Controversies in Contemporary Social Policy: Gun Violence in America

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Course DatesMeeting TimesStatusInstructor(s)CRNRegistration
July 13, 2020 - July 24, 20207/13 - 7/24M-F 9A-3POpenAlyssa Anderson

Course Description

From mass shootings to gang violence, attacks on schools to perceived attacks on constitutional rights, few things have been as central to controversial issues in the United States over the last several decades as guns. The debate over who can own them and how they ought to be used is an ongoing battle between groups with varying interests, from the families of victims, to the multi-million dollar firearm industry, to rural communities for whom hunting is simply a way of life. Moreover, as the rise of mass shootings continues to dominate national conversation, it is often at the expense of so-called “urban” communities for whom gun violence has long been a dominant and destructive force. What might the silencing of these voices and the supremacy of others tell us about how Americans understand firearms as a potential threat to society?

This course will explore how effective each of these groups are at arguing for their position, as well as what happens when all of these voices come together to try to effect change. It will also consider how other countries around the world have come to understand gun violence, the policies they have enacted, and with what success. Students will look at both the process of advocacy and the resulting policy it creates at the local and national levels, and will be asked to evaluate whether or not these proposed solutions truly reflect the problem at hand.

Through stimulating discussions and activities, students in this course will examine the disparate roles of firearms on two levels: geographically within the United States and comparatively between the US and other nations. Students will be asked to engage with a mix of scholarly and popular materials in order to best reflect the way public understanding of an issue develops from multiple sources, often simulations. From the Journal of American Medicine’s 2017 issue devoted to firearm violence revealing that its victims were disproportionately “young, male, and black,” to the NRA’s “Freedom’s Safest Place” campaign urging every American to arm themselves, the course will be structure around contemporary case studies that examine the many sides of the gun control issue. For the US, such case studies may include for-profit companies such as Remmington Arms, national NGOs such as the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence (EFSGV), and grassroot campaigns such as Sandy Hook Promise. On an international scale we may turn to the 2011 Norway attacks and its subsequent government response, the efficacy of China’s 1966 and 1996 zero-tolerance gun laws, or former Tehran mayor Mohammad Ali Najafi’s confession to—and subsequent acquittal of—shooting and killing his wife, raising questions about domestic violence and elected officials’ immunity to national law. This course includes sensitive content that may not be appropriate for all students. Course engagement with themes of gun violence are chosen carefully to reflect the academic capacity and analytical skills of high school students.

At the start of the course, students will choose one of these case studies to become an “expert” on and will help lead discussion and plan activities for the day it is discussed. Over the course of two weeks, students will combine their expertise in order to analyze how competing interests advocate for their own positions and goals, and how those opposing them can organize and gain traction. Students will use this knowledge as they move towards the creation of their own Action Plan.

Students will leave this course having a better understanding of—and appreciation for—the complex forces that go into creating social policy. While the debates around gun control serve as the framework for this class, students will learn how to unpack and think critically about controversial issues in a way that is transferable to other topics as well. Students interested in majoring in a social science field in college would be well served by the discussions and analytical approaches utilized in the course.

This course is part of the Leadership Institute, a two-week academic program that helps students cultivate the knowledge, skills, and attitudes associated with effective and socially responsible leadership. This unique program consists of three integrated elements: academic content, leadership development, and the Action Plan. Our students are thoughtful and compassionate youth who are interested in social issues and creating positive change. Enrollment in this program requires several hours of online engagement prior to campus arrival. This online participation may be completed at any time where internet access is available. Once on campus, participants can look forward to full days in a community of engaged and curious learners.

Additional programmatic information may be found here.

Prerequisites: None

Instructor Biography

Dr. Alyssa Anderson is a Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies at Brown University, where she graduated with her PhD in January of 2019. Her research explores how difficult or contested histories are negotiated, challenged, and reified through networks of cultural productions made by and for those who claim the history as their own. By bringing together artifacts that are often studied in isolation from one another, she aims to provide a more holistic account of how societies come to understand their pasts—and, most importantly, how that understanding informs their actions in the present. Alyssa’s most recent project, “Violence and the Repertoire: Coming of Age in the Age of Mass Shootings,” explores the abundance of cultural production around school shootings in the 20 years since Columbine. Tracing Americans’ evolving understanding of who or what is to blame these attacks, it recognizes Americans’ paradoxical relationship to the memory of these events. If memorials seem to promise never again, the ubiquity of active shooter drills in schools appears to, at the same time, assert the very inevitability of the next attack. Alyssa argues that ultimately, the cultural products meant to imbue these attacks with a sense of logic are the very same ones which sustain a sense of ambiguity and fear—thus perpetuating the anxieties they are meant to assuage. Alyssa has leant her expertise in gun violence and its aftermath to many other creative projects on the topic, from the university’s own Brown Daily Herald to Emmy-award winning director Jason Stefaniak’s docuseries project “Distressed Real Estate.” She is also passionate about teaching and has designed and taught five of her own courses for the department of American Studies, where she currently works with both undergraduate and graduate students. As a first-generation college student, Alyssa is committed to helping all students succeed in a higher education setting through inclusive teaching practices and an asset-based approach to individual students.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CESO0956
  • Length: 2 weeks

Program Information

Leadership Institute

Two-week non-credit residential program focused on socially responsible leadership and creating positive change. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2020.

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