Catherine Baker

Archive for the ‘education’ Category

Opening the roundtable: teaching the Yugoslav wars two decades on, in polarised times

These comments are adapted from my opening remarks at the ‘Teaching the Yugoslav Wars Two Decades On’ roundtable at the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies convention today, alongside Fedja Burić, Dragana Cvetanović, Tomislav Longinović, Christian Nielsen and Sunnie Rucker-Chang – thanks to them all and to everybody who contributed their own impressions from the audience.

I originally organised this roundtable and another session with the same title at this year’s International Studies Association conference after writing my introduction to The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and having to think through what I wanted to be able to do in my teaching, what I wanted others to be able to do, and how the contexts have changed since I was an undergraduate and postgraduate in London 8-15 years ago.

It’s a different chronological context and, as has become even sharper since Yugoslav Wars came out, a different political context.

Originally I was going to talk at the roundtable about what it means to teach about the Yugoslav wars in Britain, in the mid 2010s, to students who at Hull are nearly all white and British, and nearly all of what they encounter about Yugoslavia or its successor states in their general lives will have been premised on the idea that Yugoslavia was ‘somewhere else’. 

That Yugoslavia on one hand, and Britain on the other, are part of separate spaces which have been defined by very different historical and political legacies; that Britain is at the centre of how things can be expected to be, and the Yugoslav region was outside that or lagging behind that. 

I’ve always wanted to de-centre that in my own work, probably before I could even put into words that that was what I wanted to do.

In the days before the Brexit referendum and even more so after it, hearing accounts of racist and xenophobic violence and harassment increasing, I had a crisis of confidence. I’m someone whose teaching ought to have contributed to people being able to intervene in the kinds of cycles of polarisation and exaggeration that have been ramped up throughout the campaign. I and dozens of other people teach about the break-up of Yugoslavia and how the mainstream media moved an open politics of ethnic entitlement and resentment into the political centre, where it didn’t have to be.

Does any of it matter? Has anyone stepped back from looking at a UKIP poster or a Labour ‘controls on immigration’ pledge and thought differently about its messages because of the things we do when we teach 20th-century history and international politics? I think so, and I want to think so. But how does anyone know? 

We strive to equip students to see across perspectives they might not have considered; to equip them for acts of everyday resistance to authoritarianism and hatred, and for recognising when there is a call for them; to equip them to account for violent historical legacies without succumbing to ascriptions of collective guilt, and to live in a society where others may have more knowledge than them of the effects those legacies have had.

British public culture exhibits the ‘never again’ reflex in its abstract, every Holocaust Memorial Day, which in Britain annually takes in Srebrenica alongside the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide; and yet the process of the break-up of Yugoslavia from ‘crisis that still feels like business as usual’, to something like the outbreak of full scale war and ethnic cleansing in 1991 in Croatia or 1992 in Bosnia, towards something of the scale of Srebrenica in 1995, is so poorly understood. 

In 2014 I was asked to contribute to a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Hull Guildhall with a talk about the Bosnian Genocide. Rather than mobilising a sense that ‘we’ have to prevent mass violence and genocide ‘there’, I wanted to leave the audience with the question of: if this is how it seemed for Muslims in Visegrad, or for Srdjan Aleksić (the young Serb man in Trebinje who intervened in an act of ethnicised violence by fellow Serbs and saved the victim’s life at the cost of his own), what would the equivalent be for you, for us, here? And when would you know that you were starting to recognise it?

This is part of why I felt a resigned, saddened, but not shocked kind of alarm as the Brexit vote came closer, when I heard that a far right extremist had assassinated an MP, Jo Cox, who had called for Britain to accept more refugees (I thought at once of Josip Reihl-Kir, the moderate police chief of Osijek assassinated in July 1991 who had tried to de escalate violence when that was not in the interest of extremists on either side).

As the US vote came closer, it felt like no coincidence that people like Aleksandar Hemon or Charles Simic were among the first white writers in the US to warn that Trump was not a joke and to warn of what else can become possible very quickly once so racist, xenophobic and violent a register of political speech starts to be normalised. (Another, Sarah Kendzior, is an anthropologist of political repression in Uzbekistan.) 

Knowing historically that 1990 was a turning point for the origins of the Yugoslav wars, but then reading Croatian newspapers from the beginning of 1990 which were not on anything like the crisis footing that they would be, brought home to me as a white English student how fast everyday life could fragment and be turned into something else – the pace of the ‘destruction of alternatives’. 

Understanding that and understanding that Yugoslavia is not some inherently different place from Britain, has left me with part of my back brain that goes: don’t think that authoritarianism or violence can’t happen here.(I’ve written elsewhere about how that intersects with my identity/experience as queer.)

I didn’t live through the Yugoslav wars in any way that affected me, I don’t feel the echoes of the break up in the visceral way that my friends and colleagues do who did, but my window for what can happen in a crisis is closer I think to many of us here than perhaps to many of my colleagues and students in my own department.  

What else then can we achieve by teaching about the Yugoslav wars, as well as educating students about what happened ‘in that part of the world’, because it is about so much more than that? What do we want students to appreciate – what do we want students to be able to see or do differently?

We can teach the skills the public need to be an informed and critical citizen of a democracy; and through what and how we teach, perhaps we can pass on to our students enough of that early warning system that we ourselves have so that they might intervene where they might not have done, so that they might speak out or educate others where they might not have done, so that at least some of the things our early warning system catches might not come to pass.
And as I said at the end of the roundtable: let’s get on and do it.

Written by bakercatherine

21 November 2016 at 12:05 am

How trans and non-binary inclusive was your teaching? Why I’m collecting student perceptions of what their curriculum was like

How often could people who have studied humanities or social sciences say their curriculum had integrated trans and non-binary people and their experiences into the teaching? And how often do educators make sure that students have the opportunity to read work by trans and non-binary authors?

I’m collecting perceptions of trans and non-binary inclusive teaching from people who studied (or are still studying) humanities and/or social sciences in the UK at any point since 2005, in order to inform the teaching I help to develop at my own university and also to help demonstrate to other universities why it matters to have a trans and non-binary inclusive curriculum, and what things in particular people who responded to the survey have seen to work well – or think need to be improved.

The opportunity to do this came up when the last stage of a teaching qualification I’m working towards at Hull (the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice) required us all to do an individual and independent research project. Although the first thing I have to write for the project is an interim report in order to get the PCAP qualification, I wanted to work towards something that could help me test some hypotheses I already had about student perceptions of trans- and non-binary-inclusive teaching, and which could inform work I want to do on helping to improve this in future.

I’m launching an online survey today which will be open until 31 October 2015 for people to respond if they’ve studied humanities and/or social sciences in the UK at any time since 2005. Its focus is on what a trans- and non-binary-inclusive curriculum might be like in practice and how well UK higher education has been providing this so far (in the view of people who respond to the survey). It won’t ask you to identify your university, the subject you studied, or whether you are cis or trans. (And please don’t respond if you’re a current Hull student who I have assessment or pastoral responsibilities over in 2015-16.)

