Recently, there’s been a lot of conversation about how to navigate difficult subject matter in the classroom. Sometimes this has to do with helping students cope with the reverberations of trauma and/or horrifying world events, and other times it might have to do with engaging with “controversial” subject matter. This particular school year has seemed especially inundated with moments (on a local, national, and global level) in which I’ve felt like I HAVE to talk about what’s going on in class (and if we aren’t meeting that day/week, then via email). This is partially because I want my students to always see connections between what we’re doing in class, but also because I want to (as best I can) provide them with tools to make sense of what’s going on and to survive. To thrive even.
Last year (in its entirety) is basically responsible for the documentary class I’m teaching this semester being thematically focused on crime, justice, and power. We started with The Thin Blue Line (as one does) and have subsequently watched a variety of docs that cover a wide range perspectives and issues related to the theme. Such a focus presents numerous potential challenges, and as I was crafting the syllabus, I often thought about what types of discussions the individual documentaries might elicit, what types of pushback might come up, etc.
In most cases, I’m up for a challenge, but one subject that sometimes gives me pause is the discussion of sexual violence. There are so many reasons why this is the case, including my own personal experiences of engaging in such discussions (both online and in person) and the facts that I know that sometimes there’s a lack of understanding here that might lead to someone saying something that isn’t intended to cause harm but still manages to do so.
So as I developed the syllabus, I tried to think of ways to mitigate these issues. There are clauses on my syllabus about both inclusive language and class content, which I went over on the first day. And throughout the semester, I’ve given reminders when we were engaging with films that I knew might be especially challenging in terms of content. Sexual violence comes up in a few different documentaries that we’ve watched this semester, but it is most especially the focus of Audrie and Daisy and The Hunting Ground.
This is a MWF class, so I’ve structured it so that we generally have readings on Mondays that are about documentary form and/or about the content in the documentary for that given week. They watch the documentaries at home, and we discuss them in class on Wednesdays. I set it up this way for a few different reasons, but particularly because I didn’t want them going into the viewings cold or without context. I figured they would have better understandings of the films with some initial foundation and discussion. The week that they watched Audrie and Daisy, we read and discussed a short reading on consent. For a handful of the readings in the class, students have to write detailed response papers, and this was one of those readings. The students covered a lot of ground in their responses, but a common strain was that the reading made many of them realize how little they knew or had been taught about consent. This also came up in our class discussion of the reading, and as expected, helped to inform their understanding of the film. To my great relief, these discussions all went well.
Still, that success didn’t reduce or remove my anxiety going into this week, which is when we covered The Hunting Ground. As current college students, I imagined that this film might produce some different responses. So as we got closer to this week, I tried to think about how I could localize our pre-film discussion for them so that the reading that they had this week about rape culture might resonate more strongly. Then I remembered that my friend/fellow grad student/awesome teacher, Sam, wrote this a couple years ago when some less than welcoming signs were posted in our town and on campuses across the country: Lessons at BrOhio State, The piece is brief, about as funny as one can be about the given situation, confrontational, and to the point. Once I thought of it, I knew I had to use it. But then I also had the idea to invite Sam to the class to join in the conversation about her post, rape culture, etc.
On Monday, I had the students tease out their understandings of rape culture, and look for connections amongst the definitions. We then turned our attention to looking at several of those move in week signs and discussing what kind of environments they create, who has power in these situations, etc. And Sam specifically led them through some of the most salient points that she wanted to get across, both in her post and in general. (Sidenote: Sam and I teaching a class together is a little bit like a comedy routine with me as the straight man and Sam as the off-the-wall one I have to pull back from the edge).
And on Wednesday, when we discussed The Hunting Ground, it seemed pretty clear to me that my students not only understood the film, but they also had a good sense of the broader content and context. They also very clearly made connections back to issues that were raised when we watched Audrie and Daisy. And the terrible nightmare scenarios that I always imagined in a conversation about sexual violence? They didn’t happen (at least not this time around).
I don’t think the success of this is entirely predicated on how I’ve structured the class. My students are pretty great (I know I’m biased lol). That being said, I do think that this helped to make a challenging topic less challenging. I don’t think that this is going to stop be from being anxious about teaching certain topics/engaging challenging conversations in the classroom, but now I know for sure how fruitful embracing the challenge can be.