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date: 13 April 2021

Teaching Genocidelocked

  • Jeffrey S. BachmanJeffrey S. BachmanSchool of International Service, American University

Summary

Teaching genocide is a complex endeavor. The field of genocide studies is unique in the scale of its interdisciplinarity. Indeed, genocide studies lacks a disciplinary home, meaning those who teach genocide approach the subject from incredibly diverse disciplines, fields, and subfields. Yet, despite the pedagogical activity on genocide education, including the proliferation of undergraduate and graduate courses, many students will only take one course on genocide before they graduate. When designing a course on genocide, teachers must decide what to include in such a course.

Teaching genocide is further complicated by ongoing debates and contestation in the field. Though the Genocide Convention legally defines genocide, this definition has been endlessly scrutinized, with scholars identifying numerous deficiencies and developing alternative definitions. Which definition of genocide employed is also a determining factor in which cases are recognized as genocide. When certain definitions are used, in particular those that limit genocide to mass killing, and a limited number of applicable cases are studied, a hegemonic understanding of genocide may emerge. Therefore, the definitional debates have implications for genocide recognition, response, and historical memory.

Contestation and debate in genocide studies, however, also provides teachers with space for creativity and innovation. Students can join their teachers as genocide scholars. Together, teachers and students can participate in the definitional debates and analyze cases. They can approach questions such as how did mass killing come to be synonymous with genocide? And why are some cases of genocide studied disproportionately compared with others? The answers to these and associated questions have real consequences for affected peoples and historical memory.

Importantly, teaching genocide can be an act of critical exploration, or what Dirk Moses and Alex Hinton refer to as “critical genocide studies.” Teachers need guidance for designing a course that encourages critical engagement through direct participation in the field’s many debates.

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