Violence (4/18/14)

So, the Violence class. I’ve wanted to teach a course like this for a while, for two reasons. First, it’s a matter of professional interest to me – especially to look at violence as a phenomenon that cross-cuts issues that are often academically stove-piped (e.g., war, psychology of trauma, domestic violence). Second, it’s an issue that I thought would be of particular interest to our students, and on which they might have some important insights to share.

This past Friday, our topic was sexual violence. We were reading (/should have read) some excerpts from Brison’s Aftermath, along with a USIP Special Report on the motivations of Mai Mai militia members who commit rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Griffin’s “Rape: the All-American Crime.” We’d also just finished a session on “terror,” where we read Scarry’s chapter on torture – with the intent that there would be some links between her analysis of the silencing and identity-destroying effects of torture and those effects of sexual violence on women, particularly the way these effects impact women beyond the class of direct victims of overt sexual violence.

It was a tough class and highlighted some of the ways I feel like I haven’t been able to make this course in general the kind of class it should be.

It wasn’t tough in the sense that it led to hard, painful conversations. Quite the opposite, actually. The one topic that the guys really seemed interested in there was talking about the details of the war (that’s not unusual – my plan over the summer is to note this clear line of interest and teach a class on the Congo wars). For the rest of the time, it was hard to get anyone to talk.

I suspect – though I don’t know – that part of the problem is that this might be a bit too close to home, while at the same time not being close enough to home, for our students. On the one hand, a constant weird dynamic in the class is that I am a student of violence but my life has been largely untouched by it – this is, of course, not the case for a lot of the guys in the class. On the other, Josh and I made a conscious choice not to have a reading that was directly focused on something like prison rape, for fear that it would be too direct an approach for some of the men (we have at least one student we know to be in prison for rape, so that’s pretty direct, but prison rape is a present threat for at least some of them) – despite the fact that it’s a serious problem, with recent statistics indicating that the number of sexual assaults in prisons (mostly of men) is about even with the number of assaults in the entire nation outside of prisons (both are estimated to be on the order of 200,000 per year).

But, mostly, it was me trying to fill time by talking, and a bit of that professorial, “so, do you see Griffin’s argument? Does it make sense to you?” getting vague assent.

In addition, I worry that I have not used this class as a strong enough platform for engaging on the moral issues that are directly relevant. For example, two sessions ago when we talked about the way that militaries maintain themselves, one of the readings was about the idea that masculinity is a social construction intended to make militaries possible. One of our students basically pushed the – horrible – line that women can’t be allowed into the military because then it’s inevitable that men will rape them. Josh and I both tried to bring the student to understand that that was a pretty backwards way of looking at the problem, but given that more students seemed to be nodding along with him than with us, I fear we failed entirely.

I don’t want to remove blame from my teaching style (or from guys not doing all the readings, and so clamming up – perhaps a side effect of making the reading load a bit too heavy for this class). But our hesitancy to go directly after the issue of prison rape may also have been part of the problem. The most fruitful conversation I had was after class had officially ended, with two of the guys in the class who have been in prison longer-term (though, they are also guys with whom I have a longer and deeper relationship than many of their classmates, so that may be part of the equation).

In a nutshell, they told me two things. First, they said that the kind of rape that happens at least in their prison, has changed over the past decade or so. As they described it, it used to be that it was pretty common for sexual predators to straight-up roam the halls and just grab people who might be out of sight of the guards (as a side note, they focused entirely on rape of incarcerated men by other incarcerated men, though the stats I cited above indicate that a huge amount of abuse is by correctional officers). Now, they said, predators had to operate by “trickery,” and described a more common practice as a guy known to be a predator befriending a new guy and convincing him to transfer to share a cell.

Second, when I asked, “so what do you think changed?” their answer was that it was the beneficial effect of the programs that now exist in JCI, like the Alternatives to Violence Project, and the volunteer college courses that we teach. I can’t verify that! But, walking out of a class where I was feeling a bit of a failure as a teacher, it was a nice thought to have.

1 Comment

  1. Phil W

    I would bet that having a relationship with the guys who met with you after the class was key. Also, it seems to me that this is a hard topic to cover, regardless of who’s presenting it.

    I think you’re doing amazing work, and I encourage you to continue.


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