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Author Archives: Buerger Catherine

Building Empathy by Seeing the Self as Other

In her book, Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks states, “As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” In a service-learning course, students share their own personal stories and reactions to the work they are doing as a method to connect what they are learning inside the classroom to the work they are doing outside of it. But the connections constructed in service-learning classes have the potential to extend well beyond the classroom walls. Through guided reflection, students can learn to recognize their own stories in the lives of others and in the communities in which they live and work.

In January of 2017, as part of a year-long initiative focused on the rights of non-citizens, the Stamford campus of the University of Connecticut sponsored a course titled, Special Topics in Human Rights: Citizenship and Education Rights. The goal of the class was to explore various theories of citizenship and describe the multiple layers of policies that affect immigrant students living in Connecticut. Through the service component of the course, students would gain firsthand knowledge of the struggles faced by non-citizen students as well as the types of services available to them in the community. Some students chose to volunteer with the immigrant services organizations while others became involved with an advocacy group run by undocumented students that is active in Connecticut. Still others focused their attention on policy work, conducting research on the sanctuary campus movement and presenting their findings to campus administrators. The uniting factor of these activities was our weekly meeting, where students shared their experiences and reflected on how they connected to the course material and their own lives.

One of the more memorable reflection assignments came midway through the semester during a week when we were studying theories of citizenship. The reading for the week focused on the concept of “lived citizenship,” or “the meaning that citizenship actually has in people’s lives and the ways in which people’s social and cultural backgrounds and material circumstances affect their lives as citizens” (Hall and Williamson 1999, 2). After completing the reading, students were asked to describe in their journals a time where their social or “lived” citizenship did not match their legal citizenship. In essence, this assignment asked students to recall a time when they, like undocumented immigrants, did not have an equal voice within a particular political community. Some students struggled with the prompt, with two writing that they had never been in such a situation. Many others, however, were able to identify and relay their past experiences.

In the classroom discussion for the week, students were encouraged (but not required) to share what they had written in their journals. This exercise was particularly useful as students had interpreted “social citizenship” in such a wide variety of ways. The activity sparked a lively discussion, with students going beyond what they had written in their journals to share additional examples of their “lived citizenship” experiences. In fact, both students who had initially written in their journals that they had never experienced a dissonance between their social and legal citizenship were, after listening to the discussion, able to contribute examples from their own lives.

This ability to “other” oneself, to see oneself as having some of the same vulnerabilities as the group being served, while still acknowledging the existence of differences, becomes a primary component of building empathy among students. In the reflection exercise described above, students were encouraged to think of a time when they felt frustrated because their political voice was not heard due to an aspect of their social situation. For the openly undocumented students in the class, this assignment was straightforward. But for the US citizens, the assignment pushed them to examine their own vulnerabilities, revisit the emotions they felt in that situation, and then, through guided classroom discussion, recognize their own experiences in each other. Students learned that the category of “other” is fluid and context dependent and that even they can be othered under the right circumstances. All of these experiences become important components of the construction of identity, and, in turn, the bolstering of sustained civic engagement.

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.

The Advantages of Teaching Human Rights Classes in a Hybrid Format

In this month’s post, I’m going to discuss some of the advantages of teaching human rights courses in a hybrid format. The hybrid model combines both in-class and online teaching – ideally broken up into two modules each week, one online and one in the classroom. As it combines multiple teaching methods, I have found this style of instruction to allow for the benefits of both online and in-person teaching while mitigating some of the disadvantages of each. Students still have face-to-face time with their professor, but they also experience the flexibility of an online course.

This semester, I am using this method to teach an Introduction to Human Rights course. My class contains 35 undergraduate students with a range of majors, and, therefore, a varying level of previous knowledge about human rights. Some students can name various components of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while others might not be willing to wager a guess in public as to what the acronym “U.N.” actually means. Interdisciplinary pedagogy prioritizes the inclusion of a variety of learning experiences and the provision of adequate time for collaborative learning among students precisely for this reason. Although, in practice, most undergraduate courses encounter this varying level of background knowledge, in interdisciplinary courses, we take it as a given from day one. In my experience, hybrid courses are excellent opportunities to provide space for multiple types of learning while still offering time and a space for easy collaboration.

