Aftermath and Backlash
Aftermath and Backlash: Challenging Conversations about Race- and Gender-Based Violence
Prof. Ann J. Cahill (Elon University)
The art of discussion—sharing ideas, sharpening arguments, engaging in disagreement—is often seen as central to philosophy classes. Yet we rarely take the time to reflect carefully on what makes for a substantial, productive, and lively philosophical conversation, and we almost never set ourselves the task of becoming better philosophical conversational partners.
This class will put discussion skills front and center. We will learn to become attentive to not only the individual contributions that we make to conversations, but also to collective patterns and dynamics that enhance (or inhibit) intellectually invigorating conversation. And we will undertake this work while discussing matters that are difficult to talk about: gender- and race-based violence, as explored by two books written by philosophers who are well versed in talking about the unspeakable.
The Books and Their Authors
Our conversations will focus on two books: Susan Brison’s Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of the Self (2001), and George Yancy’s Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Race in America (2018). The authors of these texts weave together personal experiences of identity-based trauma with philosophical discussions about the nature of the self, contemporary forms of structural inequality and the harms they impose, and the ethical challenges posed by living in the midst, and through, identity-based violence. Brison’s work describes her experience of sexual assault and what the phenomenon of trauma reveals about intersubjective selfhood. Yancy’s work chronicles the author’s experience with hate-filled, racist responses to an essay he published in the New York Times, raising crucial philosophical questions about the structures that imbue dominant conversations about race. Not only do these works highlight pressing contemporary problems; they also, in different ways, raise the question that is particularly pertinent to our time together: how do we speak of these events with each other?
Arrangements are still in the works, but the hope is that our class will have the opportunity to discuss these books with both authors in person, either via a video conference or in real life. So not only will we be learning how to have conversations with each other—we’ll be learning how to converse with authors of important texts!
During our very first class, we will work together to develop a list of characteristics of excellent discussion. This list will become our rubric, which we will use to reflect on the quality of our discussion on the previous day. Thus, from the second day forward, we will begin our conversation by asking: how was our conversation yesterday? What did we do well, and what could we have improved on?
After that period of reflection, we will launch into the day’s conversation, delving into the assigned reading for the day using one of a variety of discussion-starting techniques (one day, we may split up into small groups, taking responsibility for exploring a small excerpt; on another we may all share one part of the text that we found particularly compelling, or difficult). In large group discussions, we will use a variety of techniques to ensure that the students take responsibility for the shape of the conversation (for example, once a student has made a contribution to the conversation, they will be responsible for choosing the next speaker). A portion of each class period will be dedicated to preparing for our interaction with the authors. We will conclude each class with a reflection on what our day’s discussion clarified, and what questions remain alive for us at its conclusion. We will discuss each book for one week.