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Teaching Tips- Spring 2015

The Gender Symmetry Argument: An In-Class Exercise for the Undergraduate Classroom
Tara Opsal
Department of Sociology
Colorado State University

Over the last five years I—like many of you DWCers—have taught a course called Gender, Crime, and Criminal Justice.  This undergraduate course focuses on the research and writings of feminist criminologists; thus, we cover a wide variety of topics but concentrate on girl’s and women’s experiences with victimization and offending.  Although I am still a teaching newbie, I take this aspect of my professional life very seriously and am always thinking about ways I can improve the learning experience of my students.  Like many of you, lecture and discussion are central to my pedagogical approach to the classroom.  I have become more committed, though, to having my students do more “intellectual heavy lifting” through the use of active learning techniques (although there are MANY resources out there that explore activity learning and ways to implement it in the classroom, I often rely on Bean 2001 as a resource).  While “active learning” can take on a variety of forms, for me it generally means offering my students in-class activities that they work on together in small groups that, in the end, results in the students understanding ideas they would have received more passively had I delivered the content solely via lecture.

Each semester in my course, my students and I spend some time talking about measurement issues as they relate to intimate partner violence (IPV) and sexual assault.  Necessarily, this means taking on the gender symmetry argument: that men and women are victims of IPV in roughly equal numbers (see Kimmel 2002).  In my experience, students are well aware of this argument and have plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the assertion.  While I spend a couple of weeks unpacking these beliefs (and the students likely spend even longer thinking about them) I’d like to share with you one straightforward in-class exercise I use that encourages students to view the symmetry argument more complexly.

After establishing the “what” of the gender symmetry argument, I explain that these popular claims are actually grounded—at least in part—in social science data.  We look at the original Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) and I explain that social scientists critique this measurement tool because it misrepresents violence, in part, by not taking into account the social context of the abuse.  I explain that the students will be working in small groups with qualitative data from peer-reviewed articles that will help them understand that critiques.  I provide groups with handouts that include excerpts of qualitative data from victims who describe incidents of abuse.  Of course, the narratives are powerful and, also, triggering for some students so it is useful to announce the purpose of the activity to students so they are prepared.  Together, the students read through each narrative and identify aspects of the qualitative data that the CTS would be unable to pick up.  Students catch on relatively quickly after I provide them with an example and commonly come up with the following critiques: What are the motives of each partner (self-defense)?; What is the history of abuse (is there a pattern of violence)?; What are the physical consequences of an act of violence?; What about violence that occurs among dating, separated, or divorced partners?; What about forms of non-physical abuse?  Depending on the time I have, sometimes the goal is simply to get the students to think more critically about the CTS and the way we measure and understand IPV.  However, clearly, it is possible for these points to turn into discussions about other relevant topics like the cycle of violence, types of violence used by perpetrators, the strengths and weakness of quantitative and qualitative data, etc…  I’ve spent between 15 and 75 minutes on the activity depending on my goals for the day.

When the students actually experience the problems with the CTS via this active learning exercise, they seem to have a better grasp and be able to recall more easily critiques of the gender symmetry argument.  Additionally, because the activity is student-centered, students often come up with questions about IPV that would not arise if they were not interacting with the material in this more hands on way.  Finally, many students connect strongly with the qualitative data.  Indeed, there is perhaps no more powerful teaching tool than real stories when it comes to IPV.

Bean, J. C. (2001). Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Kimmel, M. S. (2002). "'Gender Symmetry' in Domestic Violence:  A Substantive and Methodological Research Review." Violence Against Women, 8(11), 1332-1363.