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The movie Women Talking, based on the novel by Miriam Toews and nominated for Best Picture at this weekend’s Academy Awards, has something to teach those of us who teach. I make this claim well aware of the vast differences between most U.S. college students and the group of Mennonite women who have gathered in a hayloft to decide what to do in the wake of multiple rapes. Will they do nothing, stay and fight, or leave? Unlike my students, they have no access to mental health professionals, outside systems of justice or technology. There have only each other and their scribe, August, the young man who teaches the boys in their isolated religious community.

Toews’s imaginative reconstruction, inspired by true events, reminds us of the importance of talking in the aftermath of violence, what Amanda Hess calls the “intellectual life of the survivor.” The story suggests that the work of responding to violence is not just emotional and psychological; it is also an ethical and intellectual endeavor that requires thinking about different ways to respond. Conversations about this topic are difficult, especially with survivors in our midst, but they are important and can prove transformative.

Many professors shy away from these discussions, and for understandable reasons—we do not want to trigger our students, we are not trained therapists, we worry about our role as mandated reporters or we do not want difficult personal disclosures to derail the work at hand. Perhaps we are survivors ourselves and do not want to tell our students. These are valid concerns. But Women Talking reminds us of the power of coming together to reflect upon and share traumatic experiences. I’m not sure we need “safe” spaces so much as brave ones, along the lines of what Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens call for: classrooms where the intellectual work of survivorship can take place in the context of mutual support, introspection and analysis of larger structures and systems. The questions raised by violence are often addressed by courses in fields such as gender studies, but I am arguing they are also the province of the arts, the humanities and the social sciences more broadly.

Gender-based violence is directed at women and girls as well as anyone who does not adhere to gender norms and expectations, and those who are most vulnerable are often marginalized for other elements of their identity, such as race, sexuality, indigeneity and disability. I was not trained in gender violence when I began my career as an assistant professor teaching classes in literature and gender studies, but I listened to my students. I learned that my classrooms were often filled with survivors of all genders—survivors of rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, domestic violence, online abuse, and bullying. As Jeremy Posadas writes, college students have varied relationships to gender violence, and so it’s useful to consider the diverse identities and positionalities they may hold vis-à-vis violence when addressing these topics in the classroom.

Students may have friends or partners who are survivors, they may know a perpetrator, or they may have harmed someone else themselves. From my conversations with colleagues across the disciplines, at my campus and at others, I know that unanticipated and highly personal conversations about gender violence can occur in many fields, from creative writing to sociology. This is not just true for those of us who teach in college; it is also the case for high school and middle school teachers.

The women in Sarah Polley’s movie have never been students—yet they excel at honest, philosophical thought. They have been told by their bishop and elders that they have imagined this violence, or that Satan is to blame. But they know this is false. They engage in the work of self-liberation, whether or not they would use this word. As they toggle between their individual experiences and Christian beliefs, they touch upon many of the central questions of feminism and other justice movements. Are men perpetrators because they are men, or are they also victims of a system that teaches and conditions them to commit such violence? Can younger boys be educated to reject such violence? Do they have to separate from all the men in order to keep themselves and their children safe? How will they create a new colony that does not replicate the violence they have suffered? While they operate within a rigid gender binary, the story constantly reminds us that not all survivors are women—Melvin, a transgender teenager (my word, not theirs) has also been assaulted; then there is the schoolteacher August, whose past history of trauma is elucidated in the novel but not the movie. And then there are the adolescent boys: What to do about them? Should they come with the women if they leave, or are they too old? Drawing boundaries proves painful and nearly impossible.

Yet Women Talking also shows that the best intellectual discussions are suffused with care. I was moved by the way the characters take care of each other: how they hold hands, carry their small children and sing to one another. August supports and empathizes with the women, even as he struggles with his own position as a “half man” who falls outside his community’s definition of masculinity. The teenagers Neitje and Autje weave their hair into a single braid. These expressions of tenderness alternate with outbursts of anger and personal attacks, as everyone struggles to process the trauma that has happened individually and collectively. And while this level of intimacy lies far beyond what’s feasible, or even desirable, in the classroom, it is possible to find ways to help our students build trust and practice compassion. It begins with how we model community, active listening and vulnerability.

Over the years, I’ve become more adept at framing conversations about violence and responding to students who disclose, though I would not say that being prepared means that I feel comfortable. The topic always feels raw and tricky. When gender violence appears as a topic on my syllabi, I assign first-person readings as well as systemic analyses and articles; our conversations often examine the role of culture and of institutions, including colleges and universities, in condoning and perpetrating harm. And while our conversations are never quite like the ones in Women Talking, I can affirm that my students demonstrate rich intellectual lives connected to their experiences as survivors, allies, bystanders and activists. My evidence is fleeting, though suggestive: the essays that grappled with parental abuse. The poems providing words of comfort for the writer’s younger self. The semester that two dance students created and performed a ballet about her rape.

In these moments—the majority of them before Me Too and pre-COVID, in the before times, when students showed up to class—I witnessed the kind of education that can transform lives. College students listened to what each other had to say; some shared their experiences, if they wanted (I always make sure to tell them that survivors owe nobody their story); and, in a hundred different small ways, something was created. At the risk of succumbing to nostalgia, I believe I remember these moments so vividly because I was witnessing students caring for themselves and each other. They were fully alive. They were teaching each other, and they were teaching me.

In one of the chapters of her 2021 book, Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence, legal scholar Anita Hill assembles the evidence about sexual violence, abuse, harassment and bullying that teens and younger children face at school and online across the U.S. The numbers are startling. For example, a 2020 survey undertaken by the Cyberbullying Research Center found that one in five tweens (ages 9 to 12) have experienced cyberbullying in some form. We also know from reviews of research that incidents of domestic violence increased by at least 8 percent after the COVID lockdowns of 2020 in the U.S. This is an ongoing crisis likely exacerbated by the waves of laws targeting trans and gender-nonconforming youth, not to mention policies that prevent discussion of the structural inequalities that increase the vulnerability of certain groups. I worry that we are losing ground, not making progress, in the quest to end violence.

Our classrooms are filled with students who need to think about gender violence and abuse in their own lives and our culture. Teachers and professors in many disciplines have a unique opportunity to create space for reflection and learning; to listen to students who disclose; to climb up into the metaphorical hayloft and witness what’s going on. There are small but meaningful steps classroom instructors new to this work can take: talk to a colleague who regularly teaches material about gender violence; attend a workshop on the topic; read pedagogical articles in your field that address this issue, many of which were published after Me Too.

Of course, this work has important emotional and psychological dimensions, and most of us are not trained as therapists. But examining violence is also intellectual labor. Those of us who teach have an opportunity to build these conversations into our curricula, or, when violence comes up, as it invariably does in a range of courses across the disciplines, we can be prepared. At the very least, we should not shy away from this topic because of fear. The well-being of our students depends on it.

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