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Does a Little Bit of Satire Go a Long Way? : A Potential Teaching Reprieve to the Assault on Human Rights.

Continuing our series in this blog on teaching human rights in Trump’s first 100 days in office this post explores the potential of using satire as a teaching and intellectual tool.

There is often a sad running joke made from teachers of human rights to their students: “this class might be interesting, but it will be downright depressing.” The gravity of the subject matter of rights violations along with stories of savagery, and despicable behavior by the powerful, often make for a suffocating and serious classroom environment. It is very easy to get caught in a dark tide of emotions from human rights content which is typically steeped in human suffering. This is compounded by the inability of the powerless to enforce rights laws globally, or the existence of effective legal mechanisms to consistently hold leaders accountable for abuses they perpetrate.

The problem of powerful elites/politicians ignoring rights law is as old as the laws themselves. Our response as teachers, and as students of human rights, to the lack of enforcement, at least for me, can range from frustration, anger, trepidation, sorrow, to even feeling a sense of hopelessness for the whole rights endeavor. Maybe there are alternative responses to teaching about how the powerful seem to always get away with abuses? Perhaps poking fun at those who violate rights can allow for some space to vent, express frustration/dissatisfaction, and promote a creative learning environment for our students? Could satire even prove effective at garnering the public and media’s attention to demand better government response to rights abuses?

Photo from anti-Trump rally in Northampton, MA following the election: Orange is the New Wack. Photo credit: the author of this blog.


In an experiment, I taught a mid-semester class that was slated on the syllabus to be devoted to freedom of expression/press yet instead of simply focusing on rights laws, enforcement or the lack thereof, I conceptualized the lesson through the lens of satire. Before describing my approach I should mention that this class was titled “Human Rights Through Film” (it was and upper level course but I think a lesson like this could work with an intro course as well). The class took place in the middle of the semester when we already knew each other, and as happenstance would have it, was just about two-months into Trump’s reign as President.

The Trump Administration assault on rights has been well documented—including on our blog. As seen in the first 100 days of his administration his record on rights leaves defenders of rights not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Clearly, humorous satire/parody has come hot and heavy aimed at Trump, from the personal parody portrayed by Alec Baldwin on SNL, to information driven takedowns by John Oliver, to the devastating satire aired nightly by Stephen Colbert on the Late Show. Determining any actual impact of comedic approaches is beyond the scope of this blog post (see this article for an exploration of its potential), yet investigating comedic approaches, limited to film, proves an interesting way to expose students to various abuses of rights, and especially freedom of expression, as comedians seem to always be pushing the limits and dodging defamation law.

In my lesson I had students watch at home, what is perhaps the preeminent political satire film of our time, Dr. Stranglove by Stanley Kubrick. I also had them read work by Lisa Colletta (full citation below) and during class we analyzed clips from SNL, Colbert, Egypt’s Bassem Youssef, and discussed Dr. Strangelove. Conceptually, I divided comedic approaches into four general categories: (1) Parody; (2) Satire; (3) Irony (including postmodern irony); and (4) Comedic actions (basically forms of unconventional political participation with humor at their core). Of these the least oriented towards political change/critique is parody—which is a type of satire that strictly involves mimicry. Many parodies involve poking fun at politicians. For example, recently inspired by the viral response to Melissa McCarthy’s hilarious impression of Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, Rollingstone put together a strong list of the greatest political parodies on SNL. Parody though, is meant to mock, not necessarily focused on changing much in society.

McCarthy and Baldwin as Spicer and Trump in parody on SNL. Photo credit: Will Heath/NBC.


Satire provides a more serious critique. In our class discussion we defined it as the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and it comes with a bit more of a biting response than parody. Satire often tries to change society or politics, using laughter as a weapon, not as an end goal, and yet its efficacy depends on the audience recognizing irony. When the audience does not recognize the irony its impact is lost, such as the classic example of the reading public, or at least some of them, not understanding that Jonathan Swift’s essay, A Modest Proposal, which proposed the Irish poor sell their children to the English as food for the rich, was actually meant as an ironic insight into English policies at the time that had devastating effects on poor Irish families.

Irony, in many ways has become the dominant strand of satire in today’s postmodern, even post truth, world. It is exemplified by John Stewart’s approach on the Daily Show, and taken to an even more ironic level by Stephen Colbert. Irony, often misunderstood, is defined by Merriam-Webster’s as “a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other’s false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning —called also Socratic irony…[or] incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.”

However, Lisa Colletta, in a 2009 essay digs deeper into the concept of irony, exposing a variant “postmodern irony” of which she says it “denies a difference b/t what is real and what is appearance and even embraces incoherence and lack of meaning.” She claims that postmodern irony is characterized by (A) self-referentiality and (B) cynical knowingness. Yet “a postmodern audience is made conscious of constructed nature of meaning and of it own participation in the appearance of things, which results in the self-referential irony that characterizes most of our cultural output today.” Perhaps the most classic example is Colbert roasting of President Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents dinner, which in the words of Nelson from The Simpsons deserves a hearty: “Ha Ha.”

Stephen Colbert roasting President Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006. Bush does not look very happy. Photo Credit: REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang – RTR1CXOV.


All is not a laughing matter though as Colletta points out that any efficacy of irony in today’s media landscape may not be very effective because the audience may not “get it” or it might lead people towards less engagement with politics. In fact, postmodern politics says that it does not matter who is in power as “choice is really between fakes.” The ironic, sophisticated voter is encouraged to let the powerful rule or “appear gullible” (Colletta 2009, p. 858). In our class we further discussed these issues, focusing on whether or not millennial voters lack of turnout has something to do with postmodernity and a feeling of a lack of efficacy even when engaging in the political process.

