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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: jack.barry@uconn.edu

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.

Learning Human Rights as a Student

I can admit that I never fully understood the importance of human rights until I became a student. Being a student provides individuals a chance to learn and see things from a different perspective, which they may otherwise not have. My experience as a student provided me the opportunity to learn and see human rights, or the lack of human rights, in action. The biggest eye opening experience that revealed my sheltered idea of human rights was my first time out of the country, on a study aboard trip. Children were on the street homeless without families, left with the decision of choosing to spend their day working for money instead of going to school. Others are left in the worst possible living conditions because the government will not allow them to get the proper identification to work or even move. In class, we learn through lectures, conversations, videos, and/or pictures of how human rights affect individuals around the world, but there is nothing compared to seeing it in real life. Being a witness to the lack of human rights in other countries is how I officially learned and saw the need for change.

 

Growing up in America as a member in the majority population, it was easy to fall in a trap of thinking everyone is protected by the basic human rights. In the past couple of years, I have grown to realize my naïve thinking and have actually become quite ashamed of those thoughts. I needed to take the blinders off and have a good look around to notice not only how people are treated in other countries but also our own. My internship, assisting homeless families has shown me that the human rights issues are not only affecting other countries but our home as well. The human right of adequate standard of living, including housing, has been a major issue in our communities. It may seem minimal compared to the lack of human rights in other countries but still an issue that many families face. Finding affordable housing is something families struggle to achieve even those who are working 40 plus hours a week.  In my specific county, great strides have been taken to tackle this concern but I cannot say the same for other areas. Many people may think that housing and a standard of living is earned, but in reality is it still a human right everyone deserves. I do believe that education is key to learning about the world around us and becoming more accepting and understanding.

Shelby Davey

Master of Social Work Candidate

West Chester University (PA)

Teaching Political Advocacy on Capitol Hill

In this post, we revisit an elective course introduced in the first post of this blog series focused on teaching during the Trump presidency. As previously described, the social work elective is centered on the social welfare and human rights implications of the first 100 days of the presidency. To say the least, it’s been a fast-paced course that has challenged my students and I to really pay attention to national politics and how such policies impact our country’s most vulnerable individuals at the local level. This post will highlight an experiential learning opportunity at the US Capitol.

On March 9, 2017, students boarded a chartered bus to Washington, DC to participate in the 3rd annual Social Work Students Advocacy Day on the Hill organized by the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP). The event provided an opportunity for students to meet with Congressional members and their staff to advocate on federal legislation critical to social workers and the populations they serve. For all the students, this was their first time advocating on Capitol Hill.  To prepare, we spent time in class beforehand discussing what to expect and the students also watched an on-line tutorial developed by CRISP. As suggested by CRISP, students lobbied for the passage of H.R. 1290: Improving Access to Mental Health Act and H.R. 1289: The Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young, Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act. The students also lobbied against the passage of H.R. 610, which includes the Choices in Education Act of 2017 and No Hungry Kids Act.

Students also engaged in advocacy related to policies important to them. For example, students used personal stories to advocate for the prevention of the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and “defunding” Planned Parenthood. Students were able to articulate how the ACA was an important social welfare policy that protected many citizen’s right to healthcare and other vital behavioral health services. Students also discussed how maintaining women’s rights to accessible healthcare was related to the services provided by Planned Parenthood. As the day went on, the students became more confident in their abilities to communicate with elected officials and their staff with some students even seeking out additional meetings on their own.

Participating in Advocacy Day was an important opportunity for my students to recognize that even at the federal level, politicians are just fellow citizens, who work for us. Students expressed this realization both during a debrief of the experience on the bus ride home and in class the next week. One student stated “that’s just what I needed to do” in regard to engaging in the political process. Some students even expressed their own political ambitions and participated in a mini-seminar focused on social workers running for office.

As educators, we must help students understand that while politicians have become “celebrities” they are not untouchable, meaning we have the right and duty to reach out to our elected officials and share our thoughts on how we want them to vote on policies important to us as citizens and professionals.  It is our responsibility, as those teaching about human rights, to also teach our students they play a role in advocating for policies that work toward human rights for all.

Photos taken by the author in Washington, DC on March 9, 2017.

Christina M. Chiarelli-Helminiak

The News Brief: A Quick Pedagogical Method for Teaching during Trump

Over the past few months on the THR blog, we have been discussing the various challenges of teaching human rights courses during the Trump presidency. How do we teach about the things that didn’t happen? And how do we teach about rights and institutions that seem far less permanent than before? In this post, I am going to address another challenge of teaching in this tumultuous time: teaching about policies that are changing nearly every day.

