Teaching RC on a College Campus

(Part Two)

In the first part of this article, printed in the January 2013 Present Time, I described ways to get a foothold, in an academic institution, for teaching RC. I shared how I’ve gained administrative and faculty support, recruited students, and so on. In this part I’ll discuss what I’ve figured out over the past five years of teaching a “Seminar in Advanced Listening Skills”—what I’ve learned about tailoring the essential information of an RC fundamentals class to an academic setting and the students’ needs.

STRUCTURE AND LEADERSHIP 

Although I’m paid to teach only one course, I’ve divided it into two sections with a maximum of twelve students in each. The sections meet once a week, for a class period of an hour and fifteen minutes, throughout a fifteen-week semester. The students receive one unit of credit and no grade. In the last two years, the course has met in the Psychology Clinic’s group therapy room, a cozy space lined with couches, but before that, a regular classroom with chairs that we moved into a circle worked just fine.

After the first year, I brought in another RC teacher as a co-instructor. Then we were able to split the group for part of the class period so that students who had taken the course before could receive more advanced training. Also, during the last two years, a student who has taken the course twice has served as an assistant.

CONTENT AND ACTIVITIES

Students who are taking the course for the first time usually expect a typical academic class. If they’re in one of the peer-helper programs on campus, or headed toward a helping profession, they expect to enhance their listening and helping skills. As instructors, we regularly remind the students of how the skills they are learning can help others, even as we encourage them to focus on their own re-emergence. Generally, they are delighted to discover the informality, openness, safety, and supportiveness of an RC class. A few plead scheduling problems and drop out after the first or second meeting—I suspect because they feel the course is more personal than they bargained for.

In the first nine weeks, we present the fundamentals of RC theory and practice. Each class includes a short lecture and a go-around for sharing personal examples. A mini-session with voluntary sharing afterward provides an opportunity for brief demonstrations. (Before a demonstration, we always ask the client for permission, and he or she is free to refuse.) Occasionally one of us instructors does a short demonstration with the other, to model that it’s safe to discharge and easy to return to present time. As the semester progresses, we often ask the class during the demonstrations to suggest contradictions.1

For a half hour of the class, my co-teacher takes the returning students (there are usually three or four) to another room to split time,2 be counseled by an experienced RC teacher, and be coached in counseling one another. They can choose whether or not to do this, and depending on the topic we are covering with the new students that day, some of them opt to stay in the main class. For the liberation topics, everyone stays.

We have found it best if students pair up with a partner at the end of the second class and stay paired with that person throughout the semester. This assures that all the students have a session every week and that they don’t have to worry about not being picked. It also tends to increase safety, as each person quickly comes to feel that he or she has a special ally in the class. Some of the students are able to choose one another. The more hesitant ones write their schedules on the board and use matching schedules as a rationale for pairing up.

Each week the students hand in a log sheet on which they report the date that they met for their last session, when it started and ended, some of the things they focused on in their turn, what worked well or any difficulties they had, and a brief reflection on how an aspect of RC relates to something in their life. This enables us to make sure they are having sessions, to keep track of their learning, and to provide additional guidance if needed.

For the last six weeks of the course, we focus on oppression and liberation. We start with young people’s oppression, not only as a foundation for all the other oppressions but because it’s recent enough that young adults are able to relate to it easily. Also, because it’s a new concept for them, it doesn’t raise the fears and resistance that sexism and racism are likely to stir up. Next we focus on men’s oppression. The reassuring information that no boy or man would ever oppress or collude with the oppression of another person if he hadn’t been forced into it by societal demands makes the students much more receptive when we focus on sexism in the following class. We do men’s and women’s panels in those two classes, which generally have a big impact.

For the next two classes, we focus on cultural background. The students meet in groups with others of a similar heritage, share experiences, and then report back to the class. They are excited to discover commonalities in values and behavior that have been part of growing up in, say, a Latino/a or Asian culture. The safety provided by these groups enables them to speak openly to the class about some of the challenges they face, such as racism, assimilation pressures, and biracial identity. The issues that come up give us the opportunity to talk about and do demonstrations on internalized oppression. In the last class of the semester, we focus on classism and ask the students to fill out a course feedback sheet.

WORKING ON RACISM

Helping the white students learn about racism has been tricky. The first time I taught the course, half of the students were white, and when I introduced the topic some of them said that they viewed racism as a thing of the past. They made familiar defensive comments, such as, “I don’t see color—it doesn’t matter to me if someone is black or white or green or purple,” and “How come3 they get to have an African American fraternity but we don’t get to have a white one? It’s reverse discrimination.” These attitudes made it unsafe for the students targeted by racism to speak about their own experiences. I got scared and backed off, so the only learning that occurred was my realizing I needed to find a different approach.

Each year it has gotten easier. It helps to have co-teachers (one a person targeted by racism) who support me in addressing the topic. Also, the class makeup has changed over time such that generally only a few white students take the class. The heritage-group format helps, too, in that the students targeted by racism are emboldened to reveal experiences of racism, which the white students get to listen to. It’s often the first time the white students have heard anything like that. I make sure to join the white-heritage group, so that when racist recordings4 play (as they inevitably do), I can do some counseling, provide information, and help shape the group report that will be shared with the rest of the class.

HOW THESE CLASSES ARE DIFFERENT 

Although we teach RC, some of the goals and expectations in the course are different from those in regular RC classes. We make it clear from the outset5 that our aim is to teach listening and helping skills, and we present RC theory and techniques in that context. We encourage discharge as a means of healing from past hurts, but we respect that some students may not wish to delve very far into their own feelings.