Again cause and effect is difficult to disentangle here, yet in the end Colletta, and also yours truly, believe that satire can be an important intellectual endeavor that can lead to political action. Colletta summarizes, from satire “we may be forced to see things in a new way and to acknowledge alternative possibilities. This, in turn, could make viewers more tolerant of those who approach things differently, and thus inspire them to action they have not yet considered” (p. 872). Perhaps we can even see evidence of people wanting to see things in a “new way” and to be inspired as many viewers of late night TV switched from Jimmy Fallon over to Stephen Colbert since Fallon infamously “humanized” Trump while Colbert kept pushing the political envelope in a time of national political upheaval.

Towards the end of the lesson I pointed out that unconventional political participation, in the form of comedic actions against rights abuses, actually has a long history. There have been many evocative actions taken that have exposed the irony of rights denying. For instance, the website New Tactics in Human Rights collects info on many cases from around the world of comedic actions. Another NGO, Information Activism, points out 10 approaches to “Exposing the Ridiculous” that can help promote change. One of my favorite examples was the Dole Army hoax in Melbourne Australia, where young people tricked the local TV stations to air segments about a made up army of unemployed people living under the city, on the dole (i.e. welfare in the U.S.), who planned on never working. This action easily, and hilariously, exposed the gullibility of the mainstream media to fall for a literally trumped up narrative against providing economic rights. Closing my lesson from today’s milieu surrounding comedy was Michael Moore’s 10 point call to action against Trump’s policies in the Huffington Post (2/24/17) which concludes with asking people to “JOIN THE ARMY OF COMEDY: Trump’s Achilles heel is his massively thin skin. He can’t take mockery. So we all need to MOCK HIM UP! Not just the brilliant people at SNL or Colbert, Seth Meyers or Samantha Bee ― but YOU. Use your sense of humor and share it with people. Get them to do the same.” And Moore is right, there is little doubt this is the thinnest-skinned U.S. president of all time.

Surely, it is hard to quantify if meaningful impacts will or have occurred from naming and shaming rights abusers through comedic actions and satire. However, what is clear is that turning to satire in times of darkness speaks to the depth, and resilience of the human spirit, and also underscores our ability to critique the powerful in innovative ways. In fact, I would argue that various comedic actions are an intriguing response with more intellectual, teaching, and real world power than one would initially suppose. At the end of the semester I asked students what topics should be kept in the class for next semester and they made it clear I better keep the satire class. Although some claimed Dr. Stranglove was a bit dated, and I kind of agree, yet it was irresistible to show such an innovative film. If anyone is aware of potential modern replacement films with an equally satirical bite feel free to send recommendations my way. In the meantime, who knows what will happen with modern U.S. politics and our rights, yet I urge the watching/support of media that allows us to laugh at events as it might be better for us psychologically than crying in the corner. And you never know it might lead one to participate in some “comedic actions” in the name of human rights.


Jack J. Barry, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow, Global Training and Development Institute, University of Connecticut, email:

PS: I welcome comments on experiences, the good the bad, and the ugly, on using humor in the classroom—no dad jokes allowed though.


Sources not hyperlinked above: Colletta, Lisa (2009). Political Satire and Postmodern Irony in the Age of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 42, No. 5.

Experiential Learning: Touring the Eastern Seaboard with International Students During Election Week 2016 (Part II).

On Monday, I wrote about the academic structure of the YSEALI program and the curriculum I implemented. Read Part I here. In Part II, I will continue by reflecting on the study trip itself and specific observations from each city. First up, NYC!

NYC has a strong international draw and desire to be seen by students in the program. The Statute of Liberty and Ellis Island are always a hit but interesting observations pop up throughout our time in NYC. For example, walking around the National September 11th Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero, a student and I discussed how in Indonesia, where he was from, most people he knew thought 9/11 was a myth—that it did not happen. He was surprised to see the scope of the museum and memorial, and was interested in why folks back home did not know about it or the overwhelming evidence that the event did indeed happen. In fact, a common refrain heard from international students in our programs from Southeast Asia and Africa is that the U.S. does an impressive job—according to them—of memorializing our history via museums, memorials, and saving historical buildings, especially compared to their countries where they say the preserving of history is less prioritized. Though I also discuss with them that there are many aspects to U.S. history that are not remembered, or memorialized—as history is so often rewritten, and memorialized, by the winning side.






Photo: From our trip to New York’s Liberty and Ellis Islands.









In Philadelphia, by chance we were staying a block away from where Hillary Clinton was scheduled to give her major rally with Democratic Party’s bigwigs, and musicians Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi, on the eve of the election. We were getting a tour of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell the morning of her rally but our bus was scheduled to take us to D.C. that afternoon (no way to have planned to stay to see that rally in advance L). Yet before we left town students got to see free speech up front and personal in the area near the rally. This led to some interesting discussions about how the kind of speech they saw would be suppressed in many of their countries—which score at the lower end of Reporters Without Borders ranking of Press Freedom. However, we also discussed how speech that overtly promoted policies that discriminated against groups, as seen at Trump rallies, was also protected political speech under our Constitution and also in human rights law. Seeing political speech in public space allowed for ideas from the classroom to take on more clear real world relevance.



Photo: Free speech alive and well—Independence Square, Philadelphia, 11/7/2016.


On Election Day we took the students to see a new addition to the Smithsonian Institute: the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This museum begins with a mile long walking exhibit that documents African-American history in chronological order from the slave trade to the election of Barack Obama. Walking with the students through this historical timeline was a unique experience that allowed them to see the fits and starts African-Americans faced in striving, and still having to do so today, for equal rights in the U.S. Many students reported that this was their favorite museum because of the experience of walking that timeline—they really liked the organization and content.

That night, informally, we took those that wanted to go watch election returns to Busboys and Poets, a restaurant, and bookstore (focused on African-American literature). The students enjoyed the festive atmosphere; with cheers for every Clinton state win projection from the mostly liberal crowd. The cheers became few and far between around 11PM when it looked like Trump might be able to pull off the Electoral College surprise victory. The place was emptying out by midnight.

On the day after Election Day, waking up to a Trump victory and a dreary rain falling over D.C., we took the students on the morgue like Metro (D.C. had the highest % voting totals for Clinton of any state/district—90.9% and lowest for Trump 4%) to the Newseum where we saw the daily headlines from Newspapers around the world (featured below) and watched Clinton’s concession speech on their big screen (featured below). Later in the day we got a tour of the U.S. Capitol building. Telling the students beforehand that the U.S. has a history of peaceful transfer of power was confirmed as the Capitol Visitor’s Center was very quiet, much shorter lines than usual, and seemingly unchanged to the naked eye from an election that will have lasting effects on the nation—although politically speaking it seems unlikely to have the effect of bringing Americans closer together as the slogan so revered on the Capitol tour, E Pluribus Unum “out of many, one” touts.


       Front pages of papers from around the USA and the world at the Newseum—11/9/2016


                   Hillary Clinton’s concession speech on the big screen—Newseum—11/9/2016.

Overall, site visits and travel, certainly can make politics, the struggle for rights, and U.S. history from the classroom come alive. Clearly, learning takes many forms at the individual level and it is certainly hard to predict when the magic of education will strike. I look forward to checking in with these students years from now to see how their experience was shaped by being exposed to watching the functioning of the U.S. political system in real time, at sites of significance, and through discussions with Americans both in and out of the classroom. As we struggle to understand what sparks the development of critical thinking skills and memory retention, it will be interesting to see if these instances of experiential learning mixed with classroom instruction prove more salient than traditional educational approaches. My hunch is that they will and I will report on any measurable results in future blog posts. Although the college classroom does not typically allow such trips down the Eastern Seaboard—perhaps there are other approaches that could bring in more experiential approaches and informal discussions even when an educator is faced with constraints? Does anyone have examples on how to effectively include experiential learning on a smaller budget and semester constrained timeframe?

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Author Jack J. Barry, Postdoctoral Fellow, Global Training and Development Institute, University of Connecticut (all photos taken by author).








Photo taken outside of White House 11-7-2016
















Experiential Learning: Touring the Eastern Seaboard with International Students During Election Week 2016 (Part I).

This is the fifth, and final entry (although it will be in two parts—second post coming on Wednesday, December 14th) in our post-election series of blog posts on Teaching Human Rights. In the previous entries we have seen a variety of approaches to teaching on the 2016 election including: trying a “speak out” as a strategy in today’s post-truth climate; teaching Trump from a constitutional law perspective; teaching a non-political course to a very diverse campus; as well as hosting a guest speaker addressing race/class and the election. A theme in these entries has been the threat that the election of Trump endemically poses for minority groups and how teachers, who teach in diverse settings, have grappled with this new reality. Post-truth or not, many of our communities and students have reported that they have felt threatened from what Trump has said/represents. This entry picks up on that theme and applies it to experiential learning, international students, and to the employment of both informal and formal discussions around difficult topics this election raised.

In my job as the Academic Director for U.S. State Department-funded international academic programs I am placed at the heart of cross-cultural dialogue across many different settings. One takes place traveling with students from 10 different countries on a program concluding study tour where we visit sites along the Eastern Seaboard related to U.S. history, centers of governmental and economic power, and, as our program focuses on social entrepreneurship, headquarters of leading social enterprises in the American tradition—such as D.C. Central Kitchen which provides job training in food services to released convicts and homeless in the D.C. area. This fall, that study trip took us on a weeklong journey through NYC, Philadelphia, and culminated with four days in Washington D.C. during election week. Experiencing the 2016 election in D.C. was quite remarkable, especially in the company of students from Southeast Asia from very different cultural, religious, geographic, and economic backgrounds.

One of the key learning objectives of this Obama Administration-funded academic program, Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative (YSEALI) is for students to explore U.S. history, politics, and our economic system. Not surprisingly upon arrival on the campus of the University of Connecticut in early October, the election came up constantly. How to talk candidly to a room full of bright international students about the two major political party candidates and why Trump was receiving such strong support proved to be a challenge from day one. How does one comfortably tell someone of Islamic faith that one of our Presidential candidates was talking about making it much more difficult for them to enter the country, indulging in the idea of putting them on a watch list, and having them endure “extreme vetting” (whatever that means) during each return trip to the U.S.? What do you say to foreigners when, according to exit poll data, 13% of the American electorate said “immigration” was the biggest problem facing our country, with 64% of those who reported voting for Trump? Or when 41% of the electorate said they want to build a wall (apparently the current fence is not big enough) along the entire Mexican border—and 85% of those that want that wall voted for Trump? Because you have to start somewhere, I would revert to the beginning by telling the long American story of racial resentment and strife, economic disparities, and slow, very painful progress made by some groups in the never ending struggle for equal rights under the law. Chronological order was my refuge in trying to answer these difficult questions.


On the left: YSEALI students meeting American teachers at the University of Connecticut—negotiation exercise.

I designed the curriculum to include academic sessions from different speakers on U.S. history—some of which addressed the brutal treatment of the Native Americans—and also sessions on African-American history, freedom of speech and press in the digital age, Asian-American cultural understanding, and economic rights in the U.S. These and other sessions helped to put the current state of racial, economic, and cultural issues facing the U.S. electorate in 2016 into context. However, the students kept a steady stream of questions coming, many raised in informal settings, throughout the program regarding the election and why Trump was getting such strong support from a nation of immigrants that calls itself “the melting pot.” The interplay between informal discussions with students, especially during our study trip, and in class with its formal discussions, led to a dynamic exchange of ideas in a cross-cultural context that might have long-lasting effects on learning via experiential exposure to rights, politics, and history. Check back here on Wednesday December 12th, for the second part of this entry describing our site visits and experiencing the election in D.C.



Part II here.

YSEALI students having fun while doing community service at Foodshare in Hartford, CT.


