Monday, April 13, 2020

Jill Christman: Indelible (Campus Sexual Assault): a class, a podcast, & a conversation



In December 2018, I wrote here about the unacceptably high rates of gender-based sexual violence on our campuses and asked what our specific responsibilities as teachers of nonfiction writing might be in both supporting student survivors under Title IX and contributing to the cultural shift we’re going to need to enact real change. At the core of my argument was the guiding principle of my life and work: stories are power, and when power is lost—say, in an assault or simply by existing in a culture that supports sexual violence—finding a way to tell our stories can help us to not only reclaim that lost power, but to access power we never knew could be ours.

I also questioned the common interpretation of Title IX guidelines that assigns faculty the role of “responsible employee,” and thus mandates that writing teachers report disclosures of sexual violence whether the student consents or not—which policy, of course, flies in the face of everything we’re trying to teach about consent. The more I learned about Title IX, on my own campus and across the nation, and the more I read about the current state of sexual violence, the more I came to understand that my outrage wasn’t enough. I needed to do something, and at the end of that 2018 Essay Daily post, I outlined my plan: I’d received a fellowship to spend a semester teaching a single fifteen-hour course examining sexual violence on our nation’s campuses and thinking about the role storytelling had to play in making a change.

The parameters of the course were unique and defined by the fellowship: it would be the only class on my schedule, I would interview and select a team of students from across disciplines who would in turn be taking just one (giant, daily, all-consuming) class and we would engage with the community and make something.

So at the end of August 2019, just three days after I turned fifty, the fifteen of us gathered for the first time in the classroom that would become our home for the next sixteen weeks—think: large Tupperware snack box to keep out the mice, needlework and paintings and idea boards all around, one table stacked with blankets and another covered with recording equipment, daily mugs of steaming tea, coffee, and cocoa. We had many guests—from sex crime prosecutors and deans to victim advocates and self-defense teachers—and we ate a fair amount of chocolate. And bread. Lots of bread. Our classroom was a converted garage at the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry in the 1927 Kitselman mansion southwest of campus. My office had a glowing gas fireplace (a lifelong dream fulfilled), carved tiles, and a hidden compartment behind the bookcases with a locked safe. I never cracked it so I’m afraid I can’t tell you what’s hidden inside.



The students came from across disciplines: Creative Writing, Rhetoric and Writing, Literature, English Education, Telecommunications, Women and Gender Studies, Psychology, Criminal Justice, Speech and Audiology, and Accounting—and yes, the writing students have done a lot of work on the scripts, the accounting student handled project management, and the TCom student mixes our sound to this day, but one thing we said going into that intense semester was that we would stretch ourselves, learn new things, take turns behind the viewfinder and keyboard and microphone. Each week of the semester, a different pair of students picked up the camera to create a mini-documentary capturing the work of the week. Everyone got to hold the camera. Everyone got to experience firsthand how we control and affect every story we frame, select, and edit. (If you want a glimpse of our team at the mansion, an impossibly long time ago, here is our mini-documentary from our first week together in August 2019.)

We worked our butts off, beginning the semester with intensive reading, podcast listening, and documentary viewing. In week two, because we said we were going to do make a podcast but we had no earthly idea how, we brought in a media consultant, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, for a two-day podcasting bootcamp. Juleyka came in and showed us our path, laying out the steps we would need to take to produce a podcast—a central mission that we dubbed “our greater goddess.” As in, “Wait. Is this how we should be spending our time? How will this serve our greater goddess?” This was a lesson in mission-drift prevention.

Turns out, making a podcast takes a lot more than mouths moving in a room with a microphone, and our semester was not without breakdowns, setbacks, and many, many problems to be solved. One student initiated and ran weekly “self-care respites” with yoga, art, meditation, gratitude exercises, and the like—and let me tell you, we needed these breaks because some weeks were long, too long, and others flew by and left our deliverables to-do list fluttering in the wind like an autumn leaf. In retrospect, our mansion time was not bad training for the quarantine we didn’t know then was coming up to meet us and we would have made for some pretty good reality television. But we never gave up.

