Fall 1996, Volume XII, Number 1
Thinking about Family Violence
By M. Joan McDermott
Like many of the participants in the ABA's 1996 Families and Law conference in Denver, I teach about family violence in an undergraduate liberal arts setting (here I am using the term "family violence" to cover the full range of violence committed by individuals in intimate personal relationships, whether or not these relationships are legally recognized as families or marriages. Thus, I include such topics as violence in gay or lesbian relationships and violence in heterosexual dating relationships, as well as wife battering, child abuse, elder abuse, etc.).
While most of my students are Administration of Justice majors, they vary considerably in the opinions, beliefs, and experiences that they bring to the classroom. Some students enter the class with a kind of talk-show viewers' familiarity with violence in intimate relationships, a strange mix of stereotypes, popular social science, almost prurient fascination with horror, and a conviction that family violence victims are categorically apart -- "others."
For these students -- the viewers, teaching and learning include unraveling stereotypes and developing an appreciation for the complexity of intimate violence and the many ways both love and violence are woven into our culture and everyday lives. At the other extreme, some students will come into the classroom with experience as victims or witnesses of family violence. And since classrooms, unlike talk-shows, are not tell-all productions, these students challenge the teacher to impart understanding and to undo their "otherness," while respecting their silence and confidentiality. Other students, neither viewers nor victims/witnesses, will contribute varying degrees of understanding, empathy, and curiosity.
While I can't begin to address the range of issues that are raised in teaching about family violence, I can share some of my experiences and thoughts on teaching this range of students. I have used several methods to teach about family violence, including posters and videos, community service, fiction, and an array of writing assignments including journals, policy papers, critiques of research, etc.
One of my favorite classroom experiences was a classroom assignment that tied community service to a project (for other examples of exercises, see the sidebar article on "Classroom Exercises for Teaching Gender Issues"). Students were asked to produce a "creative project" that presented a public education or awareness message about spouse abuse and/or community services for victims. Most students designed posters, although a few contributed T-shirts or videos, and all students presented their work in class. Projects were judged by representatives of the local women's shelter and the police department's victim advocate, and then donated to the women's shelter.
As an instructor, I learned three important lessons from this exercise. First, when students are not limited to written expression, they can be remarkably imaginative. Second, some of the best projects -- stunning posters and truly moving videos -- were completed by students who were not exceptional based on traditional academic performance criteria such as tests and papers, and this was their time for recognition. Third, all of us felt good about being able to contribute something to public awareness of domestic violence and shelter services in our community. The community service element of the project, however small, helped diminish the "otherness" of domestic violence victims in our town.
I also like to use fiction in the social science classroom, partly because students receive a needed break in types of reading assignments. More importantly, literature offers a different and richer type of knowing about people's lives, and really good literature teaches us something about humanity by revealing our connections to those lives (see, e.g., Godwin's The Good Husband, 1994, a book that is not about family violence). We read Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) and discuss the book in class. Students are asked to write a short paper, in which they analyze the book from a theoretical perspective of their choice (we draw upon perspectives presented in Gelles and Loseke, 1993). For those interested in psychology, Allison's character Daddy Glen mirrors the psychological profile of family violence perpetrators described in treatment literature (see chapter 6 in Bolton and Bolton, 1987). Other students will analyze Bone's reaction to her victimization, or will discuss the book from a feminist perspective. Another marvelous book, although I have not used it in class, is Susan Koppleman's Women in the Trees (1996), an anthology of short stories on wife battering and women's resistance.
The family violence course at Southern Illinois University is a writing-intensive (or Writing Across the Curriculum) course in the Administration of Justice Department, so I have experimented with different types of writing assignments, some more successful than others. Here I'd like to mention a few things about the use of journals in a family violence classroom.
I ask students to do weekly journal entries that make some connection among the week's reading, classroom discussion and one other thing (another reading, a life experience, a movie, a news item, etc.). I encourage them to write freely and spontaneously, and I emphasize that I will be the only one reading their journals and will respect their confidentiality. Journals are ungraded assignments.
There are upsides and downsides to journal assignments, as every instructor who has used them in the classroom knows. On the one hand, the act of writing freely, with few guidelines and no spell checks, helps us to learn to conceptualize and learn to write. On the other hand, some students never "get it" and others won't put effort into ungraded assignments. But there are additional concerns in a class on family violence. What is the teacher's correct and ethical response when students seize journal-writing as an outlet for personal problems and queries related to intimate violence (which happens with amazing frequency)?
Direct requests for information and referral are easy to meet. I do keep a list of referral agencies and telephone numbers near me when I read students' journals. But most often, students who reveal troublesome details of their personal lives are not asking for referral. What is the teacher's role here? In a few cases, I have made unsolicited referrals to counselors or social service or law enforcement agencies. For the most part, I flounder. I am troubled with the ethics of evoking negative and uncomfortable feelings in students.
Teaching an undergraduate class in family violence does have its rewards. I am always learning with my students, grateful for their insights, and thankful that they miss (most of) my floundering. I appreciate having the opportunity to write about teaching and hope this contributes to conversation on teaching about intimate violence.
M. Joan McDermott is Assistant Professor in the Center for the Study of Crime, Delinquency and Corrections, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL 62901-4504.
Allison, Dorothy (1992) Bastard Out of Carolina. New York: Penguin Books.
Bolton, Frank G. and Susan R. Bolton (1987) Working with Violent Families. Newbury Park: Sage.
Gelles, Richard J. and Donileen R. Loseke eds. (1993) Current Controversies on Family Violence. Newbury Park: Sage.
Godwin, Gail (1994) The Good Husband. New York: Ballantine.
Koppleman, Susan (1996) Women in the Trees: U.S. Women's Short Stories about Battering and Resistance, 1839-1994. Boston: Beacon Press.
Fall 1996 Issue Home | At Century's End | Philosophy & Family Law | Family Law & Policy
Transracial Adoption | Transracial Adoption: Conversation | Book Review | Family Violence
Teaching Gender Issues | Domestic Violence | Mini-Grant Awards
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