Part of a lesson from an online module about the United Nations

Part of a lesson from an online module about the United Nations

Pedagogically, a hybrid course offers many benefits. This format allows students to engage with lecture material through online modules at their own pace without sacrificing face-to-face contact with their classmates and professor. Students may also use online modules to watch videos or listen to podcasts in preparation for in-class activities. For example, so far this semester we have done several online modules incorporating media in a way that would be difficult to do in a traditional classroom format. When we were studying the UN, I assigned the students to watch several online videos of Universal Periodic Review proceedings. Between videos, they would reflect on each in their online journal. This exercise allowed them to move through the videos and writing at their own pace and then come to class having already thought through the discussion questions in their journals.  The combination of online reflection and in-class discussion can be particularly helpful for students who may feel too shy to contribute in class, but may be more comfortable having the chance to work out their thoughts in a written format.

24 promotion

Students watched episodes of shows such as 24 as way to begin thinking about how torture is portrayed in the media

The second media activity involved asking students to watch one of a variety of television episodes in which torture was portrayed and then complete a reflection handout. These worksheets then served as the basis of our in class discussion that week. Although we could have done a similar assignment in class, by completing the assignment as a part of their online module, the students were able to watch different episodes (from shows like Scandal, 24, Lost, and Homeland). We were then able to devote our class time to comparing the different techniques used to portray torture in the media and how these related to what the students had learned about the Convention against Torture in their online module.

A hybrid model also easily allows for the incorporation of multiple voices and perspectives into lectures and activities. Instead of just acknowledging that scholars differ in their opinion about a topic, for example, an online lecture allows the professor to link to these sources. I can point students to other websites to watch videos or read reports, an exercise that not only increases their knowledge about the topic, but also shows them where this kind of material is available online. This polyvocal approach to constructing online lessons is particularly suitable for interdisciplinary classes that are attempting to teach topics like human rights across the disciplines.

So far, I feel like the class has been going really well, and the students seem to agree. When I gave them a quick survey last week about what format they would most prefer if they were registering for other human rights classes (giving them the choices of hybrid, all in-class, or all online), the hybrid format came out as the most popular. Maybe it’s just the fact that they have to come to class less frequently, but I’d like to think it’s something different.


Teaching Human Rights in the Context of Angst

This blog post includes ideas for conversations at the beginning of the semester. In a subsequent post we will discuss more detailed lesson planning regarding terrorism, migration, and violence in classes that deal with these kind of topics. The thoughts offered here can be integrated as brief conversations and are thus appropriate for a range of classes that do not necessarily address human rights specifically.

In light of this summer’s events both in the U.S. and Europe, our students may return from the summer break with anxieties and feelings of insecurity. Based on the different attacks this summer, students might feel unsafe in general and may also project these fears as biases at specific groups of people. Since these groups can, depending on who is harboring the fears, include African-Americans, Muslim Americans, refugees, migrants, police officers, and white supremacists, we are prone to encounter intersecting and conflicting fears in our classrooms. As most of us teach human rights, our syllabi include instances of discrimination and violence and thereby further contribute to this general angst. So what can we do about it?

It can be helpful to present statistics about terrorism, crime, and immigration, or use the ted talk in the resource section of this post for a general take on the decline rather than the rise of violence. I doubt, however, that facts alone will alleviate the fears. Showing that not all members of a certain group prescribe to an ideology or not all members of a group are violent is too vague to actually help students deal with their anxieties. My goal in this situation is to help students to see perpetrators as individuals rather than collectives (this approach may be more suitable for terrorism fears rather than police brutality and structural discrimination which our next blog post will address in more detail). A faceless group of potential attackers leads to a diffuse and irrational kind of angst. Therefore, I suggest a speak-out. Early in your class, ask your students to talk about their fears and possibly contribute as well. Ask everyone to respect what they hear and to not dismiss it. All fears should be taken seriously. As a next step, allow for conversations. Support different groups to talk to each other rather than about a faceless entity. Making it personal in ways where a fellow student may be a member of the group that other students fear will increase an understanding of diversity and individuality within that group. It also shows how these fears affect the actual members of a religious or ethnic or professional community. If you don’t have diverse classes, bring in people from other parts of campus or the community and allow everyone’s voice to be heard. Speaking alone might be cathartic, but entering conversations can make a long-term difference.

For these conversations to work, we should make sure that our classroom is a safe space. Don’t dismiss any fear for being unwarranted but address the reality of these fears as well (what are students specifically afraid of and why?). Don’t let conversation take the form of accusation and defense. If you have one or more minority students in your class, don’t take them as the representative, as the mouthpiece of their ethnic or religious group. This would play into the homogenization of groups as well. They should also not have to answer broad questions about their group – they are individuals with individual experiences. Present them as exactly that and have them share their feelings as well. Here, the personal contact is the most important element. Eventually, facts need to be introduced into the conversation as well. Depending on the time frame of this intervention in your class, bring in articles, statistics or professionals (for instance, police officers from the city or county, or the Imam of a nearby Mosque, or a scholar from your institution who studies African-American history, Islam, terrorism etc.) for factual information.