My starting point is that a trans and non-binary curriculum is important, both so that trans and non-binary students aren’t left feeling invalidated by their curriculum and also so that all students finish university better equipped to act in solidarity with trans and non-binary people.

As well as collecting accounts of how trans- and non-binary-inclusive the teaching that people remember might or might not have been – which will be the basis for making recommendations after the survey has finished – there are some more things that I hope the research will test:

  • The Equalities Act 2010 obliged universities and other public organisations not to discriminate against people on the grounds of gender reassignment (though much work against transphobia still needs to be done to eradicate the barriers that trans students face in accessing and progressing through UK higher education – see the work of the NUS LGBT campaign and the ongoing campaign for a full-time, paid NUS trans officer), and the government Equalities Challenge Unit recommended universities should make sure curricula did not reinforce transphobic stereotypes – but will there be any significant difference in perceptions from people who were in higher education before 2010 and people who were/are studying more recently?
  • Is updating the curriculum enough on its own to create teaching that students perceive as trans- and non-binary-inclusive – and if not, what else will respondents think needed to be done?
  • Even if teaching has become more trans-inclusive in general since 2005, what has coverage of non-binary identities and experiences been like?

(I recognise ‘inclusion’ and ‘inclusivity’ are words that don’t in themselves change anything about where the power to include or exclude lies – but I’ve used them in the title of the survey so that what I’m asking about will make sense in a brief way)

The teaching curriculum is only part of a student’s experience at university (and if you take the survey you’ll have an opportunity to express how relatively important you think it is compared to other areas) – but it’s the one that academic staff have the most power to change, so I hope this will complement work against transphobia in other areas of higher education that I try to contribute to as a lecturer and as the current chair of my university’s LGBT network for staff.

After the survey closes, the first thing I’ll do is to write up the project report for my qualification (this will be based on the first 30 responses if the total is higher than that), but then I want to take more action based on what the findings turn out to be:

  • At my own university, I’ll discuss them with the Staff LGBT Network, the Hull University Union LGBT+ group and the University’s Equality and Diversity Office
  • I’ll write them up for a peer-reviewed article which I’ll submit to an academic journal in the field of higher education, to help support other academics and students who are advocating for trans and non-binary inclusivity in teaching (when academic citations can be useful backup sometimes). If it’s accepted, this will be available through the Hull digital repository and my own page
  • I’ll liaise with some young people’s trans organisations and the NUS LGBT campaign on whether I can help work that they do, and what ways of presenting the recommendations would be most useful for them
  • I’ll use my position to approach academics who might not normally think about trans and non-binary issues, for instance by giving presentations in teaching and learning streams of my subject associations.

If you’d like to be kept informed about reports or articles that I write as a result of the survey, please email me at (whether or not you’re also taking the survey) and I’ll update you as and when they happen.

The survey itself is available at and will be open for responses until the end of 31 October 2015 (GMT). There’s more information for potential participants on the first page of the survey so please read it carefully before deciding whether you want to take part.

In case this post reaches people who don’t usually read this blog

I’m a lecturer in 20th century history at the University of Hull and I’m also currently the chair of the university’s staff LGBT network. Most of my research is on the Yugoslav wars and their aftermath, though I also have wider interests in the politics of popular culture and nationalism and in overcoming structural exclusions that make higher education less accessible that it should be. I’m not quite sure of the best way to describe my gender identity even though it deserves to be mentioned in a post like this (I don’t feel detached from female pronouns but I don’t like people feminising my name too much), but the most accurate way for me to describe the social position my gender gives me would be to say that I’m a cis woman. Most of the research articles I’ve published are available online and I also write about my research interests semi-regularly on this blog (including a collection of posts on feminism and gender). I’m also active on Twitter as @richmondbridge.

Written by bakercatherine

1 October 2015 at 12:30 pm

Introducing ‘The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s’: why like this, why now?

After a little bit more than two years of preparation, my introduction to The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s is about to be available (at least in Europe, where it’s being published on 7 August; North America has a publication date of 21 August) – much more quickly than I’d originally expected when I submitted the manuscript in December 2014, but Palgrave were keen to make it available in time for the new academic year and with hard work from their editors and typesetters that’s what’s happened.

Cover of 'The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s'

Now in a bookshop near you! Or at least I hope so.

I’ve written before on this blog about how I went about planning the book and what it contains, but now readers are about to be able to use it for themselves I ought to say something about what I hope the book will make it possible for people to do.

It might be counter-intuitive in an introductory text, but for me the most important rationale of writing the book has been: make it a book that encourages people to read more books. I really hope this won’t be the one and only thing somebody reads – and I hope I’ve conveyed the importance of following up books that sound as if you’ll disagree with them, as well as books that sound as if they’ll confirm your point of view or your way of looking at the past.

That said, there are people for whom it might be the first book on the Yugoslav wars that they read, or for whom it’ll be the first one with academic authority that they turn to in order to fill in the context behind what they’ve heard about the wars through news, entertainment or travel. This is a huge responsibility, but it’s the same one that I face multiple times a year along with anyone else who finds themselves structuring a course of learning: defining a subject of knowledge (what is there to be known about? what is and isn’t relevant?), ordering that into a coherent structure so that readers or learners are progressing through something, and doing that in such a way that they’re able to articulate their concepts of the topic and what kinds of questions they can ask about it. Only this time, it’s scaled up.

There’s also the question of who the hell am I to write this book – someone whose own specialist research has been on potentially tangential aspects of the wars and their aftermath (like national identity in popular music, or the international politics of the Eurovision Song Contest, or how peacekeeping forces get their translation and interpreting done). My research monographs haven’t been on questions of hard political and military fact that have to be established in determining individual guilt and responsibility, and I’m still earlier in my career than many of the people whose books are in the bibliography. (Yet I’ve been able to have the confidence that this book came about because the series asked me if I either knew anyone who could write the book or could do it myself, and I’d spent too long (ever since my first academic year of teaching in 2007-8) thinking about ‘what I’d want an intro text on the Yugoslav wars to do that no available book actually did’ to pass up the opportunity to try and tailor one to all the potential kinds of users that I was aware of.

And in a way, maybe it’s a strength of the book that it isn’t written from a position where the author takes ultimate academic authority about all aspects of the topic on themselves (even though the book still has to have the authority of organising this knowledge, which is a profound form of power to be exercising). I’m at the start of my career, not the end; I can’t take that position anyway. On most topics I need to cover, the experts are someone else more than me; I’m actively participating in taking research in south-east European studies forward (so I’ve been able to write the book with a feel for what’s happening in the subject area right now), but so are most of the people who are cited in the 400+ entries of the bibliography. And moreover, I don’t want a reader’s answer to ‘How do I know this?’ to just be ‘Because she said so.’

