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Trials and Tribulations of Sending Students to Public Lectures and Events

Teaching on an active campus with lots of public lectures and events allows for opportunity to enhance our courses. Yet opportunities can come with some unintended costs. When we see the schedule come out for upcoming events of the new semester it is tempting to pack our classes with them. Typical approaches send students to these lectures as extra credit assignments and some “require” that students attend on their own time. Often students have to write some sort of reflection piece to show they attended the talk. Sometimes the course schedule may align, or partially overlap, with the time of the lecture, yet at most institutes of higher learning schedule alignment seems to occur once in a blue moon.

As teachers we know the magic of students exploring new topics that ignite a new passion. We know that speakers can be inspiring and can lead students to pursue new avenues of research or to investigate a brand new subject matter that we did not have the expertise to address in class—especially true in the interdisciplinary world of human rights. We ourselves have been inspired, why not them? However, in human rights, and many other fields for that matter, sending students to public lectures unprepared can lead to headaches for all involved.

Paul Krugman speaking to a stadium at UMass on Oct. 26, 2017. Photo credit: Jack J. Barry

In my time teaching at public universities and private colleges I have tried a few different approaches to utilizing public lectures/events happening around campus. Some have been more successful than others. At first I would follow the approach I was most familiar with: sending students to public lectures for extra credit and having them write up a “reflection.” This worked okay but I found only a certain subset of the students would pursue it: (A) Students who wanted to boost their grade (and usually not the ones who REALLY needed that boost) and (B) students interested in the topic with the time to attend who would likely be going to the lecture regardless. Furthermore, this approach ranked out some students from attending, namely those with less schedule flexibility that often work and/or have caregiving responsibilities. Overall, to me it felt that this approach proved a little hit or miss for influencing how many students would actually attend and our resulting discussion about the lecture in class was often disjointed for the full class. In attempts to remedy this I have brought full classes to public events, as well as brought in guest speakers to my class when they were on campus for an event. These latter two approaches I felt were more effective yet also come with pitfalls of which to be wary.

Here are some tips that I’ve gleaned from my experience with public lectures/events and listening to student responses after attending them:

(1) Prepare students as much as is feasible for the upcoming content. Students like to have warning about what the talk is going to be about and if possible go over some of the jargon the speaker is likely to use beforehand. Of course, that is difficult to predict, but a good faith effort goes a long way and sometimes really pays off as students tend to pickup on more than they would have otherwise, especially key if the speaker will be visiting your class.

(2) Be careful about sending them to a lecture pitched at too high a level (especially for international students who may have difficulty with the English language). I have certainly made the mistake of sending my class composed of many international students to some events that were clearly pitched at a niche audience, a deadening event for all involved.

(3) Consider interactive events rather than only formal lectures. With research now displaying that college age student attention spans for dense topics withering after 10-15 minutes of lecture (Burke & Ray 2008)[1] sometimes other events beyond the typical 50-minute lecture may add real value. For instance, I oriented and scheduled my class this semester around a human rights film series, which included some initial remarks, a film screening, and an ending discussion with Q & A, which kept the flow of the event moving. There are many opportunities around campus for more non-traditional and interactive events. Be on the lookout for events such as job fairs, student organization events, concerts, poetry readings, political protests, and field trips if possible. All of which would get them outside the classroom, interacting with people, and then reporting back about their experience. My guess is years later they will remember effective interactive, outside of class events involving experiential learning, more than many topics taught in our classroom (sorry “sage on a stage” model). Feel free to check out previous posts on this blog that discussed the power of experiential learning approaches including trips down the US Eastern Seaboard during election week and exploring advocacy in D.C.

(4) Don’t overburden them. We are well aware that students’ time is under threat from all sides. If many of your students work or have other outside responsibilities, such as caretaking, be aware of that when scheduling. I have made the mistake of over scheduling outside events and I could tell the students felt overwhelmed. If you cannot schedule events into your class time and have to go the extra credit route be sure to have multiple events at different times and/or days of the week. A few targeted events, at different times, that are talked up beforehand in class may be better than simply listing many with assumed equal importance.

(5) Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, be sure to describe academic rules of etiquette. Ever been to a lecture where half the student audience leaves when the speaker is about to field questions? Of course reminders about appropriate tech usage and what is expected in terms of format helps and will make your students feel more comfortable. You never know if this is the first event of this type they have attended in college.

Don’t forget to have fun with lectures/events and do not lose sight of the magic that can happen through them. One may never know what will ignite students’ passion, but as teachers we can do our best to give them as much grounded electricity as we can. In other words, minimize short circuits!