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Author Jack J. Barry, Postdoctoral Fellow, Global Training and Development Institute, University of Connecticut.



Can we give them a little more rights? Incorporating a human rights segment into an academic program.

There is little doubt that human rights is an intriguing topic to folks from all walks of life! From freshman in college to the elderly, people tend to be curious and interested in learning more about their rights, and the diverse landscape of international human rights. Offerings of human rights courses are growing in the academy, yet there are many academics who cannot devote a full semester to teaching rights. If one is willing to think outside the box there are many ways to incorporate rights into various academic programs and/or courses that are not specifically billed as human rights.

Obviously there are many types of academic programs that do not fit squarely into the semester timeframe: afterschool programs, lecture series, exchange programs, conferences, mini-camps, team building excursions, and as discussed in a previous blog post field trips. The range of differing time restraints and/or programs is too broad to address here, but one thing they often share is opportunities to employ a rights based segment into programing but face a limited time constraint to do so. Of course, this depends on the relevant content of the program—there is not much rights discourse analysis presented in your typical “Physics Camp” but maybe there could be J. I have been fortunate enough to be able to incorporate rights based lessons into U.S. State Department funded exchange programs, including President Obama’s new signature academic exchange program Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), and the long running Study of the U.S. Institute (SUSI) program.

At the University of Connecticut, 20 young African leaders and 40 young Southeast Asian leaders come through our programs run by UConn’s Global Training and Development Institute, where the focus is on social entrepreneurship. Students hail from 10 Southeast Asian countries (YSEALI) and 10 countries in North and West Africa (SUSI) and while participating in these very competitive programs they develop social enterprises, interact with U.S. citizens/instructors, and go on a week-long educational study tour to New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. They stay in the U.S. for five weeks, four of them at UConn, and then return home to their countries to begin the difficult work of scaling up their enterprises and creating social change. Our program’s learning objectives focus broadly on social entrepreneurship, the study of U.S. history and culture, and on leadership. I am employed as a postdoctoral fellow with a component of my job being to design the academic curriculum and our broad learning objectives have allowed me significant space to incorporate human rights into the programming. One need not look very far to see the impact of rights in learning outcomes as student projects have ranged from anti-discrimination programs in Algeria, Morocco, and Indonesia, to new recycling programs in Senegal, Cameroon, the Philippians, to bridging the digital divide among the poor, rural Malian population and the urban elites.

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There are four primary ways that I have incorporated human rights that have been particularly effective and might be of use to other faculty or administrators adding rights to an academic program/course: (1) direct academic sessions on human rights; (2) academic sessions that indirectly address components of rights; (3) an online portion that allows for continued engagement with rights after the program concludes; and finally (4) informal simulations and icebreakers focused on creating cross-cultural respect.

We define the “social” part of social entrepreneurship (SE) broadly to include many areas of social change. Human rights fits nicely under this broad umbrella. Thus, as mentioned above (1), I have included traditional academic sessions that directly address rights with titles such as “Introduction to Human Rights,” and “Economic Rights in the U.S. and Beyond.” These hour or so long sessions fit into the program goal to enhance students’ understanding of the “social” in SE and how their social enterprise may employ/or uphold human rights to achieve goals of their local community. Direct knowledge of human rights, especially those related to their particular causes can help our students’ incipient organizations get community and international support for what they are trying to accomplish. Students with little or no human rights background seem to get a lot out of these introduction type sessions—especially if there is a dynamic presenter who mixes up lecture, activities, and powerful use of human rights in multimedia form.

Second, I have included sessions that do not directly address human rights but are indirectly related. These sessions have included: Freedom of the Press in the U.S., African American Leaders and the Civil Rights Movement; Global Environmental Issues; Microfinance; and Social Mobilization which focuses on large scale social movement tactics across different political systems around the world. Elements of human rights are never very far afield from the content and students often make the connections to rights quite easily (especially if they have had the intro to rights sessions beforehand). An added bonus is that these sessions can cover aspects of the program that need to be covered, such as American history/culture in our program.

Third, I include a hybrid online portion of the academic program where students have digital lessons to complete before, during, and after our “on the ground” segment of the program is completed and students have returned home. Thus, they are able to do follow-up readings on rights and continue conversations from the classroom in the online realm. After they complete our full program, including receiving seed funding to start their enterprise, we point them in the direction of the vastly expanding free MOOC options for further learning (see a related post for more info about the potential power of the hybrid model).

Finally, an added bonus of “a rights based component” is that it has fostered strong bonding and the respect of differences among our often disparate groups. Our programs are intentionally diverse, with U.S. Embassies abroad choosing students from different religious, cultural, political, and economic backgrounds (not to mention from 10 different countries). Thus, we have found that the more we can foster mutual respect the smoother the program runs and it leads to closer bonds between the participants. We have included cross-cultural understanding activities, for instance a Peace Corps’ favorite Bafa Bafa (lesson plan for it here from NYU), a business negotiation simulation called Russian Railroad, Circles, Triangles, and Squares which is a simulation about power dynamics among groups, and also many simple icebreaker type games which have helped our students practice the mutual respect that they have been exposed to in the classroom and apply it to real world cross cultural dialog.

Of course, none of these options substitute for the depth of a full semester focused on rights, however they certainly have added a strong rights component to our program without sacrificing overall program goals. In fact, my experience has led me to want to “give them a little more rights” whenever I can J. Giving students “a little more rights” could work in a variety of settings beyond the aforementioned programs. For instance adding a section on rights can really expand the international strength of a traditional course. The icebreaker type activities could be used in almost any classroom, and who knows maybe even at a future “Physics Camp.” A little human rights education can clearly go a long way. Feel free to share your experiences bringing the study of rights into programs/courses and to contact me if you want more detail on any of the activities mentioned above.

