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In the Spotlight: Ethnoviolence Class

"What Hurts the Victim Most Is Not the Physical Cruelty of the Oppressor, but the Silence of the Bystander." - Elie Wiesel, Writer and Holocaust Survivor

by Melanie Jarrett

Eth·no·vi·o·lence (noun) – Violence or threat of violence based on one’s ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

It’s a weighty topic, and one you might be surprised to learn is the subject of one of the most popular classes offered in Meadows. “Ethical Perspectives in Ethnoviolence” is an interdisciplinary, team-taught course led in part by Dr. Ben Voth, chair of the Communication Studies Division, who created the ethical component used in all sections of the course. The class, which frequently boasts a wait list, focuses on equipping students to have a voice in society by exposing them to global injustices and society’s role in bringing attention to them. It’s a topic Dr. Voth, who also serves as a public speaking consultant for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is deeply passionate about.

“I’ve always had a really high interest in communication and international affairs and their role in trying to minimize what I call ‘the worst human problems’ – in other words, when human beings intentionally hurt each other at mass levels,” Voth says. “We ought to be able to stop that. We might not be able to cure cancer, but we can agree not to do brutal things to each other, because those are actions that we have chosen.”

Voth structured the class to give students an understanding of multiple methodologies and perspectives on the topic by sharing the teaching load with two professors from Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, Dayna Oscherwitz (world languages) and Tony Cortese (sociology). The course culminates with each student producing a YouTube video centered on bringing attention to an issue of ethnoviolence – an assignment that from a practical perspective helps students hone video editing skills, and from a theoretical perspective creates a public project that very well could make a difference in the world.

And though ethnoviolence could conceivably be a dark subject, Dr. Voth’s approach is a positive one. “A person’s ability to speak is a beautiful and amazing thing,” says Voth. “I tell my students: I don’t know what you’re going to encounter in life or what you’re going to have to step up and not be silent about. But it’s going to be important. It’s going to change your life and maybe your family’s life and maybe your community’s life.”

Weekly lecture titles range from topics as ambitious in scope as “Communication as a Solution for Genocide” to creative takes on the state of our society, such as “The Cell Phone vs. the AK-47.” The co-teaching structure of the course allows students to hear the perspective of multiple academics with differing theories on the role of communication to effect change. But the one descriptor used by students who were happy to go on record with their appreciation for the course was: passion.

“There were moments where Dr. Voth would passionately exclaim that our voices do matter,” says Caroline White (B.A. Communication Studies, ’13), who took the class in the spring of 2012. “He cares so much about us that he pushes us, challenges us, motivates us to believe in our voice and our own power as humans.”

Adds Taylor Johnson (B.A. Communication Studies, ’13), “I remember him always saying, ‘You can make a difference from right where you’re sitting in this college class. The people that are your age are the people who are going to change the world.’”

In fact, many of the students who take Voth’s class in ethnoviolence do go on to work in nonprofit settings, applying their communication knowledge to effect change in whatever capacity they can. Johnson, for example, spent her summer in London – not as a spectator at the Olympics, but to research how nonprofit organizations use the sporting event as a springboard to create awareness for their causes. This year’s event was full of performances that highlighted social issues, from the controversial inclusion of double amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorious to officials allowing Sarah Attar, the first Saudi Arabian woman to run track at the Games, to compete wearing a hijab head covering in observance of her country’s Muslim traditions. By bringing her research about such groundbreaking occurrences and their after-effects back to the U.S., Johnson epitomizes one of Voth’s objectives for the course: ceasing to be an observer of injustices and instead taking action through communication.

“The one thing I like to say at the outset of every class is that I’m cynical about only one thing: cynicism,” Voth says. “I am the most hardcore idealistic, optimistic person you will ever meet. All I ask the students for is their relentless idealism, a willingness to always pick themselves up out of the dirt and struggle again for what they think is right.”

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