(Even if that’s still a novelty compared to ‘Because he said so.’ There are 35 other books in this series listed on the inside front cover of Yugoslav Wars, including people whose books were set texts for me when I was studying (Jeremy Black, William Doyle) or whose modules I took (David Stevenson), and apart from Karin Friedrich and Mary Fulbrook the authors of all the other books are male. It’s an eminent and almost disconcerting set of names to look at, especially when your surname is Baker and until the series commissions a book by someone whose name begins with A you’re going to be alphabetically top of the list – directly above Black, T C W Blanning, John Breuilly and Peter Burke, to make the list of contributors even more dizzying.)

But then, the most difficult parts of the book have been where I need to steer the reader towards evidence about what can be stated as fact – for instance, the horrific forensic evidence from mass graves around Srebrenica, as painstakingly collected since 1996 by the International Commission on Missing Persons (and despite the efforts there have been to interfere with their work by trying to argue down the number of casualties or even disturbing the graves). There’s an awful lot of misinformation around: being able to understand how narratives and interpretations are made to compete with each other is one thing, but will the reader be better equipped to see through deliberate attempts to mislead after they’ve read this book?

And another strength of the book is maybe that, of course, I don’t think the topics I’ve researched are marginal to understanding the Yugoslav wars at all – or rather, that I’ve been able to demonstrate they all have something to say about the much wider question of what is relevant to know about war, conflict and identity. Understanding how musicians, journalists and the public dealt with issues of national identity in popular music helps to show how far the struggles to redefine Croatian national identity during and after the Yugoslav wars reached into everyday life as well as the more obvious communicative sites of political speechmaking and the news. Suggesting why the national broadcaster of newly-independent Croatia was so intent on participating in the Eurovision Song Contest can help in understanding how people actually apply and create discourses of national and European identity and how these might have been transforming after the Cold War. Emphasising how dependent peacekeeping forces were on locally-recruited language intermediaries and how interpreters negotiated the aftermaths of war and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism reveals power relationships in wartime and post-conflict society that had been taken for granted even in earlier peacekeeping research.

So the book has a chapter on ‘Culture and Languages During and After the Wars’ not just because rounding up the key debates on this topic automatically makes the book more useful in languages and literature departments (it does, though!) but because my position as a researcher has always been we can’t understand the full reach of the wartime politics of nationalism without going into these areas. There’s a chapter on ‘The Past on Trial’ not just so that the book might appeal more to scholars who are planning a comparative research project on transitional justice and need a quick introduction to the Yugoslav Wars (although that’s still a need I hope it meets), but because as someone who wants to understand the political lives of narratives, I can see (along with the historians whose very recent publications on the ICTY made this chapter possible) the contested findings and processes of the ICTY and national courts raise profound questions about the production of historical knowledge itself.

I could fall back here on many historians (in social history, cultural history, gender history, global history…) who have striven to take the study of war beyond the battlefield and the negotiating table, or (to take one very recent statement of a position like this) on Christine Sylvester’s position in War and Experience that ‘war should be studied as a social institution’, the kind of thing that ’emerge[s] over time and dominate[s] alternative ways of living to such a degree that they seem normal and natural, or at least unavoidable’ (p.4): to paraphrase Sylvester’s list, it’s the myths and the narratives and the peacetime practices and the weapons research and the religious teachings and the popular cultural representations, as well as the troop movements and the consequences of combat. All this would be part of a whole layer of texts that space prevented me fitting into the introduction yet that have shaped how I wanted to approach writing the book – in other words, works that have shaped my understanding of what things are worth knowing about war.

Nevertheless, the book has limitations, beyond the ones that I can re-cast as perverse strengths, such as the restricted word count – books in the series have a limit of 50,000 words, but then knowing I wouldn’t be able give an exhaustive account of any single aspect of the conflicts was counter-intuitively what made it feasible for me to think about writing it at all. I can’t cover the minutiae of any of the many disputes in the literature that there have been; the best I can do on that score is try to indicate where works have been in direct conflict with each other.

In order to make the word count, I also cut back the long-term historical background by almost a half at a late stage, and compressed the complexity of a lot of my discussion of interpretations of the past before 1918, so that the rest of the chapters would fit. So there’s exciting new work on, for instance, nationalism, ethnicity, language and religion in the late Ottoman/late Habsburg period; or the politics of the first Yugoslav state between the World Wars; or on the history of socialist Yugoslav feminism and its implications for understanding women’s movements worldwide; that the reader isn’t going to get to hear about or where I haven’t been able to let the writing slow down and ask the reader to think about what these historians might be trying to do.

No doubt it’s also going to dissatisfy specialists in other ways. Almost every sentence of the book relates to something that there are whole books about; I’ve had to condense arguments and pick out details while striking a balance between what existing publications have collectively constructed as important and what I can add in order to suggest how frameworks for understanding the wars could still expand. None of this is innocent or value-free work. I go back, again, to David Campbell’s 1998 review article ‘MetaBosnia‘, which compared how many of 32 events between 1990 and 1992 a number of published books on the Bosnian conflict had mentioned or left out. (And those 32 events were themselves the active selection of an author, of course.) Campbell suggested the deepest understanding of the past would have to come from reading multiple accounts, and I tend to agree even though it’s always possible to say (within the framework of the political and intellectual standards anyone has acquired) that some accounts are more comprehensive or rigorous than others. Nevertheless, part of understanding the past is seeing how disagreement about interpreting it works, and one has to look at multiple accounts in order to be able to do that.

There’s a politics of knowledge behind everything I choose to mention or omit – when I say to myself ‘that has to be in there’ because the account would be incomprehensible without it, or it would simply feel unethical (except that ethics aren’t ‘simple’) to leave it out; when I say to myself ‘put this in because most accounts wouldn’t think to mention it and it will help to make this my book’; when I choose to take one recent publication as a worked example of how researchers try to create new historical interpretations from fresh evidence, rather than another; when I don’t even view something as relevant enough to add it to my notes at planning stage, or when I reluctantly decide one week from deadline that it’s just going to have to go. I’ve at least tried to be transparent about where and how I have simplified – though I could drill down into almost every sentence and show that something more ought to be there.

The limitation I’m most conscious of, and where I still don’t think I’ve done a good enough job, comes from the politics of translation that have structured what work I was able to cite for an anglophone reader. If the reader can only be expected to have access to sources written in English, there are too many occasions where I could only cite an article or book chapter by someone whose book-length research published in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian has been agenda-setting, and one or two occasions where the citation I needed wasn’t available in English translation yet at all. This isn’t good enough. In future I need to see what I can do to help make more research from the post-Yugoslav region available in translation – I’ve brought this up as a problem for years when writing book reviews, but maybe I’m getting to be in a structural position where I could help change that. I didn’t centre the untranslated work enough in this one, and I think I got it wrong.