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Group Projects in Online Classes

This is the last of three blog posts on the online class “Introduction to Human Rights.” I have talked about general course design (here) and assessment (here). Today, I will focus on group projects and the specific challenges as well as opportunities that the online environment provides for them.

Students usually do not like group projects. I don’t blame them; I didn’t like them much either when I was a student. I was always convinced that I could have done better and could have worked more efficiently by myself. As an instructor, however, I see benefits in group projects that go beyond a good grade and efficiency; benefits that relate to future jobs in which most of our students will have to collaborate, but also more social skills of negotiation and compromise that will help in all sorts of situations.

Students are even more concerned about online group projects. They assume that all the problems they encounter in the face-to-face class will be multiplied in an online class: figuring out times to meet, communicating goals, submitting parts of the presentation, merging parts into a coherent whole seem more daunting when you have never met your collaborators in person. Here is the good news though: it is not! I have actually found that group projects work better online. I assume that some of the reasons are that the students are already used to working asynchronously and logging on multiple times a day. They are more responsive to emails and have learned to communicate in discussion forums and to submit assignments online. All these skills are needed for successful group projects without the face-to-face problem of finding a time and space to meet in person.

The biggest challenge for online group work, I have found, is to establish clear guidelines as well as due dates for each step of the way. It won’t work to give a group the assignment and expect them to submit the completed project after a week or two. Therefore, I broke down the projects in multiple steps and supported the process with three tools – a discussion forum for asynchronous communication, a chat area for synchronous conversations, and a document exchange for sending documents for revisions back and forth (all available through blackboard).

The projects focused on a specific group of people and their rights: rights of disabled people, rights of children, LGBTQ rights, indigenous rights, rights of migrants and refugees. Students sent me their topic preference (indicating and ranking their top three choices) in the second week of class, and I formed the groups according to interest. The first step in the groups was then to assign roles. Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of the class, I asked them to include the history of the rights of their group (including an international convention if it exists), legal cases/proceedings, and cultural representations of the (rights of the) group. Since I had groups of five students, students could not just pick one area, but had to collaborate within those subject fields. Most groups split the history part and assigned one student to merge the different parts in the end. Others split multiple of the parts. They communicated their roles to me by the middle of the third week of class and began their research. During the fourth week, the groups submitted a draft of their presentation. This required collaboration in the form of bringing the different parts together and held each group member accountable to do research for their own part. I gave feedback, based on which the students finalized their prezi or power point presentations. These were due at the beginning of the fifth week. After another round of feedback, the students then added their narration to the visuals. Both power point and prezi have the option to upload recordings which enables the students to record their own part and then add it to the appropriate visuals. This corresponds to an in-class presentation where each student would be speaking about their specific part. Here, they pre-script their narration, record and upload it. Some groups opted to have one students do the narration for all parts. Based on this experience, I would advise against that. This student would not have done research for any of the parts and might not be able to capture all nuances. The presentations of those who split the work into parts and each student did the research, found the visuals and narrated their own part proved to be more in depth and more engaging at the same time. The narrated version of the presentation was due at the end of the fifth week. During the sixth week, everyone watched all the group presentations and asked questions in a discussion forum. The groups had to check into their own presentations to answer these questions and possibly do some more research to be able to answer them.

As I discussed in the blog post on designing the online course, the group projects allowed me to include more groups of people and their specific rights. While I gave up some control about what students would find and communicate to the others, the benefit of not having to choose only one or two groups of people outweighs this challenge. I confronted the challenge also during the multiple rounds of feedback, steering the groups into a certain direction when they seemed to be missing major points. The LGBTQ rights group in 2014 for instance, decided to pick three countries to present different human rights legislation for LGBTQ people. I asked them to consider an additional table that shows how many countries (and which ones) follow similar laws (for instance: where is homosexuality punishable, where can homosexual couples get married). That way, their creative interpretation of the topic was upheld and led to a very interesting/engaging presentation, but an overall picture of the topic could be included as well. The second option if a presentation doesn’t include the information needed is to add questions during the discussion phase of the project to require additional research or point all students to the missing information. Hopefully, this won’t be necessary as students readily incorporate feedback – I have not had to do this so far.

I assess group projects online as well as face-to-face as a combination of my evaluation, a self- or team evaluation, and peer evaluation. Each group evaluates one other group’s presentation using the same rubric that I use. Additionally, the team members evaluate each other as well as themselves and their contributions to the team’s success. The final grade of the presentation consists of three equal parts: the average of the self-/team evaluation, my grade and the peer grade. This takes into account that some team members might contribute more than others (self-/team-grade) and how well the presentation works as a whole – as a coherent product is one of the main factors of a successful presentation. If one part of the presentation is a lot less successful than the others, the grade can be adjusted as the rubric asks for an evaluation of all three parts (history, legal, cultural representation) and the roles have been assigned in the beginning. I have found though that groups regulate themselves very well and will do extra work to make up for a group member’s missing contribution. They might then indicate that this specific group member didn’t do any work on their team evaluation, but the presentation itself has never reflected this and could still receive a good grade.

Overall, online group projects have proven to work well for me, sometimes even better than face-to-face ones as students do not need to find a time and place where to meet, but rather incorporate the group work into their regular online work. In evaluations, students commented that they were quite worried about the group projects beforehand but that they worked surprisingly well. This might be something worth sharing with students before they embark on their projects to alleviate these concerns.

Have you done group projects online? What tools have you used? Have you found other procedures to work well? What challenges have you encountered? We welcome feedback, ideas, comments and reports of experiences! If you are interested in handouts and rubrics, contact us here.

Journal Recommendation: Radical Teaching about Human Rights

Volume 103 of the Radical Teacher is dedicated to the teaching of human rights. Theoretical contemplation as well as practical suggestions on how to teach the UDHR and other human rights documents, on how to address neoliberalism, and on how to encourage critical thinking are at the heart of the issue.

