Giving Back What You Get

by Susan Moke

An adolescent girl describes an incident in which she and a female friend were harassed by some boys making lewd pelvic thrusts outside the girls' dorm windows during a drama camp. The girls creatively transform the boys' sexually harassing gestures into inept attempts at skiing, which they playfully imitate throughout the rest of their week at camp.

During recess, a bully guards a water fountain to prevent other thirsty third graders from getting a drink. One little boy waiting in line histrionically falls to the floor clutching his throat and croaking "Water! Water!" The rest of the students mimic the boy's theatrics. The exasperated bully, realizing his toughness is not being taken seriously, mutters, "You people are pathetic" as he abandons the water fountain to his peers.

Both anecdotes illustrate interactions between bullies and their victims. Both stories also exemplify creative strategies for dealing with aggression. KACTIS (Kids Against Cruel Treatment in Schools), an intervention program developed by Donna Eder, a professor of sociology at Indiana University Bloomington, helps kids discover and develop these sorts of empowering strategies for responding to incidents of aggression, insult, or ridicule.

KACTIS grew out of a large sociological study that examined middle schoolers' peer culture, specifically informal verbal interactions such as gossip, teasing, insulting, and storytelling. Eder undertook the study in an attempt to provide insight into the ways gender inequality develops in early adolescence. She chose to examine the peer culture of middle school because research suggests the middle school years are both a critical stage in the formation of gender identity and a time during which girls generally experience a loss of self-esteem. Working with collaborators Stephen Parker, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, and Catherine Evans, formerly a counselor and social worker for adolescents and currently a museum director at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, Eder studied extracurricular activities and lunchtime socializing at a large Midwestern middle school. The team used ethnography (studying another culture from the perspective of its participants) and discourse analysis to learn about these adolescents' language strategies, values, and concerns. Eder, Parker, and Evans have recently published the results of their study in the book School Talk: Gender and Adolescent Culture, which they wrote to appeal to parents, teachers, and school administrators, as well as to their fellow academics.

Eder's work with adolescent peer culture reveals that a great deal of sexual harassment goes on in schools and that girls are more likely than boys to be victims of such harassment. Initially, she had intended to focus the study on the role organized athletics can play in improving girls' self esteem. Eder's ethnography team studied both girls' and boys' athletics. They discovered that while participating in sports can indeed improve girls' self-esteem, athletic fields serve as the training grounds on which young men definitively learn to associate masculinity with competitiveness and aggression. "Looking at boys' sports, what disturbed me was that they promoted not just winning in competition, but being aggressive and winning at all costs," Eder says. "The socialization that boys get in middle schools is windon't care about whom you hurt. Don't be nice; be tough." Eder's data suggests that boys typically manifest this ideology in a sexual context—in their interactions with girls and in their competition with other boys for girls' attention. Thus, the study has led Eder to conclude that it is crucial for boys to be shown other models for sexual behavior and essential for girls to be offered workable strategies for responding to sexist insults.

"Because sexual aggression is closely related to other forms of verbal aggression and abuse, many schools are beginning to teach children conflict resolution skills in the elementary grades," Eder observes. Yet she goes on to note that most of these programs merely transfer adult mediation strategies into the children's environments. As an ethnographic researcher, Eder doubts the effectiveness of asking children to use adult tools to solve their own problems. KACTIS is based on the premise that middle and elementary school peer culture has its own distinctive attributes and language patterns that children can use to diffuse bullying. In 1994, Eder began working after school with a group of students from different elementary schools in the Bloomington area. She and other adult volunteers facilitate discussions in which kids talk about various kinds of harassment. Then, working with peer volunteers, they engage the students in role-plays that introduce specific conflict resolution strategies, such as assertive expression of anger and the creative use of humor to diffuse conflict.

Eder's examinations of adolescent social interactions revealed that humor is a vital component of student peer culture. Adult and peer volunteers help participants discover creative strategies for using humor to protect themselves and to intervene on behalf of others in harassing situations. This intervention strategy is especially effective because the students seem most comfortable working in small groups with their peers. By collaboratively arriving at new solutions to their problems, KACTIS participants gain valuable experience in negotiating disagreements. "As they come up with new solutions and role-play scenarios that are satisfying to all participants," Eder says, "they continually put their new conflict resolution skills to work in their daily interactions."

Although more girls than boys joined the program, not all of the kids who participate in KACTIS are the usual victims of peer aggression. "What I like about KACTIS," one student observes, "is that one half are bullies, and the other half are kids that get picked on." The more aggressive participants can make valuable contributions in role-playing situations because they have insight into what it takes to make a bully back off. Eder says she has been struck by how much the students need to "play" with aggression—to the extent that during role-plays, the students frequently argue over who gets to play the bully. She observes that "having playful opportunities to act aggressively may be an important outlet for children who have internalized angry feelings from being bullied or harassed by others." Through discussions and role-play situations, the students develop an array of playful outlets for their aggression that seem to reduce the typical bully's tendency to harass others. Through KACTIS, both the bullies and their victims learn to express anger more assertively and to channel aggression into less hurtful interactions.

Although intervention is not a typical component of most academic sociologists' research agendas, Eder says that the development of KACTIS was for her a good way to complete a cycle of research, a way of giving something back to communities she had studied. She credits this new way of doing her work to the influence of feminist research and methodologies that suggest practitioners apply academic knowledge to their everyday lives: "I was reading work written by women of color about what it meant to them to be academics. For these women, it meant giving back to their communities. And that's really what I value--if I learn something, I want to share it. Of course, you can share what you have learned by writing a book, but I wanted to take what I learned from this study of youth and use that knowledge to make their lives better."

Eder says KACTIS allows her to strike a satisfying balance between practice and knowledge, even though getting the project underway required Eder to take a semester leave without pay. Although she is currently considering possibilities for expanding KACTIS beyond the three community schools in which it has thus far been implemented, until the program receives funding, it will continue to rely on volunteer facilitators and will necessarily operate on a small scale. For Eder, KACTIS is a creative activity that provides opportunities for further, albeit nontraditional, research. Eder says the development of KACTIS has changed the way she approaches her research, influenced the ways she proposes to apply that research, and enhanced her teaching. She predicts that this model for creative application of research will become more common as more women of color enter the academy.

Eder has involved both her undergraduate and graduate students in the program. She teaches a course about the social context of schooling in which she offers undergraduates the opportunity to volunteer in KACTIS and then write papers about their experiences with the program. "The response," Eder observes, "has been overwhelmingly positive. The students were excited about doing this sort of applied learning." Last year, Eder involved her graduate students in the program with the intention of illustrating to these future academics how their careers can have applied components that are integrated with their research. Her attempt to model this nontraditional approach was so successful that her students wanted to continue working on the program even after her semester sabbatical was over. "I still hear frequently from my students who worked in the program," Eder says. "They want to know what's going on with KACTIS, or they want to share with me how they are using the skills it teaches in their own lives."

In both her research and her teaching, Eder emphasizes the importance of service learning: "It's a need I have, but I think it's a need many of us share--to plug what we know academically into real-life situations. It's enormously rewarding for me and for my students to be able to strike this balance between academic learning and the reality of everyday life."

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