All that said, it still offers something that other books don’t – beyond, hopefully, what comes simply from having been written now, rather than in the late 1990s or immediately after the Kosovo War. (Although there is that too.) It shows how the contestation involved in historical research and representation is woven together with the very act of trying to be able to say something of what happened in the past; and using an authorial voice which is sometimes openly uncertain with the reader about how best to approach something still feels relatively unusual for an intro text, which I think is something distinctive about the book as well. For instance, how radically can or should one try to ‘deconstruct’ the idea of ethnicity or ‘denationalise’ history when people who have been persecuted as ethnic subjects demand to be recognised on that same basis? I don’t think it has a simple answer – indeed in different publications I’ve gone about it different ways myself – and the book certainly hasn’t found one, but I hope it’s something that the reader will be able to close the book and think about.

This ought to be leading up to a promotional message of ‘read the book’. But what I want to say is: read the book, and then read other books, and do things with the book, and recognise where limits of the book are (both the ones I’ve told you about and the ones that I was still too close to it to see). Don’t let me have the final word for you.

All right. Now read the book.

Written by bakercatherine

7 August 2015 at 10:04 am

Disturbing material in the classroom: on content notes and trigger warnings in teaching

Researching and teaching about the Yugoslav wars means that, for more than a decade, I’ve been coming into contact with horrific material on pretty much a weekly basis. During my PhD, when I spent months reading Croatian newspapers from the 1990s, I was confronted almost every day with photographs of dead or wounded bodies, or newspaper testimonies about people’s suffering during the 1991-95 wars. Some of the documentary sources and academic studies that I assign when I teach about my specialist area, likewise, can contain a level of horror that these days I take as part and parcel of my work but which might be unexpected to students learning about this moment in history for the first time.

Alternatively – and here’s where it gets even more difficult for teachers – it could be all too much like something from their own lives.

For this reason, I’ve been following the debates about whether and how teachers ought to warn students about uncomfortable topics with particular interest. There have been articles by university educators all year about requests that students at some US universities have made for instructors to warn them in advance about material which could be upsetting to read or watch, especially when it covers topics such as suicide or rape. (And please be aware, if this matters to you, that I will discuss those in some more depth as I go on.)

This academic year, Oberlin College introduced a resource guide advising teachers to provide content notes or ‘trigger warnings’ to make classrooms as inclusive as possible for survivors of sexual violence, then rolled it back after journalists and some of Oberlin’s own staff criticised it as an attack on academic freedom. Meanwhile, the student senate at the University of California, Santa Barbara passed a resolution asking tutors to note content on their syllabi that might have an adverse effect on students with PTSD if they encountered it without being able to adequately prepare themselves.

The thinking behind these requests is about more than students just being ‘upset’, and recognises that, after someone has experienced trauma, certain sensory reminders of what happened can (though not ‘will’) make the brain prepare to experience it all over again. The term ‘trigger warnings’ originated from online communities formed by survivors of abuse and violence, where users warning each other about the content of posts made it more possible for people in a community to have discussions with each other.

It’s existed for long enough in social media and online fandom that some students in a contemporary classroom would have known about the convention of trigger warnings in those spaces before they ever came to class – which means that in one respect the whole current discussion about trigger warnings in teaching is part of a wider context about the digital literacies and textual practices that students may be bringing to the classroom now, and there’d be a lot of scope for educationalists to think further about this.

‘Warning: this report contains flashing lights’

The Oberlin and Santa Barbara cases made national news in the USA, and commentators who already disliked trigger-warning culture online saw the Oberlin/Santa Barbara demands through the same lens. Academics who blog have been discussing them extensively online ever since: the Chronicle of Higher Education website, for instance, has featured several posts arguing that trigger warnings are a form of censorship that insulates students from having to deal with the harsh world outside, as well as posts by instructors disagreeing with them because the impact of trauma on the body deserved to be taken seriously.[1]

However, even before this year, educators had already been confronting the problem of what to do about disturbing content: the American Philological Association, for instance, held a roundtable about teaching about rape in classical literature in 2009, and Liz Gloyn has written thoughtfully about how this has played into her teaching on Ovid.  (She’s also had a teaching note on the same topic in Classical World, which has a version without subscription here.)

Gloyn makes the point that, statistically, tutors should expect that every class will contain students who have experienced sexual violence: with numbers like these, it stops being a case of ‘what if’ material like some of what I teach affects a student personally, and starts being a case of how do I anticipate and mitigate the possible impact it could have.

The idea of giving a heads-up about upsetting content isn’t even an internet-age invention. In the UK at least, broadcasters have been using warnings for years – for instance, alerting viewers to disturbing images about to come up in news footage. After programmes that have represented topics such as abuse, eating disorders or suicide, they generally provide information about resources for viewers who might need support after recalling their experiences while watching the programme.

Perhaps the most direct parallel to content notes in teaching is with warnings about flashing lights. (Indeed, I have to remember to give one of these in class every time I show excerpts from the opening ceremony of London 2012.) It’s more and more widely accepted that television/stage audiences need to be advised about flashing lights in performances because they can set off seizures in people who are photosensitive. This is literally a ‘trigger warning’ – anticipating a harmful consequence because of a known risk, and advising viewers so that they can use their awareness of how it affects them and decide how to manage it.

Some theories and practices of content warnings

The most recent long academic post on content notes and trigger warnings is Jack Halberstam’s, which I’ve seen being both praised and critiqued all weekend. (My own thoughts on it are going to be much more by way of critique, not praise.) Halberstam argues that accusations of speech being ‘triggering’ are used to shut down discussion, and as such are ‘neoliberal rhetoric’. More broadly, he argues that the contemporary left has been distracted by ‘identity politics’ which emphasise individual trauma and offence.

Halberstam posits a curious generation gap between his generation of queer activists in the academy and the students they teach, and ultimately suggests that the individual demand to be able to feel safe will lead communities into complicity with state power and oppression, although I have to say that at this point I struggled with the analogy: is every student really in the same structural position inside and outside the academy (where, let’s not forget, most of them are paying for their tuition) that gentrifying white gay activists have held in relation to US urban space?

(His article dismisses, in particular, trans women who have asked other queer people not to use the T-word. Yet, as Morgan Collado, a trans Latina poet and writer, explained in response to his post, ‘The t-slur is used to dehumanize trans women, specifically trans women in the sex trades, and is justification for our murder […] The way Jack frames the problem as trans women being divisive by telling non-trans women to stop using the t-slur shifts the focus off the people who are actually being oppressive, namely Jack.'[2] It’s also worth reading Julia Serano’s response to Halberstam on the generational politics of US queer activism.)

