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Paper Presented at ACJS 2000 Meetings

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: March 19, 2000
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Creating a Virtual Academic Community

by Jeanne Curran
California State University, Dominguez Hills
and Susan R. Takata
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Copyright: Curran and Takata, March 2000. "Fair Use" encouraged.

This is a story, a story of how a community was spawned in an academic setting between teachers and students. But it is much more than that, for the teachers were committed criminologists, so that the story is as much one of critical criminology and an understanding of the interdependence of "discipline" and "punishment" as it is of teachers and students. We believe the story has much to offer to both criminology and to the academy. And, yes, we realize that that statement smacks of metanarrative, but that's the story we have to tell.

Background: The Real Time Community from Which We Sprang

This virtual community was born of love, the love of learning. Back in the early 70s, the first seed was planted. the sandbox, give a sandbox right smack in the middle of the building, with lots of window space, so they can see inside. They will be drawn first to lurk, then to join in, and soon they will be playing with us. Then they will let go of their structural violence. They will see they have no need for it.

Didn't work. They lurked, they came, but they categorized us into what they could fit into their world, and the rest they left aside. They left the love and the joy, of which the sandbox had come, aside.

Susan and I went on. Who knows why? Probably because we both really believed in the love and the joy, and the fun we had in the sandbox. Susan had been there when the sandbox first came into being, when the college gave us the space we had chosen. I still have flashes of remembering her working on a PSA paper with me, in that room framed in glass, hoping the world would see, and come in. That was the PSA paper she gave during her first year at Berkeley, from which she recalls that she was the only "first year" giving a professional paper. I still recall the study was on church programs in Gardena, California. And given our work since then, I'll wager it focussed on their youth programs.

Lessons We Took from the First Stage of Real Time Community

That we were categorized, understood too quickly, if we didn't use jargon, we were excluded, but if we did use jargon we were understood too quickly. Simply everyone already knew what we had to say, and no one bothered to listen. We learned with Habermas to call that not listening to validity claims in good faith, and with Lewis Gordon to call that ignorant bad faith in Sartrean terms. In this paper, limited by presentation time, we summarize the work of many sociologists and philosophical thinkers as the structural violence of the academic institution.

We were attracted to that terminology in the Toronto ASC meetings in 1999. In a session on Peacemaking Criminology someone commented, "to be absent is to be structurally violent." Undoubtedly the speaker had a specific instance in mind, but what struck me was the concept of "absence" in terms of ignorant good faith, a claim of openness, of "objective" disinterestedness, that is denied by ignorant good faith's certainty that it has already heard everything worth hearing. "Absence," in the sense of the "knowingness" Jonathan Lear deplores .

Structural violence, as we are using the term, is violence that results not from individual intent, anger, frustration, but from the categorization process through which we tend to translate our "knowingness," the metanarrative to which we subscribe. Martha Minow speaks to the unstated assumptions on which we base our "knowingness." Philosophers, legal theoreticians, and criminal justice professionals have long dealt with the issue of how to reconcile multiple worldviews within the social context we call society.

As the cost of incarceration runs higher every year, as the problems of education, rehabilitation, prevention grow more complex every year, the problem of structural violence looms larger as an issue to which the criminal justice system must turn its attention. To what extent are our institutions, family, school, community, higher and professional education, contributing to the violence we find ourselves unable to stem? We refer here to the eruptions of violence in our schools, workplaces, and roadways, when violent crime overall has peaked and reversed. Whatever else, a six-year-old who shoots and kills, in anger and perceived retaliation, another six-year-old, is not a violent criminal. We cannot extrapolate our definitions of violent crime to include six-year-olds. And, if we cannot, then we must look to the structural violence of our social context, and we must understand ecologically the levels at which structural and personal violence interact.

This story is about how two criminal justice professionals came to focus on structural violence, and how that focus led to the growth of the virtual academic community, Dear Habermas, described in this paper. At first puzzled that we seemed to have started out trying to eliminate what we only much later came to call structural violence, we discovered the extent to which an abhorrence of structural violence had led us to the creation of community from the outset, and now, through that community, has brought us back to this analysis.

We promised in our abstract a review of the growth of this academic community over three semesters. But since that time, we've had a fourth semester added to our history. That was a telling semester in which we found that most of our objectives are long-term ones, for which there are long latent-learning periods. That brings to mind the structural violence of the academy in general, which expects us to publish the results of studies which lend themselves to final reports in relatively short time frames. How drastically our reports of Dear Habermas have changed each year! The criminal justice associations have been far more receptive to the tentativeness of each phase of this growth than have some of the more formal academic associations. We thank ACJS for that openness and willingness to break with rigidity and categorization.

Our Goals and Our Changing Understanding of Those Goals

Back in the early seventies, when we first began this project, CSUDH had a widely-diverse student population. To this new campus came adults who had had no opportunity to gain degrees, but with broad experience and the discipline of practical knowledge. With them came young people, like Susan, on her way to Berkeley and a doctorate. With them came others, young and older alike, to whom the doors of education had been closed until the civil rights legislation of the sixties.

