Innovations in Teaching and Learning in Professional Military Education (PME): Gender Perspectives, Narrative, and Autoethnography in the Classroom

By Barbara J. Falk, Department of Defence Studies, Canadian Forces College/Royal Military College of Canada

Designing and promoting culture(s) of innovation is crucial in military classrooms. However, the focus should include not only critical content and methodologies, but also on teaching and learning strategies that both incorporate and challenge deployment and experiential knowledge, are inherently interdisciplinary, adapt to the diverse learning abilities and differences of mid-career officers, and provide multiple engagement and evaluation opportunities. In the proposed presentation, I will elaborate on my own efforts over the last decade in incorporating a) gendered perspectives in curriculum design; b) the use of fictional narratives and literary non-fiction in assignment options; and finally, c) personal testimony and autoethnography in seminar discussion and written assignments.

The course in question, entitled “Genocide, Conflict, and Justice,” offers “interdisciplinary intellectual frameworks for understanding and analyzing the numerous, complex and often emotional issues related to genocide, including legal, political, historical, psychological and sociological debates surrounding the definition, causes, and processes of genocide specifically and mass atrocity more generally.” Each year the course covers the three genocides on which there is serious scholarly consensus: the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks in 1915, the European Holocaust during WW II, and the Rwandan genocide in 1994. However, student interest drives much of the remaining focus of the course, but regardless of differences in content year-over-year, similar overarching questions are addressed, regarding the relationship(s) between and among inter- and intrastate war, economic crisis, modernity and genocide; international, imperial and national/state-building dynamics and historical legacies; and finally, the social-psychological dynamics of ethnic and racialized inequality and dehumanization. Because the course also addresses leadership/operational approaches to genocide and mass atrocity prevention and post-atrocity justice, the course cuts across traditional divisions between international relations and security studies; institutional leadership and ethics; and military planning and operations.

In terms of gendered perspectives in curriculum design, in the early years of this course, students wanted to present on and discuss the concept of “gendercide”—and in particular their focus was on sex selection procedures in states such as India and China that have resulted in a serious deficit of female babies in recent decades. However, as I engaged deeper into agent-based explanations of genocidal causes and behaviours (both in terms of elite “military planners” of genocide as well as “frontline killers”), and following the work of scholars such as Doris Bergen, Adam Jones, Wendy Lower, and Scott Straus, I more fully understood that all genocidal violence is deeply gendered and sexualized. The dehumanization and victimization of targeted populations is always accompanied by violence that both depends upon and reinforces gender stereotypes, either reflecting societal norms and/or the radical ideology of the perpetrators. Moreover, violence against both men and women is sexualized, including the use of slave labour that includes sexual enslavement; sexual assault; the deliberate maiming or removal of genitalia; the deliberate and sex-selective murder of men as potential fighting aged males or women as procreators of the group; and finally the forced impregnation of women to “breed out” allegedly racialized characteristics. Thus, genocide by its very nature and diverse and complex histories/locations demands an understanding of how sex and gender overlap and how biology and culture and woven through ideology are deeply constitutive (Jones 2017, 626). Moreover, understanding genocide as integral to military history means situating gendered, sex-selective mass atrocity violence in the broader continuum of conflict—from the killing of women and children in Thucydides account of the fate of the residents of Melos to ensure their ultimate elimination through to the Rape of Nanjing in 1937 and the widespread use of sexual assault and gendered violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today. Now, rather than assign a particular week or student presentation to “gendercide” I frame the entire course as gendered and sexualized violence in different forms—which means we inevitably begin to discuss sex, gender, and conflict beginning with the first genocide we explore in detail, the Armenian genocide by Ottoman Turks in 1915. My next step is to embed this approach into the course description.