This spring, I have been teaching a course on citizenship and education rights. After the 2016 election, the focus of this class quickly zeroed in on the education rights of undocumented students. As our first class met on inauguration day, the specter of the Trump presidency has been with our class from the start. Even before the semester started, there were reports suggesting that the first 100 days of this president’s term would be a time of change. As I wrote my syllabus, I inserted a week to discuss DACA, not knowing if the policy would even still be in existence by that time.

Rather than seeing this as an inherent challenge, however, I chose to view this as a teaching opportunity. Throughout the semester, I assigned students to keep a “news journal,” recording the important events that occurred in relation to immigration and education each week. At the beginning of every class, one student is in charge of providing the class with a news brief, to ensure that we are all on the same page. After that student presents the news from the week, we open it up for questions, clarification, or additional news stories that the students have come across. Most weeks, this process takes about 5 minutes, although some weeks (like the week that the initial Muslim ban was passed), it lasts much longer.

These communal information sharing sessions serve to both allow students to ask questions about rapidly developing stories and also provide a space for interrogating how different media sources choose to report stories differently. Additionally, the assignment encourages habits of staying informed and reading the newspaper, something that many of my students report only having done infrequently before this year. It has also served to connect the historical, legal, and theoretical discussions that we are having in the classroom to the world outside of it.

By having a space for discussion (rather than solely requiring a news journal), all of the students enter into the lecture portion of the course with a shared knowledgebase of what is happening in their federal and state government. This makes my job as a professor easier, as I can quickly make connections between historical events (such as the Chinese Exclusion Act) and things mentioned in the news briefing (like the executive order on immigration).

Most importantly, making the news a topic of class discussion each week encourages students to understand our political and legal system as the dynamic and contested amalgamation of decisions that it really is.

Teaching What Didn’t Happen

More has been written or said about Bowling Green, Atlanta, and Sweden than about Quebec and Pakistan.  Although by now exposed as a lie, about half of all Americans who support the travel ban executive order believe that the supposed Bowling Green massacre justifies limiting immigration from Muslim majority countries (see poll by Public Policy Polling as quoted in The Hill). Since February 18th, 2017 , the number of experts on Sweden and its immigration policy has risen palpably on social media. This phenomenon can be defined as propaganda: the “spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person” in an attempt to “further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause” (Merriam Webster). False news stories can be found on both sides of the political spectrum. Maybe you have come across the claim that Melania Trump tried to sell her jewelry on the official White House page, have seen the picture of a boy in handcuffs, or have heard that police have burned down tipis of indigenous activists fighting the Dakota Access pipeline (all of these “fake news for liberals” are quoted in a Guardian article). The pictures circulated online connected to the two latter “news” stories are from 2005 and a 2007 HBO movie, respectively, and triggered outrage, the emotion most connected with retweeting and linking on social media (see the Smithsonian magazine’s article “What Emotion Goes Viral the Fastest?”). In this climate of propaganda, lies, and conspiracy theories, how do we teach what didn’t happen?

Let’s look at Sweden to think about this dilemma facing educators (and the press) today. During a rally in Florida on February 18th, 2017, Donald Trump spoke of an incident that had allegedly occurred in Sweden the night before. Being vague about the actual event, he clearly drew a connection to immigrants, and the recent increase of Muslim refugees in Sweden. While, the twittersphere had fun with the hashtags #incidentinSweden and #lastnightinSweden, Swedish officials tweeted both their disbelief about the statement as well as offered their own explanations of what had happened the day before in Sweden (nothing but a car chase and mechanical problems at a concert). The Swedish embassy offered to brief the President and his cabinet on Swedish migration policy, and news outlets were quick to report that in fact nothing had happened in Sweden the day before. Stephen Colbert tried to combine jokes about the lie with actual facts, quoted from Reuters, about declining crime statistics since 2005 (see video). But this was not the end of the story. Although Trump tweeted that he had quoted a Fox News story on Sweden and immigration (something that was apparently taken out of context and fabricated in a way that fit the anti-immigrant agenda of the clip. See The Guardian), the seed germinated. Conway, Spicer, and Trump have had success with sowing such seeds, retracting lies, but still being able to watch them grow. In reference to Sweden, self-proclaimed experts on Twitter took the statement and molded it into a conspiracy theory that alleged there was no proof of the incident because the Swedish government was covering it up.