Reading sophistication spanned a range from difficulty at sixth grade level to relative ease with professional literature once the concepts were discussed and defined. Experience with academic resources ran the same gamut, as did sophistication with the use of argument. This meant our need for teaching basic skills matched our need for moving quickly to catch the fire of their imagination. Most of our students had had limited exposure to formal schooling, but were bright, eager, and hungry for knowledge. Hard to reconcile with "remedial" education. These were not children. Many of them were adults with fully developed minds. Mutual respect and gentle non-judgmental guidance were called for. Many were young people who would have made it on their own by sheer stamina and determination. And then there were those who came along, not sure of who they were, or where they were going, but sensing something happening. They needed firmer guidance, but freedom also to discover.

Into this mix the college threw traditional courses, traditional texts, the formal infrastructure of a university, and radical teachers who wanted to usher in a new age of equality and justice for all. The Social Systems Research Center was our answer to this strange mix. The basic idea was to break up the rigidity of classes and tests. We followed Dewey, learn by doing. This approach permitted us to give the respect due our experienced students' practical knowledge, for we were focussing on issues to aid the community. Real issues, real learning. To this we added a practical introduction to social research. During this period there were dozens of agencies that had no resources for needs assessment and evaluation studies. The university had professors experienced in such work, students who needed to learn such skills, and the need to establish links to the community it served.

In the early seventies, there were few private research organizations, no agency budgets for research, and little agency understanding of such research. We worked out what was essentially a partnership with non-profit agencies. Students would perform needs assessment and evaluative research in exchange for budget items allowing for student internships and the funding of future needs. We didn't know the word partnership in the seventies. We spoke of in-kind budgets. But they were real. Students would collect and analyze survey data for agencies. Agencies would then help students in their professional training, and include future budget items for students and/or their research.

Refusal to See "Difference" Results in Structural Violence

But how would it work? In reality? Day to day? Once the school granted us space, a large room, equipped at first with calculators, and an inner office, we moved in and opened our doors. We did schedule classes, but the schedule wasn't rigid. Students came to learn and work on interview schedules when they could. We posted times, and they came when the time worked for them. We posted several alternative times for the workshops. Faculty were in the Center whenever they weren't in class. A local grandmother came for classes, moved in a refrigerator, and mothered everyone. She loved the excitement, the discussions, and she made the day long stays in the Center tolerable.

Only when one professor, come later to the enterprise, insisted on assigning Grandmother the task of writing a research proposal did confusion ensue. Not all of those who come for education are going to incorporate it into their lives in the same way. Each day when I returned to the Center from class, I put aside notes from the proposal she had struggled with, and sent her back to coding, to administering the office, to counseling students with life problems. She liked working with us on designing interview schedules and proposals, but she was not there to write proposals, nor did she have the requisite skills.

This anecdote was the first in a series of our struggle with accountability. The university infrastructure was used to apply the same measure of learning to every student. But with open door admissions, we had promised not to let "difference" block access. To assess Grandmother's learning with the traditional academic methods task of "write a proposal" was to do structural harm by refusing to acknowledge the difference that open door admissions had been designed to overcome. Such an assessment did not build on Grandmother's skills, and did not provide any opportunity for integration of those skills with her life experience. Her failure to complete the task was internalized by her as failure to learn. Not the result we sought. Such an assessment, by failing to take into account the creative ways in which she herself was integrating her new learning with her life experience and life skills was a solid example of what we would call today "structural violence." It also taught the younger students, for whom the exercise of writing a proposal, though too broad to be of much use to them, wasn't nearly as traumatic, that they were intellectually "superior" to Grandmother. That led to elitism, the privileging of subjectivity, interpersonal competition, and ultimately to the elite being granted pay, while those not of that circle were expected to collect data and code for free.

The structural violence did not end with individual cases of refusal to hear and acknowledge "difference." Our HEW funding representative, in conjunction with the professor who assigned the "proposal writing" tried to assess the Center's success with a traditional test on "research methods." Again, there was an assumption that those who had been in positions of power and authority knew what the Center was about, with no attempt to work with its founder and director.

The development of an "elite" circle, and of the exploitation that had to result from such a development, took place over many semesters. But it was the impetus that led to my leaving the Center, and beginning the project which has become "Dear Habermas," scion of the original Center.

Goals Carried Forth from the Social Systems Research Center on to Dear Habermas

We started in the seventies with some pretty clear goals, most of which have not changed over time. Here, we examine those goals, how well they were met in the original real time Center, and how they have evolved into Dear Habermas.

Making Moot Court Less Restrictive: Dear Habermas

Our site Dear Habermas, grew from this long history of matching the institution to the learning needs of the students. In 1996, Habermas published Between Facts and Norms. Susan and jeanne found this a perfect opportunity to update their Sociology of Law classes. Habermas is hard to read, not what you offer to undergraduate students in law and criminal justice. But if not as undergraduates, when? We knew our students were bright enough to understand; we just had to find the way to meet their needs.

These are the goals to which we paid particular attention: