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.