Here is an additional problem: News outlets disproving a statement is not enough. There aren’t two sides to this story, as in “biased” reporting, there is in fact no story at all. So either nothing happened (truth) or somebody (i.e. a government) doesn’t want you to know that it happened (conspiracy theory). So what do educators do in this situation? A resource for the classroom is Mike Caulfield’s Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers (available online). Caulfield presents four strategies to deal with news that need fact-checking: 1) “check for previous work” (Politifact and Snopes are mentioned as good sources for this step), 2) “go upstream to the source,” (that means check the quote’s sources) 3) “read laterally” (read related articles as well as other material on the page to determine veracity) and 4) “circle back” (repeat the process). He also introduces additional advice: “check your emotions” which may be the most important piece of advice. As the above mentioned Smithsonian article found, a news item that triggers anger often overrides any caution; we are more likely to share such an item, in a deliberate attempt to spread our outrage and convince others to be as outraged – quite a convincing explanation for the recent proliferation of “fake news.” But this is also where we can begin with our students: if something angers you, check it! If something appears to be a perfect quote, check it!

Returning to the Sweden case, what are concrete steps we can take with our students? First, check credible (multiple and international) news sources. Second, investigate the profiles of the people and news sources who are spreading the conspiracy theories. What else do they publish/tweet? Do they have an agenda? How would spreading a lie help their agenda? Third, go to the source. Research Swedish news sources, maybe European ones. What stood out to me here is that most right-wing, populist parties in Europe, haven’t supported the claim that Sweden is having massive problems because of their immigration policy. Why haven’t they? Wouldn’t this story help their cause? If it was true, they certainly would. So, we can conclude certain things about the validity of a statement from who isn’t tweeting/promoting it.

You may notice that I didn’t mention looking at actual crime statistics. This seems like the logical first step, but I would disagree. Facts don’t help dispel propaganda because the propaganda is going to maintain that such statistics are fake. If something is being covered up, statistics would also be fabricated. Therefore, fact finding may not be the solution to proving events or crises didn’t actually happen, particularly because there is no story there. Critical thinking and web literacy, which includes the ability to weigh the veracity of Twitter accounts, tweets, clips and other shareable items, need to be at the forefront of this effort (more information about this, including activities, in Caulfield’s book). This is where, I believe, we should focus our teaching efforts.

One final thought for the foreign language teacher. Students may not know what news sources from the countries they study are credible and it is harder to detect certain alarm bells in the target language. Big newspapers may become the first source for students but these are often tabloids. For example, the German tabloid Bild recently admitted that it fabricated a story about sexual assaults by immigrants (see New York Times). While I didn’t come across this story until several international publications, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian, exposed the lie, my students may have. This incident emphasizes the need for including critical news literacy in the foreign language classroom as well.

Teaching about Rights in Uncertain Times: Trump’s First 100 Days OR How I Learned to Embrace Uncertainty and Keep Teaching

This is the second blog post in our series about teaching about human rights in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. Whereas the first post in this series presented a course design aimed directly at this topic, I am approaching the issue more broadly. As those who teach about human rights, especially in classes that are not always explicitly human rights focused, finding ways to integrate current events, or respond to recent legal and political developments, can sometimes be challenging. In this post I am going to talk about the challenges of teaching about rights in a time where the current politics threaten to upend various legal protections for many different rights.

This semester I am teaching a class about civil liberties in the United States. While the course is primarily focused on the development and enforcement of law within the United States, the course also counts for my school’s minor in human rights advocacy. One of the primary challenges I am encountering is not integrating current events, but rather trying to teach knowing that some of the topics I am teaching might be radically altered before the semester even ends. Already since taking office President Trump and his administration have repeatedly attacked journalists, stretched the bounds of facts and empirical reality, tried to remove the suffering of the Jewish people from the Holocaust, implemented an executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, questioned voting rights and the legitimacy of the US election, supported anti-LGBTI officials, moved to eliminate crucial environmental protections, and taken steps to further violate indigenous rights. This is not a comprehensive list, and we are nowhere near the 100 day mark of this new administration. While it is likely not all of these changes will remain or be enforced, this certainly creates uncertainty regarding our politics, our rights, and our teaching about these subjects. So how does one teach about even a few of these subjects when faced with so much uncertainty?

