University of South Carolina

Facing conflict head-on

By Craig Brandhorst,, 803-777-3681

Think students just want the easy ‘A’? Think again.

Given three options for their final project, a majority of students in anthropology professor Jonathan Leader’s popular course “The Anthropology of Law and Conflict” chose the hardest of the three this fall, effectively doubling their coursework.

Rather than simply write a standard term paper or compile a newspaper journaling project — two “perfectly acceptable” project options, said Leader, who has taught some version of the course since the early 1990s —these students completed an intensive online certification course offered through the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), a nonpartisan conflict management center created by the U.S. Congress to prevent and mitigate international conflict through nonviolence.

All students in Leader’s class read open-source documents such as those used by the U.S. State Department, the U.S. military and governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Those who took the free online USIP course read additional case studies on conflicts and human rights abuses in such places as Bosnia and South Africa. Upon passing an exam administered by the organization they received certifications in Conflict Analysis, Negotiation and Conflict Management and Interfaith Conflict Resolution.

To Leader, whose latest version of the course focuses largely on the origins and evolution of conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the USIP curriculum seemed like a perfect fit — and a good option for his more ambitious students. That said, he only expected “maybe a quarter” of his class to take on the extra load.

“The amazing thing to me was, this is 62 percent of my class,” said Leader, describing the additional coursework as “a course within a course."

“It’s extraordinarily gratifying because it says that there is an interest among the students,” Leader said, an associate research professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. “More importantly, it says that there was a focus and a willingness to put in the effort to gain the additional essential information, which is applicable to their lives immediately.”

Successful participants in USIP program added a valuable line to their resumes, which Leader believes will help distinguish them from other applicants as they apply to graduate school or enter the workforce, but they also gained something less tangible—a nuanced understanding of the conflicts shaping our world.

“I could have done a little bit of studying and knocked out the essay,” said David Beamer, a senior political science student. “But I think the USIP project gave me the opportunity to gain some new skills rather than just regurgitate information. I learned so much that I would not have been exposed to otherwise. I feel like this class has broadened my horizons dramatically.”

For John Fisher, a senior anthropology student who did two tours in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army before enrolling at USC, the class and the USIP project had an even deeper significance.

“The course really helped me understand more about some of the people [I encountered], possibly in the same area where I was serving,” said Fisher. “I feel like had some of my fellow soldiers [taken a similar class] they might have understood what was going on better and might have understood the demographics of the community that they were involved with, that this is not just an enemy.” 

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Posted: 12/11/12 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 12/12/12 @ 9:22 AM | Permalink