Author: Buerger Catherine

Protecting the Privacy of Undocumented Students

In the spring of 2017, I taught a course on the education rights of undocumented students (I discussed it a bit in a past post). As might be expected with such a topic, there were multiple undocumented students enrolled in the course as well as others with an interest in the issue. Throughout the semester, the course used powerful narrative accounts of what it is like to be an undocumented student to help all of the students better grasp the issue. It was also a service-learning course. Through the service component of the course, students gained 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. As a service learning course, reflection (specifically, journal writing) was a primary component of the course. Within their weekly journal entries, many students disclosed their precarious citizenship statuses, reflecting on their own histories and how their lack of documentation continued to present challenges in their daily lives. As an instructor, these journal entries presented a larger predicament: when our courses deal with sensitive and personal themes, and we are aware of how these themes overlap with our students’ experiences, how do we balance the desire to help our students learn from each other with the need to protect student confidentiality?

Although the students were incredibly forthcoming and open about their statuses in their journal entries, I wasn’t always sure if they were open about their undocumented statuses with their classmates. Although I normally draw from journal entries as a way to illustrate the diversity of opinions in the class (e.g. “One of you wrote about x, while someone else felt y”), I hesitated to do so in this course. Even though learning from each other’s personal experiences would have provided an invaluable learning opportunity, I wanted to make sure that I never revealed anyone’s status without their permission.

Instead, I found myself trying to encourage students to share where they felt comfortable while making it clear that sharing was not required and not related to participation grades. For example, we would often start off the class talking about that week’s journal prompt. Although many students did choose to share their experiences, in other cases, I found myself wishing that a student would speak up when they didn’t. In one case, for example, a student revealed their detailed struggle with the application process for DACA. When, a few weeks later, another student asked a question about the process of applying for DACA that I couldn’t answer, I desperately wanted to hand the question over to the aforementioned student – knowing that they would be able to provide an answer. But I knew that I couldn’t do that, so I asked in a general way, “I’m not sure – does anyone have an answer to that question?” No one spoke up, and so I moved on. It was hard to watch a potentially valuable learning experience slip away, but it is our ethical responsibility to value our students’ safety and privacy over collective learning.

Although this is just a small issue, it’s one of the many that we must consider when we think about how best to support our students in times where their safety and privacy may be in jeopardy. The following resources provide other useful tips for supporting undocumented students:

Continued Support for Undocumented College Students

Top 10 Ways to Support Undocumented Students

How Teachers Can Help Immigrant Kids Feel Safe


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.

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.

Human Rights, Government Power, and President-Elect Trump

This is the third entry in our post-election series of blogs here on Teaching Human Rights. We have read about teaching in a non-political course to a very diverse campus, as well as about a guest speaker addressing race and class with respect to the election. Much like Nicole discusses in her post, I have rather diverse classes and found myself talking to many students from marginalized groups who were terrified about the prospects of what Trump’s election means. However, unlike Nicole, I teach explicitly political classes about American government and American constitutional law, and I also teach in a fairly red part of a blue state. The former means students expect some discussion of the election, and the latter means that while I faced many students who were genuinely frightened about the future, these students were also in the room with others who remained civil, but were not at all upset by the election results.

This blending of political views in classes about American government created an interesting environment in which to discuss how the election turned out, but also what it means moving forward both for American politics and for human rights. Much of what I discussed with my introductory-level classes was dissecting the voting patterns as well as discussing policy implications at a basic level. This discussion involved some of my own input, but largely we had a very open-ended discussion where I tried to create a safe space for all to talk (much like Nicole described), and then spent time together answering their questions, addressing their fears, and dispelling rumors, myths, or otherwise fake accounts of what has happened and what will happen. This was part therapy, part education, and part fact-checking, which the students reported appreciating and finding beneficial. While I think it is important to share this experience, I am actually going to focus the rest of this post on teaching American constitutional law in light of the election, before relating these discussions to teaching about human rights.

One of the courses I am teaching this semester, which I regularly teach, is constitutional law. Typically at the undergraduate level American constitutional law is broken into two (or sometimes three) main areas: (1) government institutions and powers, and (2) civil rights and civil liberties (and if a third, rights of the accused). While I am teaching the second of these courses in the spring (which seems incredibly timely given the campaign rhetoric), I am teaching the first version this semester. This class largely focuses on what the federal and state governments can and cannot do under the constitution, as interpreted by the US Supreme Court. It is from within this context that I want to focus. The students in this class, by the time of the election, have read about how the various branches check the other branches, as well as various elements of governmental power over foreign and domestic policy. It is precisely this information that had this class discussing the implications of Trump being president-elect and broader concerns for human rights (the latter not normally a topic for this specific course).