It seems that one of the first things we need to do, as educators, is to put these events into historical context. When it is within the area of focus for our classes, we need to be sure to explain where we were, where we are, and how it is that we got to the current (albeit unsettled) position. Knowing where we were, and why we are where we are with respect to what rights are protected (and how) can help us better assess the changes that are coming down from Trump’s administration. Knowing about the history of immigration into the US, and perhaps more importantly the history of restrictions on immigration, allows us to provide the context through which our students can evaluate and assess the changes that are happening. This not only fosters our students’ critical thinking skills, but allows them to see for themselves the malleability of politics and the enforcement (or non-enforcement) of rights protections.

Another way we can aid our students in processing current developments is to highlight the existing institutions and norms surrounding rights and the laws meant to protect these rights. If the much-promised but misleadingly-named First Amendment Defense Act is reintroduced (as Senator Ted Cruz has promised) understanding the history and development of the US’s protections for religion, and the protections from an intermixing of religion and politics, will be important for evaluating the merits of the new law. Knowing about the long, slow development of protections for LGBTI rights in the US, and the work that needs to be done yet to fully protect these rights will also help serve this purpose.

A third element to teaching about rights and politics within the current political climate is to also bring in a broader international focus. The most direct way that many of us reading this post (or the one of us writing it) can do this is by discussing the connections between our extant rights, Trump’s various actions, and human rights. By bringing human rights, international law, and global political developments into the conversation, we can allow our students to see how Trump’s proposals fit not only within current US law and politics, but also past US law and politics, global developments, and a broader human rights regime. What does Trump’ executive order on immigration and refugees do regarding US’s obligations under various treaties? Is this executive order a violation of human rights? What are other countries doing regarding the refugee crisis, as well as in response to Trump’s actions? These are questions that we might not be able to answer for our students, but they are absolutely questions that we can be openly discussing with our students.

Given the uncertainty of how our laws, institutions, and rights protections are changing, there are likely to be more questions than answers in our courses. I think this is something we need to embrace. While we do not (and arguably should not) scrap all of our lesson plans or course content to address what is happening now, we owe it to our students to try to help them process and understand what is happening. We need not lecture to them about our own political views or opinions. We can, however, try to address their concerns, talk about how our courses’ content areas relate to what is happening, and how things might be changing regarding what we are teaching. We can point out where various changes are sharp breaks from our norms, traditions, and laws, and also indicate where other changes are mere policy preferences. We can embrace the uncertainty and our own concerns while trying to guide our students through not only what is happening, but how to find out about what is happening. In a world where we now need to talk about “fake news” and “post-truth” it is important that we arm our students with the tools they need to survive this brave new frontier.

Human Rights and Social Work Elective Focused on Trump’s First 100 Days

Following the election of Donald Trump as the 45th US President, the Teaching Human Rights (THR) blog featured a series of posts focused on how we, as human rights educators at the college level,  addressed the election in our classrooms.  During the Spring 2017 semester, the THR blog will include posts focused on teaching about human rights during the first 100 days of the Trump Presidency.

The first post in this series features a new syllabus recently uploaded to the THR Syllabus Database.  The Spring 2017 elective entitled, Human Rights and Social Work: Responding to Domestic and International Crises, will focus on the human rights and social welfare policy implications of the first 100 days of the Trump presidency.  As outlined below, each week will feature a social justice issue as suggested by students in the course.  Students will be actively engaged in observing the political processes and advocating for the realization of social justice and human rights through policy advocacy.

The course outline includes:

  • Perspectives on Human Rights and Social Work
  • Human Rights and Social Justice
  • Rights-Based Approach
  • International and National Political Systems
  • Women’s Rights
  • LGBTI Rights
  • Racism as a Human Rights Issue
  • Social and Economic Rights
  • Immigrant Rights
  • Sustainability
  • Business Ethics
  • Foreign Relations

In addition, the course will include participation in Social Work Students Advocacy Day on the Hill and a PhotoVoice Community Exhibition.  During Advocacy Day, sponsored by the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP), students will engage in policy advocacy on behalf of social welfare legislation.  More information available at:  http://crispinc.org/2017-student-advocacy-day-on-the-hill/.  The PhotoVoice Exhibition will provide students the opportunity to visually represent the human rights and social welfare policies studied over the course of the semester.  Subsequent  posts on the THR blog will provide reflections on the Advocacy Day and PhotoVoice Exhibition.