In addition to reviews and teaching notes, the volume includes the following essays:

Nancy Flowers: “The Global Movement for Human Rights Education”

Gillian MacNaughton and Diane Frey: “Teaching the Transformative Agenda of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”

Robyn Linde and Miakila Mariel Lemonik Arthur: “Teaching Progress: A Critique of the Grand Narrative of Human Rights as Pedagogy for Marginalized Students”

Melissa Canlas, Amy Argenal, and Monisha Bajaj: “Teaching Human Rights from Below: Towards Solidarity, Resistance and Social Justice”

Mary Nolan: “Teaching the History of Human Rights and ‘Humanitarian Intervention'”

Shane McCoy: “Reading the ‘Outsider Within’: Counter-Narratives of Human Rights in Black Women’s Fiction”

The Volume is available for free at this link: Radical Teacher Vol 103

Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader: Holocaust, Justice, and Guilt in Literature

Students in this unit analyze the novel The Reader for its standpoints on human rights and the concept of coming to terms with the past. They reflect on the concept of guilt and justice after human rights violations/crimes against humanity and relate the German past to a more personal present.

Lesson Plan

Assessing Student Outcomes Online

When I planned my online class “Introduction to Human Rights” a few years ago, I started like most of us these days with the student outcomes. What did I want students to take from my class and in what way might this differ from a face-to-face class? Then, I thought about how to assess these outcomes and as a third step what material might prepare students to succeed in the assessment. The biggest difference, and at the same time challenge, between an online and a face-to-face class is the way in which we can or cannot test knowledge. How do we make sure that the students do not just use the internet or the reading material to answer test or quiz questions? I don’t think we can, and I also think the more important question is: do we need to? This leads me back to the first thought: what do I actually want my students to take from this class?

I identified five interrelated course objectives. By the end of the semester, students should be able to (1) recognize key terms and major institutions in the Human Rights field, (2) critically interpret news and scholarly articles on Human Rights issues by questioning assumptions and theses, (3) analyze Human Rights issues from different disciplinary perspectives, (4) justify personal Human Rights standpoints with supporting evidence from course readings and materials, and (5) analyze a political situation, or cultural product, in terms of human rights. Only the first objective is a knowledge based one, all others use the information given to train specific skills; skills that will enable the students to succeed in other human rights classes if they choose to continue on.

To test for the first objective, I opted for self-graded quizzes within the course management system (blackboard in my case). Students could take these quizzes twice and needed to achieve a score of 80% or higher to receive full credit. I provided hints on where to find the answer to the question for those that students got wrong the first time and thereby actually encouraged the students to use the material and look up the answers. Instead of creating a test situation based on the assumption that student might or might not “cheat,” I welcomed the use of sources. The modules explicitly stated: “During the quiz, you may refer to your readings.” One reason for this was that I find this approach more authentic: I wanted students to be able to identify relevant information to answer the questions correctly. The second reason was that I actually wanted students to learn about key institutions and issues. By providing hints and second chances, students were more motivated to engage with the reading material and find the correct answers, gaining knowledge in the process.

All other objectives center on grappling with human rights issues as students encounter them in the news, in popular culture and in their daily lives. Associative writing, discussions, as well as short papers addressed these objectives and showed skills and increasingly self-reflection.

Each module began with a blog activity which asked students to write about their initial thoughts regarding the module’s topic. This activity was to be done without referencing outside sources and was meant to activate the students’ previous knowledge as well as their ability to associate. Since I wanted this first activity to be low stakes, it was graded for completion only. Most modules also ended with a blog activity in which students revisited their initial thoughts. Here, they included the module’s material to reflect on what they had learned over the course of the module. These posts were graded on the level of reflection, use of sources and appropriateness of the response. Not everyone had to change their initial thoughts, but they still backed up those first blog posts with quotes from the reading and thereby showed the integration of new information into their original argument.

Some blog posts led to direct discussion within the blog area of blackboard. When I asked for a definition of human rights in the first module for instance, students read blog posts of at least five peers, commented on their takes and integrated what they learned from reading into their own definitions. At the end of the module, we settled on a few course definitions that we revisited at the end of the course.

Discussions were at the heart of the course. They are the closest we get to face-to-face interaction where we can learn from each other, listen to each other’s arguments, formulate an opinion, revise or defend our standpoints and come to deeper understandings of human rights issues. Discussions worked in two stages. Students came up with an initial response to one of the questions asked (I usually provided three to four questions per discussion). These answers should be original and thoughtful, clearly drawing on the module’s readings and possibly outside sources. After this first step, students had two to three days to read the other entries and respond to at least three of them, engaging in a discussion that would enhance or expand the responses. Sometimes, I assigned additional reading after the first response to introduce new arguments that could become part of the expansion of the issue and argument (see lesson plan on torture and previous blog post).

In contrast to the blog activity, discussions only work when students participate. Blog posts can be graded as single items, discussions, however, need discussants to lead to results. This challenge became apparent during the first time I taught the course when I had formed groups of five. If only one or two people posted their initial entries, a limited discussion followed. I, therefore, recommend discussion groups of eight. Even then not all eight will post, but it ensures enough participants to get lively discussions and productive back and forth exchanges. More than eight participants could lead to confusing threads but it is possible to have some questions discussed by the whole class (I do this for group projects only as I will discuss in a future blog post).

The last objective and assessment take students’ different interests and disciplines in account. Often, students in intro classes are freshmen or sophomores who have not settled on a discipline yet. For them, I wanted to offer different disciplinary approaches to explore their options going forward. For those who have already settled on a discipline, I provided challenges to go beyond their disciplinary comfort zones. What this meant in practice is that I asked students to write a more social science oriented paper and a more humanities centered paper. This is a change I have made from first teaching the class, when students chose one or the other. While I still like that students have the choice, I also value experimenting with different genres and wanted to provide this opportunity for all students. Instead of one longer paper in the end, I therefore asked students to write two shorter papers, one for each approach. Additional choice became available since the two papers could refer to any of three modules. Students decided which two of the three modules they were most interested in to write their papers. At the same time, this meant that I didn’t have to grade all 25 papers at once which is a benefit not only in accelerated summer classes.