My use of fictional narratives and literary non-fiction has increased organically since I began teaching and later co-teaching the course in 2006. Previously taught as a six-week elective offering, in 2013 the genocide course was expanded 12 weeks—the equivalent of a semester-long graduate course, and assessed equivalent to a similar course at the Royal Military College. Now sometimes co-taught with a larger group of up to 20 students, myself and co-instructor Maja Ćatić have added an additional written deliverable, and rather than include a persuasive essay or research-based assignment, to augment and encourage choice, I provide a 50-plus page bibliography/finding aid that I have been progressively developing since 2006, as well as the option of choosing from among many genres besides the standard academic monograph—such as fictionalized narratives, literary non-fiction, graphic novels, journalistic accounts, biographies and autobiographic memoirs and diaries. Regardless of the text chosen, my overarching goal is to allow the students the time and space to grapple deeply with one text, especially since, given the overall tempo of the programme, there is so much reading of journal articles or book chapters in edited volumes. The assignment also requires depth of analysis and creativity. The outline states:

Typically, a critical book review constructs an overarching argument that functions as the “thread” from which the review is “sewn.” Think of this assignment as the opposite of a research essay in which case you have been provided with a question or topic and must utilize sources to answer the question(s) or address the topic. In this case, you choose a source — the book to be reviewed — and must come up with an argument.

Among the best papers over the last five years have been those written by students who have deliberately chosen what, in the context of the entire programme, may be unconventional choices, such Art Spiegelman’s graphic account of his father’s Holocaust experience in Maus, Gil Courtemanche’s novel on the Rwanda genocide, A Sunday by the Pool in Kigali, or Elizabeth Dauphinee’s autoethnographic yet fictionalized account of her research in Bosnia, The Politics of Exile. Following the work of my colleague Alan Whitehorn, I ask the students to consider, in Aristotelian fashion, the “truth” contained within and “catharsis” potentially generated by fiction—not in the sense of “alternative facts” or privileging emotion over reason, but in offering multiple interior perspectives into the minds and motivations of characters, which in turn help us to understand the psychology those involved as perpetrators, bystanders, victims/survivors, and witnesses of mass atrocity violence. Multiple “sub-plots” allow the possibility to explore many “episodes” within a particular genocidal context, bringing to the fore the richness of local history and culture and complexities and Moreover, through well-crafted narratives in fiction, television drama and film that we gain wider appreciation of the specific context and more generalized horrors of genocides. Holocaust scholars point to the importance of the 1978 television mini-series Holocaust in coming to terms with the Nazi past in Germany or the global reach of the Oscar-winning Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List. The use of multimedia is reinforced in the classroom—using, for example, a film clip from Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah to discuss the Eichmann trial and Arendt’s formulation of the “banality of evil.”

Finally, through written assignments, seminar presentations, and guest speakers, the course has evolved by highlighting and discussing both the value and the challenges of personal testimony and autoethnography. Each year since 2006, Toronto-based Holocaust survivor Max Eisen has addressed the students, an event which yields a powerful discussion and set of reflections—often captured in end-of-year evaluations.

Unexpectedly for me have been the many ways in which in these organically-developed teaching and learning approaches have generated “social license” for the students to explore difficult questions and topics—their own deployments to conflict zones in which ethnic cleansing, genocide and mass atrocity violence has occurred; personal and familial connections to such violence; the psychological and mental health toll of operational stress and PTSD; and with respect to international students, the freedom and ability to investigate “official” narratives regarding such violence in their own national histories. Maja and I view the classroom as a “safe space” protected by the Chatham House rule outside of the chain of command: two factors that facilitate frank and even confessional discussion.

This experience, the most rewarding of my entire teaching career, highlights the old adage that the best teaching inspires research, and vice versa. Indeed, for the last five years we have been conducting systematic research on our students’ work. Genocide Studies is an increasingly important subject of interdisciplinary research and teaching at university campuses, but seldom do professors have students that regularly deploy to conflict zones where mass atrocity violence has occurred or is an ever-present possibility given legacies of hatred and entrenched practices of social othering. It is both a privilege and responsibility that I take very seriously.


Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. Third Edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2017.

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