The objection to content warnings which has given me most pause for thought is Brittney Cooper’s, which is much more attentive to the power dynamics inside and outside classrooms than many of them have been (and certainly much more than Halberstam’s has been):

[P]art of what we as educators, parents and students have to recognize is that classroom spaces in which difficult topics like trauma, rape, war, race and sexuality are discussed are already unsafe. When students of color who have endured racism have to hear racially insensitive comments from other students who are in the process of learning, the classroom is unsafe. The classroom is unsafe for trans students who are often referred to by the wrong gender pronoun by both students and teachers. The classroom is unsafe for rape survivors who encounter students in the process of learning why getting drunk at a party does not mean a woman deserves to be raped.

But learning about these topics are all necessary forms of education. […] Overwhelmingly students let me know at the end of each semester that though the discussions were hard, they are glad we had them.  Trigger warnings might have scared these students away from participating in discussions that they were absolutely capable of having. And in that regard they do more harm than good. So for the sake of my students, you won’t find them on my syllabi.

Cooper is concerned that students with ideological objections to material could use institutional mechanisms to have a reading removed or cause problems for instructors. In particular, she is anxious that students could get out of examining their own prejudices and privileges by saying they had been ‘triggered’ by material that challenged them.

All this is possible, which is why mandating them could be counter-productive. But there are still ways for content warnings to be good practice, if they’re understood not as censorship but as facilitation (or even, as Andrea Smith suggests based on her work in Indigenous social movements, as part of a collective rather than individual approach to reducing harm).

Sayantani Dasgupta, a practitioner of storytelling and medicine, takes this view in explaining why she’s used them in her classes (though she isn’t responding to Cooper, but to bloggers who have objected to trigger warnings much less thoughtfully):

[P]reventing little Johnny, José, or Jamila from getting a tad misty-eyed in a classroom is not, ideally, what trigger warnings are about. With their roots in the feminist blogosphere—where writers often want to give readers warnings before discussing explicit situations of sexual violence—trigger warnings in classrooms are about acknowledging that each student has her or his own specific life history, family context, identity, body—and that these realities have an impact on how a student understands and interacts with texts. […]

[D]oes my use of trigger warnings in the classroom mean I think my students are weak? Not at all. Rather, it’s because I respect my students, and know that they all come with varied life experiences of which I know only a fraction. Who in my class has a brother who was killed in a homophobic attack? Who in my class survived a sexual assault last year, last month, last week? Who in my class fled their homeland as a result of ethnic cleansing? I don’t always know, but I do know that my students did not somehow hatch, fully grown, the moment they entered my class. Rather, they live complex lives outside of my classroom, lives which bring richness to our collective learning.

The day after I originally published this post, the therapist Meg Barker posted a long essay that tries to get beyond a binary of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ content notes and trigger warnings by thinking through what they can open up and close down:

Perhaps the main point of trigger warnings is to open up the possibility for people to determine what they engage with, when and how. The idea is that, if we provide people with a brief overview of the kinds of topics and issues they are going to be confronted with (in a novel, a movie, a lecture, or a workshop, for example), then they can make an informed decision about whether they wish to engage with it or not. Advocates of trigger warnings regard this as a form of consensual practice, and a good way of modelling, and enabling, a more consensual culture than we currently have. It is also a potential way of recognising the structural constraints around agency. Not all people are as free as others, and one key limit on our freedom are the scars left by experiences of discrimination and oppression. Trigger warnings are one way of giving people greater agency within the structural limits on this. […]

However, there is also the potential – of course – for this approach to close down possibilities as well as opening them up. One risk is that, if taken too rigidly, we start to divide the world in binary ways between the powerful people who get to give trigger warnings, and the powerless victims who require them. […] This potential alerts us again to the risks in line-drawing between traumatised and non-traumatised, oppressed and non-oppressed. Perhaps instead it points us towards recognising the inevitability of traumatic experience during a person’s life, and the complex net of intersecting oppressions in which each person is located.

I have used content notes in teaching when necessary, and would certainly encourage other teachers to think about using them, because I take the view that when they’re used as part of a holistic approach to learning they can make students more able to participate rather than less. (I don’t use the specific wording ‘trigger warnings’, because if students haven’t heard the phrase before it might distance them from thinking about what’s in the note.)

I could still put them in a more prominent place – next year, I’ll try to – and I’m still experimenting with how best to actually run the sessions on the most difficult topics.

It obviously isn’t just the Yugoslav wars where these problems arise in teaching History: anyone teaching a first-year survey course on the 20th century, for instance, will have students who are reading, hearing and seeing more detailed depictions of the Holocaust than they will have done before. Dasgupta’s reminder about bearing in mind what students and those close to them might have experienced is one that every educator needs to think about.

So what can I do?

My own starting point for thinking about disturbing material and teaching is that other people know their own personal circumstances, and the psychological and physical effects those have on them, better than I do. Yes, there could be occasions when my research and professional experience might make me aware of a piece of context around what someone has experienced that they might not have thought about already. That still doesn’t translate into me knowing better than they do about how they actually sense it affecting them.

By defending content warnings, I don’t mean to imply that certain topics are too harmful to be taught. Quite the opposite. One of the most interesting new books on post-Yugoslavia that I’ve seen this year, for instance, has been Elissa Helms’s Innocence and Victimhood: Gender, Nation, and Women’s Activism in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. It hadn’t come out when my Yugoslavia module began last year, but in this year’s module we could potentially do more with it.

Large sections of Innocence and Victimhood are about the activism of Bosnian women who were raped during the 1992-95 war, and how war rape has been used for political point-scoring (by Bosniak nationalists, and by Western liberal feminists). I’d like students to be able to understand Helms’s argument about gender, nation and narratives about collective victimhood in contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’d also like them to appreciate an even broader point she makes, which is that in order to understand the post-Yugoslav present we need to consider the effects of wartime violence and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism. Clearly, I’m not going to say that we can’t ever use this book because it discusses rape.

Yet if students are confronted with this material unexpectedly (and Helms’s writing is much less graphic or emotive in this respect than some of the earlier scholars she critiques), is there a risk that some of them wouldn’t be able to finish the reading or even participate in the class? That would work against my objectives as an instructor,  and so I ought to do the best I can to mitigate it.

(And of course Innocence and Victimhood is only one of many books on the Yugoslav wars where this would come up. Dubravka Žarkov’s book The Body of War, for instance, is a critical study of the wartime Croatian and Serbian media, examining exactly the kind of imagery that I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post; but in order to make her argument she needs to illustrate what was shown.)

The other reason I’m sympathetic to student-driven demands for content warnings is that, as teachers, we want students to be thinking deeply about what they’re learning. Being able to make serious proposals about changes to teaching means that students must have thought about what the content, structure and methods of teaching already are and how those knits together into a system of knowledge.

