingly and enthusiastically
positive, far more so than honors students usually provide.
"Best class I've ever had," for example, and "Everyone
should have to take this class."
Yet another logistical glitch left me teaching this class
once again this semesteroverload. I told the students
I was going to cancel it but, since they'd bothered to show
up, ran a session which got them talking to each other. Then
I said I'd informally tutor two or three students who were
taking the class because they were seriously interested in
violence. I then left the room, so that people could slip
away without worrying about hurting my feelings. When I came
back, no one had left. They petitioned me for the class to
continue, promising to work diligently and to take over as
much of the infrastructural work (xeroxing, scheduling movies,
transporting people who needed it, etc.) as possible. I was
And that allows me, against my normal bias, to suggest a
couple of positives that emerge from these three sessions.
First, these classes attracted an astonishingly wide variety
of people, far more so than other classes I've taught: people
from different majors, classes, ages, ethnicities, politics,
religions; people who agreed with each other about almost
nothing. I'd expected lots of anthropology and American Studies
people: not so. Second, they developed an equally surprising
esprit de corps. These students seem able to cooperate and
respect each other far more than I usually find. I think maybe
these two phenomena reflect the fact, if it is a fact, that
these classes attract people who are really concerned with
understanding violence, serious people, not people seeking
a jolt of violent pornography. The things that divide them
are less important than this common concern. This isn't the
usual random boring mishmash of majors fulfilling requirements
and timeservers looking for convenient times.
So what I want to tell you is: the material is upsetting
and depressing, but the students are a joy to teach.
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