To put things in perspective, Trump has discussed drastically lowering if not completely stopping the number of refugees the US accepts, in addition to imposing a Muslim registry, authorizing waterboarding and other forms of torture because he “knows” they work (a position he is slightly stepping back), and using military force to indiscriminately target those whom he does not like. What the students in my class expressed is that these acts are fundamentally against the constitution, but not clearly beyond the President’s power to enact (even if for only for a short time). Korematsu, which upheld FDR’s plan of Japanese internment during World War II, has never been overturned and has been positively cited as supporting Trump’s Muslim registry ideas. While we have laws outlawing the use of torture, and the Supreme Court has said that the Geneva Conventions still apply to the U.S., that does not mean that Congress and former President George W. Bush did not try to circumvent both of these, and thus president-elect Trump and his Republican Congress could do the same.

Presidential power has been expanding for years, and much of it exists with few checks. President Obama, out of necessity from the intransigent Republican Congress, has extensively employed executive orders and executive agreements, all of which Trump can undo by simply signing his own executive orders and agreements. Most terrifying from a human rights standpoint is that the current Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning president has greatly expanded the use of drones, ordering over 500 strikes, often with little regard for citizen casualties. This is further complicated by the fact that the US policy arbitrarily designates all fighting-aged men killed by a drone are terrorists, unless evidence emerges after the fact that they were not. On top of this, Obama has overseen at least six US citizens killed with drones, although only one was specifically—and extra-judicially—targeted. This is especially concerning when considering the hostility many of Trump’s currently-named advisors and cabinet members have for much of the rest of the world, given Trump’s desire to blow up our enemies with reckless abandon, and given his seemingly thin-skinned reactions to anything he perceives as a slight (see almost anything on Trump’s Twitter feed). Remember, he will have the ability to, more or less, order these strikes at will. All of this without even discussing the domestic implications for human rights for discriminating against minorities, or anyone receiving government assistance as part of the U.S.’s social safety net that has been targeted by the incoming Republican-dominated government.

Our laws are not self-enforcing. Our institutions cannot stop authoritarianism if we lack the political will to do anything. Trump will not listen to Democrats, he’s made that clear, and Republicans, at least not openly and publicly, especially since the election outcome, are not pushing back against him (not that it is clear that he would listen). Nothing in our system works to check power without opposition. If the government does not oppose him, there is little that we, as US citizens, can really do. The naming of Bannon as his chief policy advisor and the Republican complacency over it is a very telling moment. Unless Republicans suddenly push back aggressively against Trump on this, things are not looking good for human rights in the US. To try to put this into context of teaching, my advice (and my approach) has been to be open and direct with students. Encourage them to ask questions, encourage them to speak out when they disagree with what the government is doing, and remind them that the US system is built on the premise of active citizens working as a check on the government, which is particularly necessary when the government will not check itself. These are difficult times for many and pedagogically challenging discussions to have, but we must have these discussions with students if we are to be involved in helping students develop into thoughtful individuals who will be responsible for the future.

Daniel Tagliarina

Trumped: Electoral politics and the clash of race and class

This is the second blog in a post-election mini-series on Teaching Human Rights. In the first blog, Teaching Human Rights Editor and Contributor, Nicole Coleman, shared her experience in the classroom the day after the general election. She highlighted the importance of creating understanding of why traditionally marginalized students might need support navigating the era of President-elect Trump. She also addressed the fact that it is the responsibility of white people to stand up to bigotry and in solidarity with those who have been targets of the President-elect’s campaign. In this post, I will present an example of how a guest lecturer guided students through a historical account of the electoral politics, race, and class.

A guest lecturer was scheduled to speak two days after the general election on the satellite campus of a public state university. The satellite campus is located in a major urban city in the United States where a majority of the students identify with communities traditionally marginalized and who were targeted during the campaign season, i.e. women, African Americans, working class, inner city residents, of Muslim faith, and/or immigrants. Only after the election did the organizers of the event realize how timely the lecture would be.

The presentation was entitled, “Trumped: Electoral politics and the clash of race and class.” The speaker, Ewuare Osayande (, is a community organizer, accomplished author, student of history, and self-proclaimed rebel.

Mr. Osayande began his presentation with a series of questions, including why Trump, why now? Why would the white working class get behind a man who has spent his career getting rich on the backs of the white working class? Why would the white poor vote against their own best interests? Why is there not an alliance within the working class, regardless of race? He responded that we must appreciate where we are at this point in American history. And this election exposes why logical answers are not always found in individual votes.

Mr. Osayande highlighted that a real democracy would recognize the popular vote; the lie for him is within the Electoral College. The Electoral College was established through the Three-Fifths Compromise proposed during the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. At that time, it was agreed that a system needed to be put into place to ensure that the Northern states with more population did not sway the vote away from the less populated Southern states. Slaves within a state were counted as three-fifths of a white person’s vote ( To this day, the Electoral College continues to discount votes from black and brown voters which I realized particularly when my 18-year-old niece’s boyfriend told me that his vote did not count because he was brown. The Three-Fifths Compromise is just one of many laws that empowered the white colonists and contributed to what we now call white privilege.

