Author: fsh06001

Teaching Human Rights in Political Science

Two of the THR editors, Jack Barry and Shaznene Hussain, recently participated in the American Political Science Association (APSA) workshop on Teaching Human Rights. During the workshop, two panels of human rights faculty presented a number of pedagogical challenges and opportunities they have encountered in teaching human rights courses. Those participating in the workshop were from a diverse set of institutions, ranging from larger, public research universities to smaller, private Liberal Arts colleges in the United States and Canada.

Many of the topics discussed at the workshop were ones that the THR Working Group debated when thinking about the goals we wanted to accomplish by creating a database of human rights lesson plans, syllabi, and other pedagogical resources. For instance, a number of political science faculty members spoke about the importance and necessity of engaging undergraduate students by incorporating a variety of resources such as cases studies, statistics, service-learning opportunities, guest speakers, documentaries, literature, and film into their human rights courses. Although the workshop was primarily concerned with teaching human rights within the discipline of political science, many of the participants commented on the benefits using of multi- and inter-disciplinary course material to help students better engage with course topics.

The challenges of teaching about human rights to diverse groups of students from varying disciplinary backgrounds was also major topic of discussion during the workshop. As editors and contributors to the THR database, we think these workshop discussions are useful in thinking about the goals and structure of specific lesson plans and in prompting us to take into account the educational and/or social experiences of students in our classes.

Below is a summary of many key pedagogical themes addressed by the panelists and participants at the APSA workshop on Teaching Human Rights:


Interrelated challenges in teaching human rights:

  • Challenging the rescue/savior narrative of human rights advocacy
  • Challenging a Western-centric view of where human rights violations occur, i.e. West=human rights culture, non-West=human rights violating culture
  • Adequately taking into account students’ backgrounds and socialization (ex. race, sexuality, nationality, geographical location within the U.S. or Canada, class, urban/rural/suburban, military service, age etc.) in terms of knowledge and ideological perspective when selecting case studies to teach about specific rights.
  • How to motivate students who might appear indifferent to human rights issues, or on the other hand, those who might feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the variety of human rights challenges we encounter.

Strategies for addressing the above challenges:

  • Use case studies to illustrate implementation/functioning of a human right and to demonstrate the importance of a human rights framework to address various types of injustice and violence
  • Caution students that learning about specific human rights abuses can be emotionally difficult and, if necessary, provide students with alternative ways to engage with and complete course requirements
  • Include cases from the U.S. and other Western countries in addition to those from developing countries to highlight human rights issues as global issues


Other challenges in teaching human rights:

  • Challenges in teaching interdisciplinary courses, or classes made up of both social science and humanities majors. For example, teaching social science majors about the importance of personal narratives, poetry, literature, art etc. and teaching humanities majors about the importance of institutions, laws, power relations etc.

Strategies for addressing the above challenges:

  • Make use of available experiential or service learning opportunities. For instance, invite people in local human rights (or related) organizations to present their work in class
    • However, in doing so, faculty also need to take care that organizations and individuals we invite into courses are not exploited or made additionally vulnerable as a result of sharing information about their experience and/or work in human rights.
  • Promoting inter- or multi-disciplinary work to advance the teaching of human rights, including bringing human rights into courses in the Sciences, Business, and Engineering


Additional suggestions for overcoming challenges teaching human rights in the academy:

  • Sharing pedagogical resources among faculty and instructors is important and desirable
  • Advocate institutional support (including financial support) for teaching human rights, particularly in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences
  • Promoting inter- or multi-disciplinary work to advance the teaching of human rights, including bringing human rights into courses in the Sciences, Business, and Engineering

As instructors, or students, of human rights, what are some of the challenges you have encountered in teaching or learning about human rights? Are the challenges or strategies mentioned here familiar to you? Do you have any advice or alternative ideas to the ones discussed at the workshop on how to address common challenges in teaching human rights? We would love to hear from instructors and students about which strategies have worked and which ones have not worked in your classrooms.