Feel free to comment here on your experience incorporating lectures and events into your courses—I am sure there are many creative approaches out there! We would love to hear about your experience.

 

References: [1] Burke, L.A., Ray, R. (2008). Re-setting the concentration levels of students in higher education: an exploratory study. Teaching in Higher Ed. 13(5), 571–582.

Author: Jack J. Barry, Ph.D. University of Connecticut.

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.

Teaching Human Rights in the Trump Era: 100 Days and Beyond

Closing out our series in this blog on teaching human rights in Trump’s first 100 days in office, this post offers a synopsis of themes exposed in this series.

The 100-day mark has come and gone for the Trump Administration, and along with it teachers’ experience of a first semester or quarter teaching during this politically charged time. For those following our blog, over the past four months we have been discussing the various challenges of teaching human rights courses during the opening salvo of the Trump Presidency. Posts ranged from how do you incorporate changing current events into your already established course, to how do we teach about rights and institutions that seem far less permanent than before, to even how do we teach about the things that didn’t happen? Our series also highlighted teaching political advocacy and bringing students on field trips to the belly of the beast, Washington DC, to designing a new course knowing rights would be under threat in the USA, to using humor as potential teaching reprieve in what has become a ripe time for ironic critiques of those in power.

A few common themes stand out from our series about teaching human rights in the early days of the Trump Administration: (1) Enhanced concern for groups under threat in our local areas—with a particular focus on practical policy change/resistance to Trump’s policy; (2) Importance of staying abreast of ever changing current events; (3) The dangers of becoming too insular, focusing too much on the USA and less on rights in the international community; and (4) The challenge of responding to direct absurdities from the Trump Administration.

(1) From election night onward direct concern for threats to rights for different groups in the USA has been at the forefront of coverage oriented around human rights. This concern was palpable for our students from when they first entered our classrooms in the early days after the inauguration, the Women’s March, and when the Trump Travel Ban was announced. They were clearly worried for groups they knew, cared about, or were even part of, that were already under increased threat either directly from Administration policies, such as those affected directly by the Travel Ban, or illegal immigrants facing deportation. Also, the importance of what can be done practically at the local level to protect the rights from groups under threat was an overarching theme —as seen in Tina Chiarelli-Helminiak’s post about the trip to Washington DC to learn how advocacy works on Capitol Hill.

(2) The importance of staying abreast of quickly changing current events was another theme we saw in teaching during this tumultuous time. Current events always interest students, but sometimes focusing on them too much can cause us all to miss the forest for the trees. However, putting events in historical context proved to be a strong strategy as students could be given comparative and contextual lenses to view the assault on rights the Trump Administration has attempted to carryout. Finding the sweet spot between the two can be difficult, but we felt it was worth the effort as students wanted to know more about what was happening in real time.

Cathy Buerger’s post succinctly describes the interest in current events as a teaching opportunity: “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.”

Source: Image from Washington Post.

(3) It was also clear that there are dangers of becoming too insular, focusing too much on the US and less on the international community. Although the US has long played by its own rules in international affairs, as one of the only countries that did not sign many vital human rights treaties such as CEDAW, Children’s Rights Treaty, and now the Paris Climate Agreement, yet the US claims to have led the world forward in political rights and in fostering those rights in authoritarian regimes (of course on closer examination this happens only when it fits the interests of US).

Daniel Tagliarina mentions such an international approach in his post about teaching a class on civil liberties in the US: “[An] 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.”

(4) Lastly, something that stood out was the continued challenge of responding to direct absurdities from the Trump White House. From Day 2 of the Administration it was clear spin on political matters, and even basic facts, was going to be beyond anything seen in recent US history. For instance, Press Secretary Sean Spicer boldly tried to claim Trump’s inauguration crowds were bigger than Obama’s despite clear photographic evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, everyday partisan driven headlines seemed to contain more subterfuge, omissions, and straight out lies than usual as seen in Nicole Coleman’s piece about how to teach about “things that did not happen” e.g. the Bowling Green Massacre. Another approach to such absurdities is to respond with irony. Jack Barry’s piece explored an attempt at a reprieve from teaching the typical depressing subject matter of human rights with an exploration of irony and its potential as a weapon against the powerful.

Teaching human rights under the Trump Administration has left us with a variety of strong emotions, often not knowing whether it is appropriate to laugh or cry. Yet, one thing has been clear in the USA: respecting, protecting, and fulfilling human rights matter more than ever, to our inquisitive students searching for the truth, to groups that are under threat, and for us teachers of human rights.

Jack J. Barry, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow, Global Training and Development Institute, University of Connecticut, (blog and website editor) email: jack.barry@uconn.edu

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