Mr. Osayande pulled more history in to the discussion and highlighted that in Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. DuBois (1935) emphasized that the white working man was often as impoverished as the black man who was enslaved. Specifically, in the chapter entitled, “The White Worker,” DuBois forecasted how even today capitalists pit white workers against “others.” During the 2016 election campaign, the rhetoric was that “immigrants are taking away jobs” as a way to redirect anger felt by the un- and underemployed workers towards immigrants; instead the narrative needed to be shifted to the necessity of a living wage in the United States. From DuBois to Bernie Sanders workers must recognize the power is in their numbers and need to unite despite their differences.

Mr. Osayande related this psychological game of whiteness between capitalists and workers to the seeds of fascism nurtured during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Theories of race contribute to the white working class not understanding that the commonalities they have with black and brown communities are more relevant than the similarities they have with the rich and elite. The poor whites, at least those who bothered to vote, voted for Trump because we still hold tight to the American Dream. Yet, poor white Americans’ lives are more similar to the black and brown urban poor Americans’ lives than they are willing to admit. Does this really mean that poor white voters decided Trump offered them the best opportunity?

As Mr. Osayande stated, President-elect Trump’s political base represented the bald face of capitalism and is propelled by the “alt-right,” a movement made up of neo-Nazi, paramilitary, and Tea party voters. The 2016 election exposed to the liberal leaning voters that the mask is off and the new movement does not need politicians to represent them, they can represent themselves through self-funded campaigns bolstered by Citizen’s United v. FEC which gives businesses unlimited ability to finance campaigns and political advertisements.

Mr. Osayande pointed out that the 2016 election also exposed that women in the United States are still not united. Black women overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton. This vote wasn’t because Black women were overly excited for another Clinton presidency, but because Black women understood the larger context of how politics will impact individual lives. White women, on the other hand, voted against their own best interests and based their vote on white privilege.

Mr. Osayande also highlighted that there is hope though in our future. Young Americans (18-25 years old) overwhelmingly voted for Clinton. This voter bloc also polled highly in favor of policies that secure economic rights Since the Civil Rights Movement, America has slowly moved towards a democratic nation. Within two generations the first Black President was elected. There is hope in the realization of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for a revolution of values that will ensure all people in the United States have opportunity.

Perhaps it was serendipitous that Mr. Osayande’s lecture was scheduled post-election, but as instructors interested in teaching human rights, we must engage with community experts to expose students to a variety of voices and viewpoints. Teaching human rights goes beyond international laws and history, as such we must be prepared to utilize pivotal current events as teachable moments.

Christina Chiarelli-Helminiak


Post-Election Teaching

This is the first post in a mini-series on teaching and campus action after the presidential election. Today, I am concentrating on what I said in class the first time I taught after the election. We will have future posts about a campus speaker who focused on electoral politics and the clash of race and class, about teaching constitutional law, about teaching foreign students before, during and after the elections, and about a speak-out on refugees.

I teach a German language class and while I include German culture and touch upon human rights issues, this is not a typical class in which you talk politics. The class then never discussed the presidential campaign before last week. After the election however, I felt that I needed to address the issues in class. Not only because half of my students belong to a marginalized group that has been threatened during the campaign (namely African American, Muslim American and LGBT students, even more than half if you count women) but also and maybe even more so the other half does not belong to a minority, therefore can lean back and wait and see, can believe that everything is going to be ok. So, here is what I said:

“If you don’t belong to a traditionally marginalized group, and that means at this point that you are white, straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered and male, be an upstander. Don’t let racist, sexist, homophobic, islamophobic, ableist comments go unnoticed or unchallenged. Listen to those who have been threatened and violated, believe them and stand with them. If you belong to a minority, know that this classroom is safe. That this community stands with you. And that we, the faculty and your peers, are here to listen and to help. You may feel angry, but you also may feel sad, overwhelmed, desperate. There is counseling on this campus for this reason. I have the number, don’t hesitate to contact me or anyone.

White people did this and white people need to stand up against bigotry now, stand up for those who have been threatened. We cannot let oppressed groups carry the burden of fighting those who threaten them directly. This is not about the President-Elect, but about what our classroom, our campus and our community can do to make sure that these are safe spaces for everyone.”

Given that I teach on a diverse campus in a diverse community, there was no push-back. This may be different in other locations (even though this study would suggest otherwise:, but it is important nonetheless. There may be opposition, and we will speak about teaching in the post-truth era in a future post, but I believe that it is more important that students know that we stand with them.

Many centers for teaching have issued guidelines and advice after the election. The one at your institution may have as well. This is a good place to start finding concrete ideas for teaching during the next weeks. There may also be teach-ins at your campus. And finally, here is one article that stood out among the many that have been published during the last week. Whether you teach human rights or not, all of us can try to be more inclusive in our teaching: Kevin Gannon – “Inclusive Teaching in Exclusionary Times”:

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