In their short papers (2-3 pages), students related the module’s content to a popular film, book, or to current events, demonstrating an analysis of a (political) situation or a cultural product in terms of human rights. Students incorporated three secondary sources. When students chose films or books, I encouraged them to think outside of the box and to elect a film that is not already obviously about human rights: Harry Potter instead of Hotel Rwanda, The Lord of the Rings instead of Braveheart, The Hunger Games instead of 1984 for instance. I like when students choose these kind of popular films particularly because they develop a critical eye for underlying ideological stances, parallels to historical events and human rights issues that go beyond what the news discuss. Ideally, students will continue to watch the world around them critically when they leave my class, which I value much more than the concrete, testable knowledge they could ever gain in an online or face-to-face class.

What kind of assessment have you used in online classes? What were your challenges? What worked well? I am interested in hearing about your experiences!

Dual Challenges: Introducing Human Rights Online in 6 Weeks

This summer, I taught “Introduction to Human Rights” online for the third time. I have adjusted the course significantly, changed topics and assignments and moved the content “closer to home”. Today, I will share some of the things that I have learned, thoughts behind organizing the class and in general about teaching online. I will talk about assessment and tools in a future post.

Three years ago, I received a grant to develop the online version of Intro to Human Rights as a summer class. This grant came with the support of an instructional designer who built my class in our course management system (we use Blackboard) – support that was invaluable. The designer did not only make the class look better than I ever could, but also helped me to find the right tools that worked best. I could concentrate on the content and at the same time learned about how to set up the different tools, grade book etc. which now also informs (and I want to say has improved) my face-to-face and hybrid classes.

The most difficult thing that every instructor of summer classes faces is how to break down content that is usually spread out over 15 weeks to be taught in only 6 (I actually opted for an alternative summer session in my first year so that the course ran 8 weeks, but cut it down to 6 weeks in my second year, see syllabi of the first, second and third year). It was clear to me that I wanted to make the class as engaging as possible and, therefore, decided to sacrifice some foundational knowledge to be able to introduce a variety of issues. I wanted to include certain groups of people who are protected by specific human rights legislation and certain groups of rights such as economic and social rights as well as specific rights violations.

Choosing women, indigenous people and refugees as my groups in the first year covered a few groups, but left out others. The biggest change, which also allowed me to cut the class down to six weeks (from previously eight), in the second year was that I moved these groups into projects and only introduced group rights as a general theme. The students picked a group of people to research in a group project, thereby covering those groups that were most interesting to the students and at the same time more groups than I could have with the limited modules at hand (I will talk more about the challenges of online group projects in a future post). Groups of people this past summer, consequently, encompassed disabled people, children, refugees, LGBTQ, and indigenous people (I covered women’s rights within the module to introduce group rights in general). I could influence the content of each presentation less than I could have if I had presented the groups’ rights, but I value the advantages of letting students decide what information to present. Each project found a unique way of presenting information. The rubric made clear that they had to include historical information on their group’s rights, the UN convention (if there was any), legal proceedings as well as representations in film and literature – a set up that mirrors the interdisciplinary nature of the class.

Coming from a political science, history and literature background, I feel most comfortable in those areas. It was challenging to me to teach Economic and Social Rights. In my first year of teaching I borrowed a textbook approach, utilizing the corresponding chapter from Michael Goodhart’s Human Rights: Politics and Practice. I realized, however, that the students were not as engaged and attributed this lack of interest to my own lack of familiarity with the topic. Building more on my strengths in the field of literature, I adopted a “textbook” this time around: Freedom: Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights published by Amnesty International, a collection of short stories that correspond to specific articles of the UDHR. When it came to Economic and Social Rights, I had students read the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as four chapters from Freedom that dealt with labor rights, health, education and poverty. The students then wrote blog posts analyzing one or more of those stories in terms of the corresponding rights. In an attempt to relate human rights violations that often “happen in a land far away” to the students’ environment, they also thought about ways in which these stories speak to situations in the US (something that I asked students to do in almost every module, thus moving the content “closer to home”). As in other modules where I used short stories from the book, the responses were outstanding (with some exceptions of course). Students carefully analyzed not only the rights and found more issues than the ones the stories were supposed to tackle, but also applied the stories’ content to a multitude of current events. This allowed us to speak about emergent themes that I could not have thought of when planning the class in Spring and made the class more tangible.

Since the beginning, I teach two concrete areas of violation: genocide and torture. The genocide module gives me the opportunity to talk about intervention, prevention and jurisdiction, and at the same time about responsibility (of a country and of the international community in general). It is a challenging topic to teach, but also a rewarding one as it puts into question some of the notions the students come with and enhances not only critical thinking in general but also a critical attitude towards news media and the ways “we” talk about these topics.

Similarly, the torture module aims to promote a critical attitude, this time towards popular media. In my first two years of teaching the class, I have worked with the tv show 24 (see lesson plan here). It came as a surprise to me in the first year that students defended Jack Bauer’s ease of utilizing torture in “ticking time bomb situations.”  Here, a disadvantage of online classes became clear: when I realized where the discussions were going it was almost too late to intervene. Students had already agreed on the advantages of torture and readily accepted them as a means of fighting terrorism. While I usually try not to force an opinion on students, the usual “try to argue this opinion from a human rights standpoint” did not work and students used utilitarian arguments to show the need for Jack Bauer’s actions. Fortunately, I had one student who adamantly argued against this mainstream class opinion and I asked her to contribute in each discussion forum. This way, I avoided lecturing and ensured this student’s future participation in class. The second time around, I was better prepared and let the students willingly run into this first skewed perspective of defending Bauer’s actions. I, then, asked everyone to read two articles that showed flaws in the arguments and then revise their first standpoints. This worked really well and led to some “wait a minute” realizations that I am convinced will be retained better than lectured content ever would.