All of the students end up with an understanding of the nature of human beings, the counseling process, and societal oppression. They feel a connection to other class members and have a more positive view of themselves, and most of them do choose to work more deeply on old hurts. But a few of them don’t. Our acceptance of this makes it possible for everyone to feel successful. Some people surprise us by showing up the next year to take the course again, having gotten a glimpse of something more they could gain. Usually, the second (or third) time around, the discharge comes.

Because the course has been billed as providing listening (rather than counseling) skills, we generally use the terms “listener” and “speaker” rather than “counselor” and “client” (though we tend to use the latter more as the semester progresses).

As the students are often hesitant to reach out to others, we become pretty6 directive. For example, for mini-sessions, instead of having people choose partners, we ask every second person around the circle to go sit next to someone that he or she hasn’t connected with before. That way no one ends up being left out or feeling unwanted, and by the end of the semester everyone has had a mini-session with every other classmate.

We continually remind the students to offer to hold hands when they are the listener, but it takes most of the semester before the first-time people are comfortable enough to accept. We also coach the students throughout the semester to go beyond “Thank you for listening to me” when they’re appreciating their mini-session partner during the closing circle. Because it’s a school environment, and because constraints on physical contact may be part of the students’ cultural backgrounds, we save hugging until the end of the last class. When they’re all feeling pleased with the course, with one another, and with us, we tell them that they may be ready for the one important RC technique we’ve left out. Then we stand up and offer a hug to anyone who wants one, and encourage them to hug each other. Needless to say, it takes a long time for people to leave.

Because the class time is so short, about four weeks into the course my co-teacher or I meet with each student for an individual twenty-minute conference. And at about week eight, we do a half-hour coaching session with each pair. We use these meetings to check on how things are going for the students—in the class, in their sessions, and in their life. They usually turn into a brief session in which the students (often to their surprise) discharge. This helps us get to know the students better and gives them an inkling of what might be possible in their sessions. If they’re having difficulties in their Co-Counseling relationship, we may have an additional conference with both students to iron things out.7

In the coaching session, each student counsels his or her partner for fifteen minutes. We provide information where needed and nudge the counselors through any reticence they may have to make eye contact, hold hands (if the client accepts it), look pleased, and offer contradictions. Then we leave the two of them to finish the session on their own. The coaching session is often a turning point. I am always amazed that despite all our instructions and modeling in class, many students need direct coaching to break through their timidity. One young woman, whose partner hadn’t discharged, had been sitting stone-faced and silent under the misapprehension that she was supposed to look “neutral.” We have found that a little tweaking goes a long way. After the coaching session, the students’ skills and connection with one another clearly increase.

Unlike many RC Communities, we have access to a wonderfully diverse body of potential participants, many of whom are children of immigrants or are immigrants themselves. Some have been migrant farmworkers, or lived in a war zone, or been homeless. Others have been raised in privilege. Why so few white students take the course (the university is about fifty percent white) is a mystery to us. It may be that the focus on oppression in the latter weeks is more challenging for them than for the students targeted by racism.

STUDENT FEEDBACK

On the feedback sheet we give out in the last class, we ask the students what they gained from the course and their sessions, and if their feelings about themselves or others have changed as a result of the course. Here are some typical responses from the past two years:

“I see myself so positively now, and I understand that we are all wonderful people. I’m not scared to express my feelings and discharge them.”

“I realized that so many of my ‘faults’ are just patterns, that people are not ‘against’ me, that life is actually wonderful.”

“I have gained self-confidence, and knowledge about how people are hurt and can heal completely, about the oppression people face, and about how to help people become the person they truly are.”

“I learned that I have internalized a lot of gender oppression, and also the fear that my mother felt when communism took over my country.”

“I have definitely changed the way I talk and react to my baby. I have a better idea of what to do when he cries.”

“I see how others have been hurt by oppression—sexism, racism, and so on. I had never fully realized what it must be like to be on the other end of that.”

“I realize that the many feelings of shame or guilt I had are not my fault; they are internalized oppression.”

“You have given me a gift that I will utilize for the rest of my life.”

It is clear from the feedback that the students have learned the fundamentals of RC. They are grateful to have enhanced their listening and helping skills, and most of them also understand the benefits to themselves of discharging and re-emerging from old hurts. They have, to varying degrees, developed an understanding of the oppressive forces in society and the ways that they and others have been affected. A number of them have expressed a desire to incorporate RC into their lives, and some of them are moving toward becoming RC teachers in the Community. I feel fortunate to have been able to provide valuable RC information to young people who are making the transition to their adult lives.

OPPORTUNITIES OUT THERE  

The main point I hope to make in this article is that teaching RC in an academic setting is often not hard to do and can be very rewarding. Although academic departments in research-oriented institutions may not be accessible, helping specialties, such as nursing and occupational therapy, are likely to be receptive. Also, student organizations and peer helping programs often welcome a course in listening skills. The opportunities are out there—for example, I’ve been invited to teach RC at another local university and to offer a course for psychology interns at a “mental health” agency.

Until now we’ve been paid, but recent university-wide cutbacks mean that this coming year we’ll be teaching on a volunteer basis. For RC teachers who want to start a class in a college setting, volunteering may be a useful approach. In this time of austerity and cutbacks, an offer of free services may be hard to refuse.

Phyllis Bronstein
Phyllis died, or cancer, in December 2012


1 Contradictions to the distress2 “Split time” means take equal turns being listened to by the group.
3 “How come” means why do.
4 Distress recordings
5 “Outset” means beginning.
6 “Pretty” means quite.
7 “Iron things out” means resolve things.


Last modified: 2017-04-06 16:01:36-07