Like pissed off, broken-hearted, well-resourced badgers, we dug into everything we could find that affects campus sexual violence—prevention efforts, educational programs, support services, media coverage, legal issues, gender identity and discrimination, the larger rape culture, state-level sex education, etcetera—and throughout, we conducted interviews and recorded stories. We studied the successes (e.g., did you know that self-defense courses combining physical prevention techniques and risk reduction programming can reduce a participant’s chance of a future assault by a rate of up to 66%?), failures, and betrayals across the many systems and institutions connected to sexual violence during this vulnerable time for college students. (We may or may not have been forced to employ the phrase Fuck the patriarchy in a professional setting with some regularity.) With a focus on storytelling and the power we claim by gaining agency over our own stories, we considered not only recovery and prevention, but also what it might take to create permanent, positive, systematic change.

Burning through post-its and whiteboards, we generated and considered over 140 podcast titles before landing on Indelible after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s unforgettable testimony during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. “Indelible in the hippocampus,” Blasey Ford said, “is the laughter.” Indelible became both our name and a vital narrative tool. Each themed podcast episode features both expert analysis and additional interpretation from our host and is built around the most important element: a survivor’s story. We listened, we believed, we supported, and at the end of every interview, we asked: “What, for you, is indelible?”

And you know what? We did it.

By the end of the Fall 2019 semester, we had a podcast name and a pending trademark application, a logo, a website, a social media presence, scripts, hours of interviews and transcriptions, both original music and licensing, a target listener, a trailer, a pilot, and a plan for the full first season. We celebrated with a showcase in a lovely, many windowed room in the center of our campus—with actual in-the-flesh people. That wonderful night now seems so long ago, but the Indelible crew got dressed up and hosted a double premiere, screening our thirty-minute class documentary and giving our audience the very first listen to the trailer for Indelible: Campus Sexual Violence. Sixteen weeks after it had all begun, somehow we’d accomplished what we’d set out to do: we’d made a trailer and our first podcast episode, produced a documentary film about our process, and developed a presentation on student-driven learning for the Fall 2020 Jana’s Campaign Midwest Campus Safety Summit.

The students also did things I hadn’t outlined in the original course plan, such as shooting those weekly mini-documentaries and building a website and a social media platform to support students and survivors of campus sexual violence. Essentially, we’d taken a deep dive into a complicated subject—survived, then thrived, and built the scaffolding for an ongoing podcast, and potentially (a hope, a dream), a nationwide collaboration. At Indelible, we’re nothing if not ambitious.

Here’s some of what I said to my students on the night of the showcase:
What a joy and a challenge and a privilege it has been to come to know each of you and watch you do your thing—individually and collectively.
I am so proud. Coming into our classroom that first week, you started out by showing me you were ready. All of you. You understood that just because the alarming statistics on gender-based violence haven’t changed in the past thirty years, that doesn’t mean we are helpless. You have exhibited such grace and ferocity. Such tenderness and power. Such giant hearts and nimble brains. You have made the conversation about sexual violence on our own campus bigger and it is growing all the time. You shared the skills you already had and you all developed new ones. Also? You were full of surprises. You made art. You wrote words. You captured sound. You listened so carefully. You believed. You treated every story with care. You treated each other with care. You treated yourselves with care. It’s like you’re magic, right? Remember this feeling on your hard days. Do what you love and work for what matters. The problem of sexual violence, in the larger world and on our campuses, can feel so huge. What we are working toward is nothing less than a cultural shift, but you are moving us in that direction and the sum of your efforts is powerful. I know this conversation has only just begun. There’s not a one among you who’s the shutting up type. Thank you for your commitment. You inspire me.
And they did. And they do. Because here’s the thing, we’d planned a full season, but we simply didn’t have the time to finish interviewing, writing, recording, and mixing all six episodes. So I asked the students if anyone could return to work with me in the spring. I proposed just three credits and one goal: finish season one. And do you know what? More than half of the students did want to keep working. Eight chose to continue in their varied roles as social media coordinators, reporters, producers, researchers, script writers, composers, website designers, and sound mixers. They wanted to finish what they started.

In the meantime, of course, our university has moved exclusively online, but we continue to do our work from a distance. In a time when our brains are consumed by thoughts of COVID-19 transmission, respirator shortages, and social distancing guidelines—by every kind of grief—having something like Indelible to occupy our attention has felt like a gift. Since January, we’ve dropped the trailer—that’s how we podcast folks talk—and the first three episodes: Beginnings, Aftermath, and Title IX. We’ve got three more cooking, all of which will be out in the world by the end of May—Legal, Greek Life, and Empowerment Self-Defense. We wanted to end the season on a note of hope.

