Gender-Based Violence: A Focal Issue for Student Engagement and Learning

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 18–19, 2011

University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras and University of the Sacred Heart
San Juan, Puerto Rico

In recent years, service learning has become increasingly popular as a pedagogical tool to promote student engagement. Similarly, its use in connecting students with issues of concern to women has increased. From a theoretical perspective, it holds great value in “combining theory with practice, classrooms with communities, and the cognitive with the affective.” Advocates for this approach laud it as a “deeply engaging, local, and impactful practice” (Butin, viii).

The presenters were faculty members at a women’s college with a well-developed interdisciplinary women’s studies program and a high level of student interest in women’s issues. We saw our campus as an ideal milieu to introduce a course focusing on gender-based violence and the incorporation of techniques of service learning. To date, the course has only been offered once under a “special topics” designation. Subsequent to its implementation, we undertook an evaluation to assess its effectiveness and to highlight areas of strength and, more importantly, needed improvement.

Elective courses with an emphasis on issues of intimate partner violence have had consistently high enrollment at our college. These courses have always been participatory as well as didactic, incorporating extensive use of film and discussion, but few learning experiences outside of the classroom. Student volunteer programs, available largely on an extracurricular basis, have focused primarily on outreach to the homeless, the poor, or the hungry. In introducing the gender-based violence course, we sought to merge the two arenas of classroom and field learning and to provide opportunities for students to acquire skills in rape counseling that they could then apply in the community. The goal of the course was to increase students’ knowledge of sexual violence, its antecedents and consequences, and teach them techniques appropriate for intervening with rape survivors and promoting healing. We sought to prepare students for assignments with rape hotlines, hospital emergency rooms, and domestic violence shelters. The course was conceived as employing a service-learning design in which classroom sessions would segue into a service-learning experience. Achieving this outcome proved more difficult than we realized.

A strong impetus for our initiating the course was our desire to link with an area community victim service agency. This organization has a well-developed program through which it trains volunteers to staff its rape hotline and provide supportive services to victims at hospital emergency rooms. The 30-hour training course takes place at the organization’s offices. Few students have completed the training due to logistical constraints, and funding limitations have prevented this agency from offering the training off-site. Thus we viewed our course as an alternative to this training which could prepare students for similar roles.

The course was cross-listed as a women’s studies and social work elective. Students who enrolled included undergraduates majoring in social work, psychology, women’s studies, and nursing. Modeled after the New York State Department of Health rape crisis counselor training, the course took place over a 15-week semester. Course content included: a historical exploration of sexual violence and the anti-rape movement; rape culture; drug-facilitated sexual assault; rights of minors; child sexual abuse; medical care and the effects of sexual violence; multiculturalism and client populations; domestic violence; the criminal justice system; crisis intervention skills for use on hotlines and in hospitals; hope and healing from the social work perspective and the victim-centered approach; and public and private resources and opportunities. A wide variety of instructional methods were used including: ice breakers; PowerPoint lectures; reading of novels and subsequent discussion; on-line articles and current cases highlighted in the media; guest speakers; real-life vignettes, films, role plays, and exercises to promote self-assessment and improvement of interpersonal functioning and listening skills. The course culminated with a final assignment in which students designed and acted out with assigned group member a relevant role play of 15-20 minutes which was performed in class. Students could choose to act as the rape survivor, family member, social worker, medical provider, or police officer. Grading criteria focused on students’ ability to apply concepts learned in class with at least one of the “characters” in each scenario demonstrating effective rape counseling skills.

In assessing the course from her perspective, the instructor made a number of observations. She noted a high level of misogyny among the students and recommended instituting a specific course prerequisite incorporating general counseling skills and/or content on sexual violence. Second, she observed that students’ listening and counseling skills were weak and suggested that the course be offered in a two-semester format to promote more adequate skill development. Third, she reported a number of self-disclosures from students relating to personal experiences of sexual violence. Given this experience, she advised that instructors be prepared to provide appropriate support and referrals should this arise in the future. Finally, she recognized the value of guest speakers several of whom shared relevant personal experiences. Given the positive feedback these sessions received, she suggested that such sessions be opened up to the college community rather than limited to students in the course.

Student feedback was extremely helpful in enabling us to adequately assess the course and plan for the future. Written evaluation forms are routinely administered in all courses but, in this case, they were supplemented by phone or face-to-face contacts with all students enrolled in the course. Comments were consistently positive and included such characterizations as “life-changing,” “blew my mind,” “unparalleled,” “resonated with life experiences, “helped me build skills needed for professional roles,” “furthered career goals,” and “methods a little uncomfortable yet a challenging growth experience.” One student described the guest speakers who shared their personal traumas as “awesome” adding her comment to the instructor: “Although you are involved in the field you are our professor; hearing from other people in the field made it more real.” When asked about the volunteer goal which the course attempted to further, several students replied that learning and practicing techniques was enough for now, and the volunteering could come later. Others mentioned scheduling conflicts as deterrents to involvement in a service-learning component while in full-time student status.

After reviewing students’ written and oral feedback, instructor’s observations, and organizational and administrative findings generated by the department chair who arranged the course, we were able to identify a number of barriers and challenges that impeded our successful attainment of our original course goals. Initially, we had hoped to arrange for an instructor from the victim services agency to teach the course. Had we been successful in securing this, the coordination between our campus-based course and the service-learning opportunities might have been facilitated. Without this connection, it proved hard to sustain student interest after the course ended and hard to strengthen students’ confidence in their abilities to apply their learning in the real world. Upon questioning students about their ability to commit a specified number of volunteer hours, as required by the victims’ service agency, we came to realize that most were neither able nor willing to make this commitment.

As we move ahead, we are seeking to formalize our relationship with the victims’ service agency that runs the rape crisis program. We believe that were we to be successful in merging their volunteer training program with our course and utilizing one of their staff as the instructor, the likelihood of our integrating service learning into our course would be greatly increased. This form of agency-college collaboration is not common, and the barriers to achieving it are formidable. Funding constraints on the part of the college and the community-based organization are severe, and policy guidelines pose additional barriers.

When judged from the perspective of student engagement and learning, we are proud of our accomplishments. We believe that we were successful in “breaching the bifurcation of lofty academics with the lived reality of everyday life” (Butin, vii). While our goal of connecting the theoretical to the practical was only partially satisfied, we believe that the classroom-based discussions and activities that we introduced may have served as a segue to future service learning experiences for our students. Integrating service learning into our course design remains a daunting but essential goal.


Butin, D.W. (2005). Service learning in higher education. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stahly,G.B. (2007). Gender identity, equity, and violence. Virginia: Stylus.

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