Sunday, June 9, 2013

Experiences in Teaching – The Hardest Lecture of My Life

Last night* I gave the hardest lecture of my life. Perhaps I should have known it would be difficult. Perhaps it is best that I did not, or I may not have ever touched on this topic, as important as it is.

The topic was violence. The assigned reading was a chapter from their textbook on the cultural construction of violence. The week before my students turned in papers on interviews they conducted about identity. Having grown up largely sheltered from any seriously violent conflicts and coming off of grading these papers, I decided the best way for me to prepare for this lecture was to do the assignment myself. So I interviewed an Iraq war vet and presented the interview to my class.

The interview itself was not so hard. The vet was an old friend of mine. Not someone I keep in regular contact with - due to geography - since meeting we've both spent significant time overseas - but someone who always has a friendly smile when we happen to stumble into the same time zone. I asked a few serious questions and we made a lot of jokes and reminisced in between them. He seemed to answer all of my questions with ease, though truth be told, there were a few that I couldn't bring myself to ask.

I took about a page of notes then took these to my class. I felt nervous, like it was my first time lecturing. I handed back papers and did some house-keeping announcements then I sat down on the table in the front of the room to keep myself from shaking while I began to report to my students what this vet had to say about being in combat… and yes, he had seen action.

He told me about how bullets sound depending on how far away they are, about the 6 IEDs that he survived, the camaraderie, and about what it was he was doing over in Iraq. As I relayed his story to my class I found myself quoting him more than I had expected. His words just seemed to flow naturally and the quotes seemed to create a clarity through the cluster of nerves still firing off in my mind.
I chose to discuss Iraq and interview this person in particular because I wanted to make my students think. It is all too easy to point to some other culture and label violence as bad. I wanted them to look at themselves and see the violence in our own culture and thus force them to consider the place of violence in society beyond the obvious questions of morality.

I have to say, I have an amazing class. I've been teaching Anthropology 102 this term. That’s right, 102. These students aren't even anthro majors; the class fulfills general education requirements. They saw where I was going and during the 2nd half of class we had an amazing discussion on how deep the violence goes in our culture. My students brought up the glorification of violence in music, cartoons, movies, football, and we even discussed bullying between children and the role they thought it played in creating this “tough” attitude.

There was a student who left however. It's a 2 1/2 hour lecture, and so half way through we all get a break. At the break he left. To be honest, I was relieved. See, this particular student was, in large part, the reason I was as nervous as I was. His brother, a soldier, had died during that semester.

Of course there was no way of me knowing this was going to happen while I was writing the syllabus before the semester began. By the time I knew … yes, I knew this before I walked into the lecture hall, but … I felt that the topic was important and relevant to the class … and so I decided to go ahead with it. There are a lot of difficulties in life and ignoring them does not make them go away.

There was some discussion before the break, but the student didn't participate. He did however, email me this article about Pat Tillman. (Yes, he emailed it to me during class, but I’m overlooking that part this time.) He told me during the break he was leaving because of something he had to do. I was afraid he was leaving because of the lecture (I had been afraid this whole time of how he would react to it) but I didn't want to push him. For all I know he was telling me the truth, and if he wasn't then he clearly didn't want me to know it.

When I got home that night I read the article. I was in tears by the end.

It is my sincerest wish that I have over the course of this term taught my students something. I don’t care if they understand everything, I just hope that they will walk away from this class with a bit more open-mindedness, understanding, and willingness to question that which our culture deems as “normal”. I wish this now, more than ever, because of all that I have learned from them over this semester in general and last night in particular.

*Not posted in real time.

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