A challenge that I still face, even after adjusting the course more and more over the years, is that I have to give up a lot of control and that I cannot always be sure whether the students receive all the information. Do they actually read my announcements at the end of each week that are my only way of wrapping up each module’s content? Do they ever go back to see what others have responded to their discussion posts after they are done with the assigned number of postings? And of course do students actually gain the knowledge that I set out to teach them about human rights? I will talk more about the last point when I talk about assessment (including quizzes, blogs, discussions, papers and projects) in a future post, but I do believe that blog posts and discussions promote a working knowledge of human rights (rather than factual knowledge), that will help students succeed in other human rights classes they choose to take after this introductory one. Can an online class do this better than face-to-face? Probably, as every student has the chance (and actually needs) to engage in conversations, form an opinion, defend it and respond to other arguments. Where in face-to-face classes, we might lose some quiet or shy (or inattentive) students, here they will be included (well some won’t but that is a different story). However, the emphasis on discussions can be realized as well in hybrid classes where there is an added advantage of catching some flawed arguments and more direction of learning. For some more information on hybrid classes, check out Cathy’s blog post here. There is one advantage of an online class that should not be underestimated, however, one that applies to the summer session itself. It is the possibility to earn credit and move towards graduation in a timely manner for students who have to work during the summer or are on internships abroad. For them, online classes are essential, and with this in mind I will continue on improving my summer online classes.

I look forward to thoughts, experiences and exchange in the comment section!

Bringing Art Back In: Incorporating a Humanities Assignment Into a Social Science Oriented Human Rights Course

While our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.

Ray Bradbury, preface, Zen in the Art of Writing

Like many instructors trying to navigate the choppy waters of interdisciplinary pedagogy, I tend to fall back on my disciplinary strengths – in my case a Ph.D. in political science. Not surprisingly the focus of my “Introduction to Human Rights” course, especially the lectures, tends to be rooted in the social sciences. Yet I wanted the humanities to be more present in my course as a counterweight to my own ‘social sciency’ tendencies so I incorporated an assignment asking students to investigate the intersection of art and human rights through a detailed focus on a work of art (or an artist’s body of work). The primary learning objective of the assignment was for students to draw on the key concepts of the course and to apply them in analyzing a work of art that addresses or engages human rights. In a blog post/paper assignment—posted online and shared with the class—students were given free reign to find and select a work that somehow related to the theory, history, or practice of human rights. The choice of artwork was not limited to fiction, non-fictional art, or historical fiction. The prompt asked students to keep the following in mind when writing their responses: What aspects of human rights does your chosen work of art relate to? Are you the first to find this connection? What do critics say about the art? In crafting their blog posts, students were encouraged to incorporate photographs, images, video, or music into their entries, and to provide live links where appropriate. The blogs were posted on a private course website where students were required to comment on at least two of their fellow classmates’ posts, thereby the goal was that this would facilitate student-led collaborative learning and exchange of ideas in an organic, low-pressure environment.

The blog posts ranged greatly in terms of artistic genre and content. Some students investigated paintings, photography, and even cartoons, while others explored human rights in film. A few found extensive human rights references in song lyrics, some from mainstream pop songs, although most of the music-based analysis was derived from singer-songwriters devoted to social causes. In fact pop music provided a rather surprisingly successful medium, for instance two students, working independently, wrote blog posts on Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and its message of acceptance of gay, lesbian, and transgender people. Another strong post focused on the human rights implications of Francisco Goya’s work, specifically the paintings The Second of May 1808, and The Third of May 1808. Furthermore, allowing students to find artwork that appeals to them led the class, and often this instructor, to discover more obscure artwork with human rights ramifications, such as The Wavy Gravy Movie: Saint Misbehavin, a documentary about an activist for peace, who is a native to the Connecticut area near where the class was taught.

Despite many contenders, my favorite student blog post took up Top of Form Dylan Garity’s poem “Rigged Game,” a spoken word piece addressing the difficulties faced by ESL students in the U.S. education system. Garity’s powerful performance of the poem – as part of the 2013 National Poetry Slam – inspired the student writer to purport that the performance of the poem was “very moving to hear” and connected the poem to the broader theme of human rights, including Article 26 of the UDHR, noting “Although ESL students in the U.S. are not technically being deprived of an education, in practice they are deprived; they are not getting the same quality of education as other students for whom English is their native language.” The power of the spoken word, and the topic, engaged the students, as many responded online to the post, including a student who revealed that they struggled personally in English language only ESL classes.

From my experience with this assignment, I found that students learn best when they are allowed to research topics that interest them; especially in human rights. Students, including underperforming ones, produced high quality work, and I was impressed by the depth, breadth, and quality not only of their selections of art but of their analysis. I would recommend using this type of assignment later in the semester—at least in an introductory class—after concepts, theory, and practice of human rights have been widely discussed. This assignment proved to be a useful way to evaluate how students apply what they learned about the abstract ideas of human rights to real world examples beyond the classroom. It also is a good way to allow students the opportunity to explore the utility of art for opening new viewpoints about the world and sharpen their powers of ‘critical interpretation’ of a piece of art and exposure to varied types of cultural criticism. I still need to work through a few pitfalls with the assignment including: How to help students, especially those who have no idea of which piece of art to analyze, find one without dictating my choices/opinions on them? How to encourage more critical responses, as students proved to be more cheerleaders of one another on this assignment (especially compared to debates in class)? Finally, some students were shy to share their posts in-class, despite producing some of the best online posts. I would be curious to hear about other teachers’ experience with similar types of assignments, how to avoid these pitfalls, and how to effectively bring more humanities into a social science oriented course without giving art criticism the short shrift.

Prompt available: Bringing Art Back In-Assignment prompt.