We would be remiss to say that human rights will not be impacted by President Trump and his administration.  It is up to us, as human rights educators, to teach our students, future human rights leaders, how to continue to promote the realization of human rights for all.

SW for SJ EyesWhite House

Photos taken by the author at the Women’s March in Washington, DC on January 21, 2017.

Christina M. Chiarelli-Helminiak

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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                   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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

A speak-out as a strategy in today’s “post-truth” climate

Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” the word of the year 2016 and defines it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (Oxford Dictionaries). The 2016 presidential campaign, the traditional media coverage as well as the emergence of fake news throughout the internet (and now with the appointment of Steve Bannon on the way into the White House) are exemplary for this move towards emotional politics that do not correspond to facts but rather to felt realities. Voters were swayed by what they felt was true, and no factual contradiction could convince them otherwise. Climate scientists, political analysts and journalists are facing accusations of lying (the German word Lügenpresse has made it into white supremacists’ rhetoric in the US and journalists are defamed as liars throughout social media) or political correctness (a long, but interesting article about the history of political correctness and how the right uses it to demonize liberals can be found here). Many of us have seen the Professor Watchlist by now which lists “professors with liberal bias.” Liberalism and anti-bigotry appear to oppress conservative perspectives and to push a liberal agenda. In this climate of felt realities, it is difficult to argue rationally against that view. So, what can we do? How then can we teach critical thinking and openness to multiple perspectives?

 

A few weeks ago, I organized a speak-out on refugees on campus. To avoid the “feeling” of being lectured to and to promote substantial and open dialogue, I conceptualized this speak-out as student-centered with a few professors present who could answer questions and straighten out misconceptions but who would not lecture, push any kind of agenda, or even engage with their own opinion. To say this right away, the latter was the most difficult thing about this event. Being used to a teaching role in the classroom, it is not easy to hold back and to not answer provocative questions such as “why do we need to take in refugees, can’t others do it? It’s just too dangerous.” While I managed to not chime in then, this question weighed on me and I had to answer it at least in the echo chamber of my blog later. Here is what I would have said in a class setting.

 

I do believe, however, that it was beneficial to hold back. The discussion proved to be excellent. There was a multiplicity of voices and students seriously engaged with each other. There was no polemic back and forth but rather mutual respect and the students who argued for welcoming refugees held their own. In the end, there was no need to engage with my opinions, the students were capable enough to do so on their own and experienced a sense of empowerment. Some ground rules were necessary to make this happen.

 

I borrowed the set-up from the fish-bowl approach which is a cooperative learning strategy. This method consists of two circles – a smaller inner circle where the discussion happens and a larger outer circle where the rest of the group observes the discussion. The inner circle should not be larger than 10 participants while the outer circle can have as many as 50. In classes, I would place half of the students in each circle and switch later. For this event, I used an alternative approach and observers could switch into the inner circle to participate.

 

Our inner circle of ten participants included four “experts” plus six students. Everyone faced inwards. This was the circle of discussion, everyone who sat here could participate in the debate. The outer circle of about thirty students, faculty, and members of the wider community (somebody from Freedom House joined and contributed practical examples) faced also inwards and thereby constituted the observer position. When somebody in the outer circle wanted to participate, he/she tapped out somebody in the inner circle and switched seats with them. I asked in the beginning to tap people out who either hadn’t said anything in a while or who had a similar opinion to one’s own to avoid the silencing of voices and perspectives. This set-up had two benefits: the smaller setting of the inner circle allowed substantial discussion and the necessity of moving into the inner circle before speaking helped emotions to calm before contributing. I believe that this set-up was a great success in both hearing many voices and also keeping the dialogue productive and open.

 

We got some good feedback about the fish-bowl approach from students who felt that their opinions were taken seriously and that the debate was in fact open-ended and not, as they sometimes feel in class, led with a specific goal in mind. That did not mean, however, that the discussion was held at the level of felt realities and fake news. The multiplicity of backgrounds and voices ensured that misconceptions and false narratives were corrected. Such a speak-out then seems to be an excellent strategy to combat accusations of bias in teaching and to push back on “post-truth” tendencies. I will certainly employ this strategy in future classes as well and we are already in the process of organizing the next speak-out on campus. This time on “Russia-Europe-US and the role of NATO”.

 

A well written preview article of the event, published in our campus newspaper, with more information on the approach, background, and goals can be found here.