July 18, 2008

Course challenges students to think about peace

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A new course in the Core Curriculum at Southern Illinois University Carbondale crosses college lines and challenges students to think about peace, not just as a pie-in-the-sky concept, but as a real factor in their own lives.

The course, “Topics in Peace Studies: Labor, History and Media,” debuted last semester. Its entry into the Core Curriculum indicates it will be a regular upper-division undergraduate course. It lists as History 358i and as Cinema and Photography 358i.

Robbie Lieberman, professor of history, taught the course with Jyotsna Kapur, associate professor of cinema and photography. Lieberman said the team-teaching format fits the interdisciplinary approach that seems best to suit the topic. This course is a little bit unusual, she conceded, because the “team” in the team-teaching comes from both the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts.

“We started throwing around ideas, “ she said, referring to the discussions she had with Kapur as the two planned the course. “We knew it had to be interdisciplinary. And the idea was to open the course for all students by making it an option in the Core Curriculum.”

Lieberman said peace studies courses traditionally include such academic fields as philosophy, anthropology, sociology, linguistics and history. Adding the perspective of a media expert, she said, is a bonus.

“Our hope is to get students from a variety of disciplines, from students who know how they want to use a peace studies course to students who want to try something different,” Lieberman said. “As a discipline, Peace Studies has grown by leaps and bounds.”

The course covers peace as an international issue, but also examines peace -- and violence --in a much more localized way as well. By way of example, Lieberman referred to Evan Darger, a senior history student from Crystal Lake who made changes in his own lifestyle based on what he learned in the class.

Darger was a cage fighter. Cage fighting is a form of advanced mixed martial arts combat that takes place inside a cage. Darger referred to American philosopher William James when he explained his own interest in the sport, saying that for him, mixed martial arts and cage fighting satisfied “that thirst for self-validation and a sense of belonging to something greater than yourself.” He further argued, again appealing to James, that mixed martial arts is more a test of physical prowess and discipline than an exhibition of violence. His concern, though, and the focus of a paper titled, “Violence in a Spectator Culture,” was whether his participation in cage fighting contributed to a perception of and thirst for violence in others. Ultimately, he decided it did, and, directly as a result of the research done for the class, he opted out of competing in his chosen sport.

“Knowing that I am being marketed as a gladiator rather than being seen as an athlete would not do me well,” he said, noting he will continue with the rigors of training.

“As I see it, it was the best course I have taken here at SIUC, “ he said. “Dr. Lieberman allowed us to educate ourselves and was there solely to facilitate discussions of the readings… I am now, and forever will be, aware of the most important thing I got out of the class… I now understand how a seemingly innocuous act, however rationalized, can have a negative impact upon society… I have recommended this class to many people.”

Lieberman said having students react so strongly to her team-taught class is “incredibly rewarding.”

“It’s always rewarding if you can get students to think about issues,” she said. “We were also able to expose them to different fields of study. I think it may take time for students to figure out all the ways they can apply this course. The students are figuring out different viewpoints and challenging themselves. Everybody says they are all for peace, but what does that really mean?”

Lieberman co-edits the journal “Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research” published by Blackwell Publishing through the Peace History Society and the Peace and Justice Studies Association.

Kapur co-edits and helped found the journal Studies in South Asian Film and Media, published by Intellect Books.