Last year, for instance, economics students at Manchester formed a society that called for a revised Economics syllabus with a greater and more critical range of theoretical frameworks, and SOAS students have similarly written a report asking for gender analysis to be integrated into Politics and Development teaching. To me, this is evidence of precisely the kind of critical thinking that the humanities and social sciences strive to develop, even though they’re uncomfortable situations for a department to be in.

Angus Johnston, a historian of US student activism, writes that after this year’s controversies, he’s decided to use content notes in his syllabi where appropriate – not in any way to change the way he teaches, but to clarify the approach that he already has. This is the way that I’d see content notes as well, and next year I’ll probably expand mine along his sort of lines to try and say more about what I aim for my teaching to be like. The purpose isn’t to signal to certain students that some of the module content ought to be off limits for them; rather, it’s to continue to meet the stated outcomes for everybody’s learning while making the material as accessible as I can.

[1] This has been continuing since I wrote the original version of this post on 6 July, so some of the links in this post now point to articles that appeared after the 6th.

[2] In the first version of this post I linked to Liam Bechen’s response at this point as a critique of this part of Halberstam’s argument. Collado’s post has appeared in the meantime and I’ve worked it into my text because she’s someone who has been directly harmed by the slur that Halberstam argues isn’t a problem. It’s also worth reading Tobi Hill-Meyer’s response to Halberstam which provides some more context about the specific incident Halberstam was referring to in that section.

Written by bakercatherine

6 July 2014 at 6:33 pm

Starting to think about teaching about privilege

I happen to be starting the teaching part of my new job at the same time I’ve really started to think about how little compulsory, white-majority formal education teaches learners about privilege. It’s come to mind in several online discussions over the past few weeks, and I began forming more structured thoughts when a friend of mine asked this question a couple of days ago: why do the writers and artists whose work she enjoys often turn out to have said or done problematic things?[1]

An interesting discussion about authorial intent and the work of reading had already started by the time I came to the discussion. My immediate reply was, in essence: Because a lot of people in general aren’t equipped to be able to recognise their privilege and don’t know how to react constructively when it’s brought to their attention. Why would the creators of texts be any different?

And then I started to think about the awkward and hurtful situations that compulsory education does equip young people to deal with, why being called out about privilege isn’t one of them, and how it could be.

Teachers, parents, and other adults in formal or informal authority model the behaviour that they want to see in children. The chances are, most people reading this who ever went to communal play sessions at creches, friends’ houses, kindergartens and so on will have had the experience of making another child cry and not understanding what we did wrong. It was the adults in charge who explained (sometimes calmly, sometimes not so calmly) what we had done, and giving us glimpses of a wider web of social norms behind the immediate incident. We don’t bite other people. At playgroup we share our toys. We don’t put all the chocolate biscuits straight on to our plate.

(Disclaimer: I work in higher education, not early years education: I don’t know what current research into childhood learning has to say on this. I will make a fair guess it probably doesn’t approve of taking all the chocolate biscuits.)

Until compulsory education starts, what children learn about social interaction is up to their carers and other adults their carers have brought them into contact with. School operates to put down a baseline, however children have been taught until then. This is why we have subjects such as (what the English national curriculum calls) personal, social and health education, citizenship, and after a certain age sex education.

These days, part of this includes teaching about difference, in ways that are worked right through the curriculum. The current National Curriculum standards for teaching citizenship in England begin, at Key Stage 1, with four areas of knowledge, skills and understanding including ‘Developing good relationships and respecting the differences between people’, at the same time as teaching about fairness/unfairness and why teasing and bullying are wrong. Tolerance and the fair treatment of others are, clearly, an integral part of citizenship education. As they should be.

But maybe there are some problems with the idea of tolerance when you break it down a bit. (I have in mind several critiques of tolerance in the social sciences, particularly Wendy Brown’s book Regulating Aversion and comments by Stef Jansen in some of his research (PDF) on cosmopolitanism in former Yugoslavia.[2]) One of them could be that it ‘reifies’ difference – that is, it makes difference out as a Thing that is just There, without needing anyone to ask about how it got like that. Another is Wendy Brown’s idea that being tolerant depends on being able to point to some intolerant Other whom, as a society, we tell ourselves that we’re not like. A third is that it assumes that everyone in that social relationship is equal. Equal in worth, yes. But equal in terms of power?

Obviously that’s not the case. So there are matters of privilege that a tolerance framework may not deal with very well.

The easiest entry point for thinking about privilege is often the idea of a privilege ‘checklist’. Peggy McIntosh’s essay ‘White privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack‘ listed fifty daily effects of white privilege that she had identified in her own life, from items such as ‘When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is’ to ‘I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection’. Further writers have adapted the format to speak about other dimensions of privilege, such as male privilege or cissexism. McIntosh used the ‘invisible knapsack’ metaphor to highlight the ways in white people are taught not to be aware of the advantages their privilege gives them:

I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.

A few months ago, John Scalzi updated the metaphor for a generation who have grown up with gaming by comparing privilege to playing The Real World on the lowest difficulty setting.

Both pieces have their flaws – Jacob Faber, for instance, points out that the McIntosh essay masks the structural and historical effects of privilege by talking only about interpersonal relationships. Checklists can create the false impression that each form of privilege is the same as every other. They can get used as scorecards in an Oppression Olympics. But maybe pieces like these by authors who are learning about their own privilege still have some value as initial, partial introductions to the idea (although I’d strongly prefer to have a better historicised version of the McIntosh list on hand). They’re also probably where many learners who get their information online will start, at least for now.

It’s very easy for people who consider themselves socially conscious to speak from a position of privilege and not realise that they’re doing it. That very speech may well cause extra harm, by denying and invalidating someone else’s identity or experiences. I know that I’ve done this in the past, and I know there’s a continued – though I hope lessened – risk of me doing it in the future.

(Of course, it’s also easy to speak from a position of privilege, know that you are doing it, and to intend to cause harm. That behaviour in a way is easier to challenge.)

The question then becomes: what’s the right thing to do when someone tells you what you’ve done?[3]

Shut the fuck up and listen, as it tends to be phrased online, is a good start.

Not to be defensive, to justify yourself, to shut down the person speaking to you, or to try and explain what you really meant was something else. To listen. And then to accept you may be under more scrutiny for how you talk about that issue in the future; that there are trust relationships you may have to rebuild over time, being judged on your actions; that sometimes those relations can’t go back to being what they were, and that the power to determine that doesn’t belong to you.

It’s an important skill in order to move through society in a more ethical way. I’m thirty and I feel as if I’m only just getting to grips with it. I’ve been in situations in the last few years that I know I would have handled differently several years before because I just had no damn idea about what goes on. What I’ve absorbed, I’ve absorbed from some of the important friendships in my life, through my everyday online reading practices, and through literature, such as the way that N K Jemisin and David Anthony Durham handle godly and royal characters in their speculative fiction.

