For more than two decades, Susan B. Sorenson of the University of Pennsylvania has taught courses about and conducted research on two controversial, hot-button issues: violence against women and gun violence.
Sorenson, a professor of social policy at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice and a professor of health & societies in the School of Arts & Sciences, as well as director of the Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence, takes a public health perspective. “It’s not intervention or service, but policy and informed prevention,” she says.
This fall, Sorenson combined two of her long-standing courses, “Guns & Health” and “Violence in Relationships,” into one. The new version of the class approaches these topics from a population-based perspective and creates an active learning environment for students, which Sorenson strives to do whether in the classroom or as a mentor in the Ortner Center.
That’s especially important for topics like gun violence and domestic violence, the causes of which are still not well-understood despite their prominence. According to Sorenson, the most recent U.S. annual data document nearly 34,000 deaths from firearms and more than 10 million cases of intimate partner violence.
“We approach these topics from a lifespan perspective—guns from their design and manufacture through to their use, and relationships from birth through old age,” Sorenson says. It’s from that viewpoint that Sorenson generates knowledge that can guide policy and educate future generations in effective citizenship, students like Rachel Simon.
Simon, a double major in health & societies and political science and a participant in the inaugural offering of the course, spent the summer in Washington, D.C., growing increasingly frustrated with the rhetoric and politics surrounding guns in America. She resolved to study the topic to gain a deeper understanding of available evidence so she could better participate in the ongoing gun debate.
“I thought that taking a class on this topic could provide me with more insight,” she says. “I didn’t expect that it would completely challenge the assumptions I had about gun violence. The course has taught me more than I ever could have imagined and went much deeper than the political debates themselves. It has been really eye-opening.”
Also in the class of 17 students is Ethan Fein, a junior majoring in biochemistry and biophysics. He took Sorenson’s course to better understand where gun violence and non-stranger violence intersect, and because he wanted the opportunity to learn from Sorenson.
“She can be really compassionate—these are sensitive issues—but also have a great sense of objectivity,” Fein says. “It’s hard dealing with emotionally straining issues in regular discourse with friends and not getting upset or emotional or argumentative. This course showed me that it’s possible, and not wrong, to maintain human compassion while trying to look at things from a viewpoint of objectivity.”
In the class, the first half of the semester is dedicated to studying gun violence and the second half focuses on violence in relationships. Each week students read about a topic, such as the marketing of guns or child abuse, then post their thoughts and reactions to an online discussion board. Sorenson reads every comment to shape each in-class discussion. In addition, she provides hands-on learning experiences, for example, through a field trip to the Penn Police training facility to hear officers speak about their roles in public safety and their perspectives on guns.
Discussions have now moved on to violence in relationships across the lifespan, conversations guided by statistics and background information provided by Sorenson. “She draws on her own research,” Fein says. “It’s really interesting to hear her perspective as someone who works so closely with these issues.”
This is also evident to students she has mentored at the Ortner Center, like Devan Spear, who has worked with Sorenson and the Center for three years. “There are a lot of ways for students to get involved in advocacy but I think it’s much rarer for students to have the opportunity to be involved in research,” Spear says. “Professor Sorenson is really making an effort for the Ortner Center to be a place where students can get involved.”
One such example is a recently published systematic literature review on nonfatal gun use in intimate partner violence with Rebecca Schut, a May Penn graduate who now works as a clinical research coordinator at the Perelman School of Medicine. They found that although nonfatal gun use in intimate partner is relatively rare, about 4.5 million U.S. women have been threatened by an intimate partner with a gun and another nearly 1 million report that they have been shot or shot at by an intimate.
Sorenson will soon publish a pair of studies, one on nonfatal gun use based on more than 35,000 intimate partner violence incidents reported to the Philadelphia Police Department, and another about consent in sexual assault on college campuses. And she has three articles under review about violence against women and technology.
The latter topic culminated in an Ortner Center symposium in October 2016, “Technology & Women: Protection & Peril” that brought together Google’s General Counsel on Civil and Human Rights; the director of UNESCO’s Gender Equality Division; a representative from Callisto (a new system to report campus sexual assault); and leaders from federal agencies, innovative entrepreneurs, and nonprofit pioneers. Penn faculty from the Schools of Nursing, Medicine, Arts & Sciences, Education, Social Policy & Practice, and Wharton, and faculty from Temple University, the University of Miami, and elsewhere, also participated.
The conference highlighted the ways technology can make women safer, through electronic monitoring of perpetrators, for instance, as well as put them at risk through cyberstalking, for example. “The invited symposium was a first in the nation. We brought together remarkably diverse thinkers from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines to address both the risks and benefits technology presents for women’s safety and well-being,” Sorenson says. The group plans to generate a series of essays and policy briefs for legislators and other policymakers in 2017.
These efforts are part of the Ortner Center’s goal to educate policymakers and the public about such topics. Robert Boruch, the University Trustee Chair Professor of Education and Statistics in Penn’s Graduate School of Education, calls the Ortner Center a catalyst to raise awareness about violence against women and a great resource for the latest interdisciplinary research on the topic.
“It brings excellent people together who might not otherwise meet, but who have serious interests in common,” says Boruch, who attended the symposium and whose research areas cross with Sorenson’s. “The Ortner Center’s genius lies in sticking really able people together, so as to share ideas and evidence, and foster remarkable initiatives.”
Research, teaching, and sharing expertise to inform public policy all combine to build a safer, less violent world. Sorenson encompassed this spirit in the six words that summarize the vision of the Ortner Center: “Safe daughters, confident women, strong society.”