If you have the time, let students research the background to some of the attacks. Germany is a good example since four widely different attacks happened within one week. While all four attacks were committed by members of the same religious group and three attackers were refugees, only one (maybe two) were politically motivated. Both the Munich rampage and the Reutlingen murder could have happened elsewhere and with different ethnic backgrounds. That doesn’t make the crimes any better, innocent humans have died in both occasions, but it does help to relativize an assumption of homogeneity that plays into a rhetoric that sees a whole group as potential perpetrators of terrorism. The two refugees in Germany can also contrast the attackers of Brussels and Paris who had lived in Europe for a long time before their attacks. Here separation within a society lies at the heart of the problem, which a politics of fear may exacerbate. Articles can provide additional material to drive one main point home: By homogenizing one group of people and further pushing the group out of our societies, we may help the aims of terrorists.


Selected resources:

On violence in general

Steven Pinker, Ted Talk, The surprising decline in violence:

Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, “The world is not falling apart,” Slate:

On anxiety and terrorism

Steven Erlanger, “String of attacks in Europe fuels a summer of anxiety,” New York Times:

On refugees and immigration

Imran Awan, “Stop Blaming Refugees for Attacks Like Those in Paris,” New York Times:

Ben Norton, “Our terrorism double standard: After Paris, let’s stop blaiming Muslims and take a hard look at ourselves,”Salon:

Amanda Taub, “Shutting down immigration won’t solve Europe’s terrorism problem,” Vox:



By: Nicole Coleman

Women’s Rights as Human Rights

Professor Zehra Arat

Purchase College


Theories of Human Rights

Professor Zehra Arat

University of Connecticut

2015 Syllabus2014 Syllabus

Human Rights & Global Affairs

Professor Hans Peter Schmitz

Syracuse University


Human rights advocacy and international NGOs

Professor Hans Peter Schmitz

University of San Diego


Teaching Human Rights Outside the Classroom


As college-level instructors, sometimes we get constrained to the classroom. The thought of a “field trip” seems very elementary, but sometimes we need to get out of the classroom to teach human rights.

On April 4, 2016, the International Federation of Social Workers and the International Association of Schools of Social Work co-hosted the 33rd Annual Social Work Day at the United Nations (  This year’s theme was Refugees and Displaced Persons: Ensuring Dignity and Worth.  The event provided social work students, faculty, and practitioners with a glimpse of what it is like to work at the UN, a formal system with its own culture, language, and protocol.  The panel was assembled to replicate UN Briefings with representation from an Ambassador, a high level UN Staff member, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), and moderator(s).  #SWDUN2016 panelists included:

  • Ninette Kelly, Director, New York Office, UN Office of the High Commission on Refugees
  • His Excellency Deputy Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Ambassador Nazifullah Salarzai
  • Guglielmo Schinna, International Organization for Migration, Head, Mental Health, Psychosocial Response & Intercultural Communications
  • Patricia Talisse, MSW Student at Fordham University from Aleppo, Syria

From a pedagogical point, taking a trip to the UN makes the learning come alive, so to say.  Students were also able to realize how the United Nations relies on civil society, opening up job possibilities they had never realized were available to them.  And while there are numerous destinations one can imagine for a human rights-oriented fieldtrip, the UN affords a unique opportunity for students to expand their individual professional endeavors and interests—from outside of the classroom to outside of the country.

The focus on refugees and displaced persons was not only relevant and timely—but it demonstrated the connection between individual work and international policy.  The very nature of the panelists’ positions—and thus their discussion—interwove issues on all levels of practice—from individuals and families, to communities, countries, and ultimately, the necessary governmental collaborations and partnerships (and more) needed to address a crisis that is impacting over 60 million people worldwide.

Perhaps most importantly for social work students, and all students for that matter, the experience was an opportunity to experience first hand that political involvement is a prerequisite for upholding human rights—and that they can, and should, be a part of the equation.  For those students who might struggle with the political side of this work, such a trip to the UN can be an awakening.  Sitting in an expansive and high-tech conference hall at the United Nations in the heart of New York City while experts from around the globe all echo the same sentiment—one that undeniably underscores the fact that these problems are the result of political crises—is an extremely powerful tool to bring awareness and interest to an emerging generation of humanitarian workers and activists.

By Christina Chiarelli-Helminiak and Pier Cicerelle

West Chester University (PA)

Religion and Human Rights (2014)

Professor Richard Amesbury

Claremont School of Theology