The social script for what you ought to do is quite simple, really. But it’s missing from how we institutionally teach young people about growing up.

No teacher ever brought a video into any classroom I was in and started a discussion about how we should deal with the privilege in our own lives. I don’t even know what that video would look like. Though maybe it would have a dog and a gecko in it.

I don’t want to imply that all teachers fail to teach about privilege. Of course some teachers do it already. A few of my teachers did it, in their ways. And the view from other schools will be very different to the view from the privileged, white-majority, middle-class schools I was educated in. Of course teachers are teaching about this already. But education seems not to. There are very powerful structural reasons – such as the idea of education as a mechanism for the reproduction of privilege – that might begin to explain why not.[4]

I shouldn’t be thirty and only just working this out.

Though what gives me hope is that so many of the people I’ve learned, and am still learning, about this from are younger than me.

[1] On being a fan of problematic things: an essay called ‘How to be a fan of problematic things‘ is a good introduction to thinking critically about the texts we like. I first noticed it during a blogosphere controversy over the depiction of sexual violence in Game of Thrones, but it applies to practically any medium and genre.

[2] Thanks to Teddy Noel-Hill for reminding me several weeks ago of some class discussions about this.

[3] Thanks to @marxroadrunner on Twitter for a much more in-depth link.

[4] And this would become yet another post. bell hooks, Henry Giroux and Paul Willis are three of the writers I’d currently turn to first if I was putting that together.

Written by bakercatherine

26 September 2012 at 4:51 pm

Posted in education, teaching

Tagged with

‘Ethnic banter’: or, when revision and critical pedagogy collide

Like many teachers, I feel I’ve achieved most in the classroom when students’ learning goes outside the classroom – when what we do in class retains some meaning even after the assessments are over and even in contexts of non-learning/non-work. Teaching across institutions and disciplines this year, I’ve been lucky to observe this happen, or help to make it happen, in several ways: seeing students who have travelled to study in London reflect on their own countries’ national identities or security narratives; hearing undergraduates shift independently from a seminar discussion on whether the public in Milosevic’s Serbia had to agree with the messages of turbo-folk lyrics to take pleasure in the music, into a discussion of whether one can appreciate Chris Brown’s songs without condoning his misogynistic and violent behaviour.

This week, I’ve been holding revision classes for the two modules I teach at Southampton (my own module on the post-Yugoslav conflicts, and a second-year module on Music and Resistance, where I’m filling in for the module designer Shirli Gilbert). In both modules, we’ve been going over past exam papers and students have been modelling potential essay plans in groups: partly to reassure them that yes, they do understand the content, and partly to share strategies through which they can show their understanding effectively in the artificial environment of an exam (before the clock stops, or their writing hands drop off). (A hat-tip goes out to my History A-level teachers here: I found their advice so useful in my own studies that, appropriately scaled up, I’ve been passing it on ever since.)

What makes me hesitate is introducing new knowledge at this point. By the last week, students have formed their interpretive frameworks; if they should already have some instinctive feeling of where they stand on the main questions that underpin a module (let’s say ‘does commercialisation destroy the ability of music to function as resistance?’ or ‘where do historians consider responsibility for the Yugoslav wars should lie?’), revision classes are about confirming their knowledge, clearing up confusion and reassuring students that if they’ve prepared properly they’re ready for the task ahead. Challenge and disruption, as important as they are in the intellectual process, might not be the most useful things to introduce.

This means there are things I’d do in a seminar that I wouldn’t do in a revision class. But am I taking the right position in doing so?

I started thinking about this after this week’s Yugoslav wars revision class. A group who were modelling essay plans for the question of (more or less) which political leader should be considered most responsible for the break-up of Yugoslavia were reporting back on arguments about Milosevic and mentioned, as one factor in favour of his responsibility, his use of ‘ethnic banter’ during his rise to power in the late 1980s.

They’re thinking here of research by people like Ivan Colovic or Christina Morus on Milosevic’s political communication. This viewpoint argues that Milosevic used ethno-historical references and deliberately folksy turns of phrase to identify himself as the only imaginable leader of the Serbs:

From his first appearance in Kosovo in 1987, Milosevic’s mythic allusions helped to animate Serbian identity in the present through a collective past, making present cultural values seem timeless and immutable. He inserted the Serb people into this historical narrative as politically charged characters fated to fulfill the predestined story of Serb history. In so doing, Milosevic situated himself within the narrative, like the hero of Kosovo who had come to redeem the Serbian people. (Morus 2007: 3 (£)).

‘Ethnic banter’ is an unusual formation, not a concept taken up from the existing literature. The term might have emerged during a Twitter feud between Wiley and Jay Sean in 2011, when Wiley excused comments about Jay Sean’s Sikh heritage as ‘ethnic banter’ and not racism. This year, ‘banter’ in general has been a controversial topic in student life: the website Unilad defended an article on rape as banter, although the feminist blogosphere was unconvinced. Of course, I can’t tell how much of this the student who spoke the words had followed or what standpoints he would take; the general laughter at the mention of ‘ethnic banter’ still suggested it resonated with some wider context of which the class, composed mainly of 18- or 19-year-old British undergraduates, was aware.

A few weeks previously, we’d had a class on gender and nationalism in the Yugoslav wars, including readings by feminist authors from the region such as Maja Korac (who has written on women’s anti-war activism) and Sasha Milicevic (who has studied draft-dodging in Milosevic’s Serbia – and some of these men, of course, would have been these undergraduates’ age when they hid from the authorities to avoid conscription). In an ordinary seminar, the ‘ethnic banter’ moment would have been my cue to embrace the tangent and invite the group to apply their existing knowledge by asking ‘What would Maja Korac (or Sasha Milicevic) say?’

I let it pass, but now I don’t think I should have. There were two reasons why: not being able to remember which text I’d assigned as key rather than recommended reading, Korac or Milicevic (this time it was the Korac – sorry, Sasha!); and the risk of sacrificing the general aim of the revision class for the sake of exploring this point.

Nonetheless, these students who are aware of the research on Milosevic’s use of language were, at some level, connecting that with the ‘banter’ controversy in British student life. If I’ve recognised that, my teaching philosophy suggests that surely I should encourage them to notice points of comparison between public discourse in the case study they’re learning about and in their own lives. If you ask students to unpick the public discourse of another society, may that give them tools to look more deeply at their own?

In my case, it did. I was studying the break-up of Yugoslavia during the first George W Bush presidency; reading Colovic’s critique of Milosevic’s discourse made me able to think more critically about the similarly folksy language used by Bush or, with less electoral success, by Sarah Palin; reading about war commemoration and national identity in south-east Europe made me able to recognise how much British public discourse relies on the same hinge. But then, I’m a professional overthinker. Maybe it’s just me.

