On sexual assault: letters from the community

Create a mandatory course on gender-based violence

For several semesters in 2010, 2011, and 2012, I taught a large lecture course, at the University of Virginia, on gender-based violence: SOC 2380. Enrollment for the course varied from 100 to 175 students per term. It was a depressing course to teach, and I was never happy teaching it. And yet, the course seemed to help some of the women students enrolled, some in terms of understanding their situation if they were survivors, and also — a hopeful thing — some in terms of how to avoid becoming victims. After its publication, I taught Liz Seccuro’s memoir as one text, among others, for this class.


But the idea that the course was helpful in teaching women students about gender-based violence left a bad taste in my mouth. Because one thing of which I was certain: the course was not changing the perception of gender-based violence amongst male students. Some guys who took the class apparently did so because they were already concerned with what other men did to women, which was of course a good motivation; but some male students apparently enrolled in the class for antagonistic reasons. Unbelievably, I was often interrupted during my lectures by male students who would say out loud and without fear of — or respect for — me as a professor that my statistics were wrong, or that I did not care about men. I would then counter that I was married to a man, which brought laughs. It was a completely absurd situation.

In no other course that I’ve ever taught at UVa has there been that kind of disrespect in the lecture hall. My course evaluations, for SOC 2380, were studded with comments like “She is a man-hating lesbian.” When the class was discontinued, I was filled with relief — also guilt, but profound relief — and that leads to the question of what could be done seriously and for a sustained period of time, by UVa faculty to change the patterns of gender-based violence at UVa.

What could be done? One path would be to make Claire Kaplan’s course on gender-based violence more central, integral, and essential to academics at UVa. She has taught for years an excellent class on gender-based violence, and that class could be a model for an interdisciplinary course that would be mandatory for all first years to take their first semester at UVa. Obviously people in addition to Claire Kaplan would have to begin to teach this course if it were mandatory for all students, but as an interdisciplinary course it could draw from many disciplinary perspectives and so many faculty could teach the course. Pull from the faculties of philosophy, psychology, English, and history to teach an introductory course on gender-based violence. Get male faculty teaching it.

Would such a course really change patterns of student violence? It seems to me that by making it mandatory for every student enrolled at UVa to take a semester-long course on gender-based violence, and by pulling in faculty from across the disciplines to teach such a course, the problem of gender-based violence would receive more light and that might change patterns in the students’ social world. I think we need to get this social problem of gender-based violence out of the enclave of women and gender studies if we are to really affect social change. The problem with the course I taught was that it was a class not seen as central to the curriculum by anyone, including in the end myself. But if the university were to implement a mandatory full-semester course that all students had to take, and that many different faculty had to teach, I think that could begin to shift the ground. It could be the beginning of a real dialogue.

Claire Raymond

Lecturer
Department of Sociology & Program in Art History


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