Mindfulness and Teaching Violent Subject Matter

“Do you ever teach books that have a happy ending?”, “How come we are studying such depressing subjects?”, “Why are all these stories so sad?” My students regularly put these questions to me. They ask them because in my courses on literature and film I largely teach material that relates to war and conflict and, consequently, to violence, death, trauma and loss. I don’t introduce these topics in the classroom because I’m a morbid person who enjoys the sadness and horror of war; rather, my research-driven teaching is informed by my interest in tackling the violent past and controversial current conflicts that bind people across countries in ways that are not always given attention in undergraduate courses. A conflict such as that between Israel and the State of Palestine, which is well-represented in cultural production from many points of view, is a contemporary global reality and a topic that evokes a range of opinions and feelings; these can lead, on the one hand, to a rich and productive classroom discussion, and on the other, to feelings of discomfort or disenfranchisement, or to anger and frustration. In the latter event, students and teacher alike might wonder why such sensitive material is up for debate.

In South Asian contexts, the inclusion of the Partition of India and its aftermath on a syllabus involves a focus on violent massacres—even genocide, in the case of the Bangladesh Liberation War—and rape and sexual violence. While the facts can sometimes be conveyed through a presentation of the statistics—up to one million killed in communal riots, up to 75,000 women raped and abducted—fictional responses to the Partition are often said to “humanize” the violence. Reading work by Saadat Hasan Manto or Bapsi Sidhwa can become overwhelming or upsetting given how these literary texts evocatively render pain and portray disturbing scenes. In a literature class, a sterile statistic about women raped in 1947 is transformed into the character of Ayah in Sidhwa’s novel, or in the silent daughter in Manto’s short story “Open It”,  whom the reader comes to know, understand or sympathize with through close analysis and sustained discussion (Bapsi Sidhwa, Ice-Candy Man. New Delhi: Penguin, 1989; Saadat Hasan Manto, “Open it” in Black Margins. New Delhi: Katha, 2003, pp. 200-203).

In her poem “Public Outcry”, Karen Alkalay-Gut chastises unspecified Israeli writers and poets for not addressing the war on their doorstep with Palestine. She highlights the role of literature in responding to conflict and the responsibility of those with a public stage, such as writers, to candidly speak of it. By tackling the complexities of war and peace, she says, “someone at last/must hear” and suggests that keeping silent achieves nothing (Karen Alkalay-Gut, “Public Outcry” in Dreaming the Actual. Ed. Miriyam Glazer. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2012, p. 394). There are many well-known South Asian writers and directors who have not kept silent on the Partition; indeed it has yielded a wide range of responses in cultural form. Given the emotional reactions that a subject like the Partition can induce, however, should such traumatic and painful aspects of history and civilization be excluded from the classroom? On a literature syllabus, should violent, controversial subjects be dominated by less emotionally-charged ones? With sensitive handling, the answer to both of these questions can be no. Just as Alkalay-Gut pleads for openness and honesty in the public sphere about the conflict in her country, these qualities also play a vital role in the academic sphere where a subject like the Partition of India should be fully explored.
Of course, location plays a role here. Teaching students in a post-conflict society, for instance about the conflict they or their families suffered through, requires careful consideration and perhaps specialized pedagogical approaches (On the northern Irish example, see Keith C. Barton and Alan McCully, “History Teaching and the Perpetuation of Memories: the Northern Ireland Experience” in The Role of Memory in Ethnic Conflct. Eds. Ed Cairns and Micheál D. Roe. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, pp. 107-124). But in a more general sense, there are multiple ways to broach violent topics. The media of cultural production, in particular, can foster constructive debate and polyvocality, and can support a safe and positive environment for scholarly exchange. At the heart of these methods is mindfulness.

The practice of mindfulness, which stems from Buddhist teachings, was popularized in the West by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts, who explored and promoted its links to stress reduction. Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as the act of “paying attention, in the present moment, non-judgementally” (Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Q&A: Jon Kabat-Zinn Talks about Bringing Mindfulness Meditation to Medicine.” In Time, January 2012). It allows us to increase awareness of our thoughts and emotions in the current moment. It gives us the space to consider how something makes us feel, and understand how it might make others feel. Furthermore, mindfulness has proven benefits for our bodies and minds; it can boost our immune system and help to reduce stress and anxiety, deal with pain, foster compassion and bring about happiness in the place of anger or aggression.

Given the above description, the potential value of bringing mindfulness into any classroom is apparent. But it is a particularly effective companion to violent or polemical subject matters, due to its emphasis on taking stock of how you are feeling at a certain moment. While mindfulness can include practices like sitting meditation and mindful breathing, I have found it is not essential to introduce these into the classroom; indeed, many instructors might not feel comfortable doing so, nor perhaps would all university students want to take part. But there are other aspects of mindfulness that complement the teaching of heavy or violent subject matter.