I know it’s hard to think about anything other than COVID-19 right now. I get it. I’m with you. I’m writing now in a room with a poet (who’s also an assistant department chair and Zooming all the time), a couple of scratching dogs, and two e-learning kids. When all this is over—and it will be, at least sort of—we’re going to return to our campuses. Many things will have changed because of the pandemic, but the problem of campus sexual assault will remain. 

So, we hope you’ll start by listening—as we did. You can find Indelible: Campus Sexual Violence on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts. Indelible is a great resource for college classrooms—online and face-to-face. What we’ve learned on our own campus is that the more we talk about the issues surrounding campus sexual violence, the more everybody talks about it, and when we normalize these initially difficult conversations, they spread and multiply. There are fewer places for misinformation, shaming, and perpetrators to hide.

*

Last September, the Indelible crew took to the main intersection on our then-bustling campus with microphones to ask passing students what they knew about things like Title IX, campus resources, consent, and the heightened risk at the beginning of the fall semester called the red zone. You can hear snippets from these reporter-on-the-street interviews in Episode 1, but here’s a spoiler: the students knew very little about how to protect themselves and what to do in the aftermath of an assault. Do you know who they did know? Lots of friends who’d experienced an assault. Early on in this process, I fielded concerns—and those worries made me worry: Why would we have a class to talk about rape? Won’t this upset the students? Mightn’t we give the impression that our campus somehow has a bigger problem than other campuses?

We all have a problem. But here’s the thing my university understood in its support of this important project: Talking about sexual violence is not the problem. Giving survivors the opportunity to tell their stories is not the problem. Sexual violence is the problem. I’ve never met a secret that did anyone any good, and we don’t make change by keeping quiet. Stories embolden stories and each truth told holds up the next. At Indelible, we want to get even louder and we want you to join us.


We invite you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates and behind-the-sounds material. For more information about our process and the podcast, detailed resources for students and survivors, and short curated lists of reading/listening/viewing recommendations, check out our our website. If you’re a survivor of campus sexual violence or you know someone who would be interested in sharing their story on Indelible (always anonymously with names, locations, and sometimes, voices disguised)—or if you want to share an idea, resource, or suggestion—please get in touch with us at indeliblepod@gmail.com.

I’ve been saving my big ask for the end, and really, it’s more of an invitation. Immersive learning classes are an amazing opportunity, but students graduate and semesters end. This is good and I’m already celebrating the next great things these Indelible-founding students will do in this world, but here’s the thing: we don’t want Indelible to end. I am trying to develop a model that will not only sustain this project and conversation, but make it even bigger, using what we’ve already built as a scaffolding from which others can hang their stories, research, and analysis. Hear me out. What if we tried out a method of crowd-sourcing episodes of Indelible from other institutions and from across disciplines? Imagine a poetry class, say, that produced an episode on spoken word activism to fight campus violence. Or a history class charting the history of Title IX legislation and campus implementation. Or maybe an anthropology class recording the stories of a particular population of international students? The possibilities go on and on for all the reasons that we need to keep this conversation going in the first place. If I’ve learned anything from working with this original cohort of Indelible students, it’s that if we create a space to safely consider a problem—say, campus sexual violence—and offer the most powerful tool we possess—storytelling—the students will find a way. They will step in and create their own change, again and again.

Could we share labor and resources on the Indelible platform in a way that would through its very process expand the conversation about campus sexual violence across the country? I think so. I really do. I know we all have a lot of other things on our minds right now, but if you believe, in the future, that you or your students or colleagues in other departments or at other institutions might be interested in contributing content to Indelible, please drop us a note at indeliblepod@gmail.com and we’ll get back with you—with gratitude, and eventually, a plan. Thank you for giving it some thought.

These next weeks are going to be hard. I am wishing you and your beloveds health and peace. I’d like to close with the Toni Morrison quotation I shared with the Indelible team during our first week together:

“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

Be safe, friends.






Jill Christman is the author of two memoirs, Darkroom: A Family Exposure and Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood, as well as essays in magazines such as Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Longreads, River Teeth, and True Story. Her awards include an NEA Prose Fellowship and the AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction. A senior editor for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, she teaches at Ball State University. Visit her at www.jillchristman.com and @jill_christman.

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