Globe, the Geneva Graduate Institute Review
28 March 2023

Teaching about Troublesome Violence

Editorial by Aidan Russell, Associate Professor of International History and Politics. 

Teaching and learning are troublesome things. At least, they should be. But sometimes we need to make sure that they are.

Troublesome things are what bring most students, professors and researchers to the Institute – things that disturb us, fears we want to understand, challenges we don’t yet know how to face; these “things” are one of our most important shared characteristics as a community.

But what happens when the trouble becomes routine? Like any other form of practice, professors tend to get more comfortable with teaching as we go on. And this in itself can be worrying. It is an awkward secret that the more assured we become in what we do, the easier it is to become comfortable with things that should always be uncomfortable.

When I joined the Institute in 2013, fresh from a PhD myself, I knew that teaching about violence was one such troublesome matter. But the more I teach, year after year, the more I risk allowing the sufferings of others to become an intellectual game rather than an ethical problem. Teaching about violence should continuously challenge my thinking about who I am and what I do in the world. Course content changes, ideas evolve, but the familiarity of the subject matter risks becoming worryingly comfortable. The same risk is there for students as well. A desire to comprehend the incomprehensible drives them to learn. But after 14 weeks of academic articles and class discussions we risk neutering that essential sense of disquiet through a false reassurance of knowledge.

Insight, understanding, empathy, action: these are all things we are looking for to help us deal with the things that disturb us. The safety to make mistakes, to ask a foolish question, to misunderstand, is an important part of this pursuit – comfort has its place. But we have to keep worrying each other all the same. Why are we interested in such things? What do we think we are doing when seeking explanations or telling others’ stories? What has been lost? What damage is done by rendering such experiences in the languages we use in the classroom? What do we hope will continue to live with us when the class is done and assessment over? I ask these questions of my students, but I need them to ask the same of me.

I’m proud to say our students can be a troublesome lot. For some, the violence we study together has been too present in their own histories to ever become banal. For others, a vital ethical drive continues to overrule the problems of the routine. We are all vulnerable to becoming comfortable with things we should not be, but together we can keep a little discomfort alive. The trouble that brings us to the Institute is important, and it needs to survive the teaching process. Do we learn to reassure ourselves that we no longer need to worry, or to help us face the trouble?

This article was published in Globe #31, the Institute Review.