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Understanding the True Impact of War

01/13/2014

As the situation in the Central African Republic goes from bad to worse, students who completed last semester’s Combat and Culture: War in Public Consciousness, a course taught by Senior Lecturer Tom Roberts, are responding to the news with a heightened awareness and a new understanding that war is endemic to human civilization, a chain of violence reaching back through time. “The point of the course,” says the historian, “is that what’s happening in almost any current conflict has happened before.”

Roberts was inspired to create the popular course back in 2001, when he saw how RISD students responded to the horrors of 9/11. “The attack on the World Trade Center was a wakeup call for everyone,” he says. “I tried to capitalize on students’ new awareness of the world outside their studios.” He still begins the discussion each year by asking students to recall the day that the towers were hit, and everyone remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news – even though his latest crop of sophomores was only in third grade at the time.

Though the course has evolved over time, it’s still built around the study of especially relevant historic conflicts – the Spanish-American War and World War I, which shed a lot of light on contemporary conflicts. A central element of the course is a comprehensive online journal that each student keeps and shares in an attempt to make sense of an ongoing conflict of his or her choice. “This year we talked a lot about Syria,” the adjunct faculty member says. “Students also focused on Africa and on the conflict between North and South Korea.”

Although they’re exploring a wide range of studio majors, students in Roberts’ liberal arts class share a propensity for visual learning and, he affirms, an intense intellectual curiosity and work ethic. “Once you capture their imagination, you just stand back and let them go,” he says. “RISD students learn visually, so I try to bring visual elements into my teaching – photographs, films, posters, illustrations.”

Another assignment – which recently drew attention from the Providence Journal – involves interviewing a combat veteran and writing an essay about the experience. Hearing a first-hand account of war awakens students in a way that online research simply can’t, Roberts notes.

The professor also takes his class to significant military historical sites such as Battleship Cove in Fall River, MA, where students examine warships and weapons used in past battles. The experience tends to make a profound impact and make its way into students’ studio work. For instance, he was moved by the haunting images Illustration major Catherine Shen 16 IL created last semester after exploring the Battleship Massachusetts (see detail above) and says that even after 30 years of teaching in RISD’s Liberal Arts division, he continues to learn from his students and to be inspired by their talent.

“I end the class every year with a little sermon,” Roberts says with a wry smile. “I remind them of the Spiderman thing: ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ The same is true of great talent. I try to teach them that it’s their responsibility to go out and learn about life and to use their talent to accomplish something in the larger world.”

Simone Solondz

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tags: faculty, History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences, Liberal Arts, students

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Providence's riverfront park offers a great setting for drawing and sketching, just across from RISD's Mandle Center for
Living and Learning.