By framing a discussion on last year’s war in Gaza (as portrayed in a short story, for example) in the context of mindfulness, students and teacher are encouraged, in the words of Deborah Schoeberlein David, to purposefully take a mental step back, which in turn “provides a kind of protection against unconstructive responses” (Deborah Schoeberlein David with Suki Seth, Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness: A Guide for Anyone Who Teaches Anything. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009, p. 4). Many instructors have had experience with reactionary contributions from students to classroom discussions. But instead of reacting to a stimulus, such as a certain depiction of Israelis or Palestinians in a text, creating a mindful learning environment helps us to respond to it. The difference between reaction and response lies in the extent to which respect and empathy are foregrounded when the stimulus is being discussed. It is important to present this idea at the beginning of a course or a new topic in order to include the students in a discussion on what a response might look like compared to a reaction. Overly prescriptive instruction in this regard is best avoided, but it is striking how far a frank and kind conversation at an early stage in the course can go. This also connects to how a mindful discussion places emphasis on active listening, wherein there is a real effort to seek to understand differing opinions and opposing sides. This can be a useful technique in tackling the issue of Pakistani, Indian and Chinese claims to the territory of Kashmir for example, or in the case of the inevitably aired opinions on who is to blame for the events of the Partition.

Creating a mindful learning environment in cultural, literary or film studies does not, however, mean that everyone is being too “nice” to say what they think or give their honest interpretations. These still tend to flow, but they do so in the context of the creative product–novel, poem, cultural event, photograph, film–rather than leading the discussion down the route of trying to find the “right” view of an historical event. Some academics might take the position that “history must be centered on objective analysis of evidence and the construction of rational arguments” (Barton and McCully, p. 111), but in a class that blends artistic images and creative production with real, violent conflicts the key is in many cases to avoid getting into a discussion about which side is right, or which version of history is right. This is something that scholarship on the contested historiography of the Partition of India has raised with reference to forgotten or omitted voices, and to a “History from Below” that might counter official, sanitized versions of Partition (e.g. Gyanendra Pandey, “The Prose of Otherness” in Subaltern Studies VIII: Essays in Honour of Ranajit Guha. Eds. David Arnold and David Hardiman. Delhi: OUP, 1992, pp. 188-222; Mushirul Hasan, Inventing Boundaries: Gender, Politics, and the Partition of India. Oxford: OUP, 2000).

While the extremity of certain historical events lies beyond the scope of this mindful practice, it is likely that, in other discussions of violent subject matter, nuanced arguments and conclusions will be exposed. While I do not teach in a segregated society where affiliations or partialities might be manifest, as some instructors around the world do, most people still come at a topic with their preconceptions and judgments, in addition to their personal experience and perhaps family history. Therefore, it is always necessary to be mindful of inherent biases, and it is often necessary to acknowledge multiple perspectives.

Including students in the discussion about objectivity and subjectivity is a useful way of drawing awareness to the complexity of an issue. I have found comparison to be essential, because studying the literature and film of the Partition of India alongside that of Israel and Palestine, for example, allows students to consider broader issues and themes that might be relevant to the conversation. Spending time on developing a wider context, including through newspaper articles, eye-witness accounts, and documentary, can result in unsettling students’ preconceptions. This might be the goal of teaching literary responses to violent or controversial subjects: not to convince students that they were wrong, or that they must alter their viewpoint, but to reframe what they thought they were certain of. What are universities for if not to make us (un)comfortable existing in a state of confusion and challenging our certainties?

After fifteen weeks or so in a classroom where heavy and harrowing real-life topics are unrelentingly on the table in every session, it is important to allow time to share and reflect, again a practice that mindfulness embodies. Talking and thinking about conflict and violence can take its toll on everyone, and therefore encouraging reflection on an individual level and as a part of a universal community, to borrow from Martha Nussbaum’s philosophy, needs to be part of the pedagogical method (Martha C. Nussbaum and Joshua Cohen, For Love of Country. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996). Rather than formally stating trigger-warnings on the syllabus or on each piece of text and film, I initiate an informal conversation on Day One that lays out the expected topics and themes on the course. Clear learning objectives are presented and students are invited to share any concerns they have regarding the course material throughout the term. Through this approach, I do not censor myself in putting material relating to conflict and war on a syllabus, but ensure that the course also includes contemplative practice that allows everyone the time to understand and value their learning experience.

Louise Harrington
Department of English and Film Studies
University of Alberta

Image: Ganesha, Victoria’s Way, Co. Wicklow, Ireland – Louise Harrington, 2013

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