Or maybe not? In the same class, another student referred to a module on Henry V, where they’d read a historian arguing that: who controls the memory of the battle is more important than who won the battle. That reading had been focused on Agincourt, but it applies equally to the Battle of Kosovo, where historians can’t even precisely say who won.

In one of his articles on critical pedagogy, Henry A Giroux observes:

A radical pedagogy points to the connections between conception and practice, and it honors students’ experiences by connecting what goes on in classrooms to their everyday lives. Within such an approach, theoretical rigor is connected to social relevance, knowledge is subjected to critical scrutiny and engagement, and pedagogy is seen as a moral and political practice crucial to the production of capacities and skills necessary for students to both shape and participate in public life. (Giroux 2003: 11 (£)).

And I would agree. But can I still put it into practice three weeks before the exam?

Written by bakercatherine

18 May 2012 at 1:18 pm

Posted in education, teaching

Can civilians learn from the military about learning?

On the same day that the British education secretary, Michael Gove, announced an initiative to encourage ex-military personnel to become primary and secondary teachers,the Centre for Policy Studies proposed a free school in Manchester that would be staffed entirely by former servicemen and women.

Gove’s announcement isn’t new: his department’s White Paper on schools in November 2010, which introduced the controversial ‘English Baccalaureate’ concept of a core set of GCSEs, had already mentioned sponsoring the tuition fees of ex-Forces graduates entering teacher training and investigating whether Forces non-graduates could take accelerated degrees.

The CPS’s brochure on the Phoenix School may fall on open ears at the Department  for Education: the authors criticise Labour’s early-years intervention programmes (Every Child Matters and Sure Start). Tempting fate, they argue that their solution, which ‘will categorically reject the concept of moral relativism’ and ‘the charade of “personalised learning”‘, will support the government’s policy of moral restoration:

And, as a beneficial side-effect, the next time that riots break out in Britain, we should expect that few, if any, participants come from such schools.

The proposal has come in for sustained ridicule: as with any free school, which is allowed to employ unqualified teachers, why should non-specialist teachers be in schools? What place does the demeanour of the archetypal regimental sergeant-major have in a contemporary classroom? Is this really where the 2,000 Army and RAF personnel made redundant yesterday are expected to go?

But is there anything civilians could learn from the military about learning?

The military is a complex organisation that supplies its own version of much of the infrastructure in civilian society: transport, mail, telecommunications, media, food supply. The British Army’s recruitment website advertises ‘over 140 different jobs’; its US equivalent talks about more than 150. Fewer soldiers serve in the ‘combat arms’ (infantry and cavalry) than in ‘combat support’ (Artillery, Engineers, Signals and Intelligence) or ‘combat service support’ arms.

‘Combat service support’ designates the functions furthest away from the primary infantry/cavalry business of closing with and killing the enemy – mechanics, medics, logistics and many back office functions, including education and training.

Soldiers in these corps deploy to front lines, of course, either in their own units or on individual postings: Army educators with language skills, for instance, tend to be the first to volunteer for operational language training and deployment as ‘military colloquial speakers’ on six-month tours.

If an army contains so many professional dispositions, what makes a soldier? Rachel Woodward and K Neil Jenkings have argued in a recent issue of Sociology that soldiers express their military identities ‘with reference to the specificities of their professional skills’. Sometimes, but not always, those skills are in the disciplined use of force:

The military, according to the classic (Weberian) definition, is the state-sanctioned body with the authority to use lethal force. The exercise of lethal force defines military personnel as such. Our interviewees fleshed out that idea by talking about the constitution and expression of their military identities with reference to the specificities of their professional skills. For some, these skills were clearly identifiable as military tasks: accuracy in marksmanship, for example, or surveillance and observation skills, or the deployment of technical knowledge in the act of patrolling hostile urban areas.

Yet, they find, other soldiers base their soldier-ness in mastery of skills that aren’t to do with force (being first to put down heavy-duty electronic cables; survival and endurance outdoors; performing complex marching band manoeuvres). Military identity lies in the specifics, such as technical knowledge of military equipment and being able to operate in difficult or dangerous conditions where civilians would not work:

The skills of vehicle repair and rescue could be seen as similar to those required in civilian mechanic occupations. What was significant to this interviewee was the possession of not just technical skills but also an aptitude and willingness, specific to the military, to use such skills in extreme and hostile environments, for the sake of a wider military objective. So even when individual skills may be generic, and held by civilians, their application is not.

During my research on international intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I’ve met a number of soldiers from one of the less well known military populations, Army educators. The Educational and Training Services, which had existed as a separate corps between 1845 and 1992, deal with adult learning, basic skills training, staff development and needs analysis for the Army’s 110,000 soldiers. Among the enlisted personnel will be soldiers who have enlisted with few or no formal qualifications. ETS officers aim to equip them to take GCSEs and vocational qualifications, and ‘lifelong learning’ is even a selling point in Army recruitment material today.

Following Woodward and Jenkings, we could expect the ‘military’ in military education to rest in what you teach, how you teach, and where you teach it. Military language training for operations (the short courses that produce ‘colloquial speakers’ with basic competence in selected areas) differs from the civilian classroom in many ways. Courses emphasise military vocabulary and use authentic military texts for reading and listening practice; scenario-based learning, where students apply their language knowledge to situations based on recent operational experience, is the norm. Practical classes are often held outdoors and are reinforced when the language students take part in field exercises. No matter how difficult British society believes language learning to be, soldiers with very few formal qualifications have been able to learn entirely new languages (Bosnian/Serbian, Arabic, Pashto) to a usable colloquial standard through military educators’ training methods.

The civilian education system rarely taps into military ideas about education. In 1995, the Higher Education Funding Council for England published a report on what east European language needs the United Kingdom would have after the fall of communism and the crisis in former Yugoslavia. The report contained contributions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but not the Ministry of Defence, which had decades’ experience in teaching Russian and had been teaching and using ‘Serbo-Croatian’ on operations ever since 1992.

Being a military educator does not map into success or comfort in school teaching. Far from it. One of the educators I met had entered school teaching after leaving the Army in the mid-1990s only to find the environment conflicted so badly with their previous experiences that they moved out of the profession.

Yet might there be a reserve of knowledge in the military about alternative teaching methods for students who learn best through doing, outdoor learning, or teaching a functional level of basic skills to people who have disengaged from formal education?

There might; but this is not what the debate is about.

Instead, the government initiative to encourage former soldiers into teaching is being launched within a frame of discipline: increasing ‘male role models’ in schools and reducing bureaucracy that deters teachers restraining students with physical force. Gove’s undertone is a retraditionalisation of society to restore adult and legitimate authority, using the August riots as proof of a moral collapse. Only a body with masculine power and military training, he implies, can provide the necessary discipline and physicality.

There is a conversation about learning that the military, and military educators in particular, might be able to take part in. We are not having it yet.

Written by bakercatherine

2 September 2011 at 2:18 pm