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:  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


Experiential Learning: Touring the Eastern Seaboard with International Students During Election Week 2016 (Part II).

On Monday, I wrote about the academic structure of the YSEALI program and the curriculum I implemented. Read Part I here. In Part II, I will continue by reflecting on the study trip itself and specific observations from each city. First up, NYC!

NYC has a strong international draw and desire to be seen by students in the program. The Statute of Liberty and Ellis Island are always a hit but interesting observations pop up throughout our time in NYC. For example, walking around the National September 11th Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero, a student and I discussed how in Indonesia, where he was from, most people he knew thought 9/11 was a myth—that it did not happen. He was surprised to see the scope of the museum and memorial, and was interested in why folks back home did not know about it or the overwhelming evidence that the event did indeed happen. In fact, a common refrain heard from international students in our programs from Southeast Asia and Africa is that the U.S. does an impressive job—according to them—of memorializing our history via museums, memorials, and saving historical buildings, especially compared to their countries where they say the preserving of history is less prioritized. Though I also discuss with them that there are many aspects to U.S. history that are not remembered, or memorialized—as history is so often rewritten, and memorialized, by the winning side.






Photo: From our trip to New York’s Liberty and Ellis Islands.









In Philadelphia, by chance we were staying a block away from where Hillary Clinton was scheduled to give her major rally with Democratic Party’s bigwigs, and musicians Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi, on the eve of the election. We were getting a tour of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell the morning of her rally but our bus was scheduled to take us to D.C. that afternoon (no way to have planned to stay to see that rally in advance L). Yet before we left town students got to see free speech up front and personal in the area near the rally. This led to some interesting discussions about how the kind of speech they saw would be suppressed in many of their countries—which score at the lower end of Reporters Without Borders ranking of Press Freedom. However, we also discussed how speech that overtly promoted policies that discriminated against groups, as seen at Trump rallies, was also protected political speech under our Constitution and also in human rights law. Seeing political speech in public space allowed for ideas from the classroom to take on more clear real world relevance.



Photo: Free speech alive and well—Independence Square, Philadelphia, 11/7/2016.


On Election Day we took the students to see a new addition to the Smithsonian Institute: the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This museum begins with a mile long walking exhibit that documents African-American history in chronological order from the slave trade to the election of Barack Obama. Walking with the students through this historical timeline was a unique experience that allowed them to see the fits and starts African-Americans faced in striving, and still having to do so today, for equal rights in the U.S. Many students reported that this was their favorite museum because of the experience of walking that timeline—they really liked the organization and content.

That night, informally, we took those that wanted to go watch election returns to Busboys and Poets, a restaurant, and bookstore (focused on African-American literature). The students enjoyed the festive atmosphere; with cheers for every Clinton state win projection from the mostly liberal crowd. The cheers became few and far between around 11PM when it looked like Trump might be able to pull off the Electoral College surprise victory. The place was emptying out by midnight.

On the day after Election Day, waking up to a Trump victory and a dreary rain falling over D.C., we took the students on the morgue like Metro (D.C. had the highest % voting totals for Clinton of any state/district—90.9% and lowest for Trump 4%) to the Newseum where we saw the daily headlines from Newspapers around the world (featured below) and watched Clinton’s concession speech on their big screen (featured below). Later in the day we got a tour of the U.S. Capitol building. Telling the students beforehand that the U.S. has a history of peaceful transfer of power was confirmed as the Capitol Visitor’s Center was very quiet, much shorter lines than usual, and seemingly unchanged to the naked eye from an election that will have lasting effects on the nation—although politically speaking it seems unlikely to have the effect of bringing Americans closer together as the slogan so revered on the Capitol tour, E Pluribus Unum “out of many, one” touts.


       Front pages of papers from around the USA and the world at the Newseum—11/9/2016


                   Hillary Clinton’s concession speech on the big screen—Newseum—11/9/2016.

Overall, site visits and travel, certainly can make politics, the struggle for rights, and U.S. history from the classroom come alive. Clearly, learning takes many forms at the individual level and it is certainly hard to predict when the magic of education will strike. I look forward to checking in with these students years from now to see how their experience was shaped by being exposed to watching the functioning of the U.S. political system in real time, at sites of significance, and through discussions with Americans both in and out of the classroom. As we struggle to understand what sparks the development of critical thinking skills and memory retention, it will be interesting to see if these instances of experiential learning mixed with classroom instruction prove more salient than traditional educational approaches. My hunch is that they will and I will report on any measurable results in future blog posts. Although the college classroom does not typically allow such trips down the Eastern Seaboard—perhaps there are other approaches that could bring in more experiential approaches and informal discussions even when an educator is faced with constraints? Does anyone have examples on how to effectively include experiential learning on a smaller budget and semester constrained timeframe?

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Author Jack J. Barry, Postdoctoral Fellow, Global Training and Development Institute, University of Connecticut (all photos taken by author).








Photo taken outside of White House 11-7-2016
















Experiential Learning: Touring the Eastern Seaboard with International Students During Election Week 2016 (Part I).

This is the fifth, and final entry (although it will be in two parts—second post coming on Wednesday, December 14th) in our post-election series of blog posts on Teaching Human Rights. In the previous entries we have seen a variety of approaches to teaching on the 2016 election including: trying a “speak out” as a strategy in today’s post-truth climate; teaching Trump from a constitutional law perspective; teaching a non-political course to a very diverse campus; as well as hosting a guest speaker addressing race/class and the election. A theme in these entries has been the threat that the election of Trump endemically poses for minority groups and how teachers, who teach in diverse settings, have grappled with this new reality. Post-truth or not, many of our communities and students have reported that they have felt threatened from what Trump has said/represents. This entry picks up on that theme and applies it to experiential learning, international students, and to the employment of both informal and formal discussions around difficult topics this election raised.

In my job as the Academic Director for U.S. State Department-funded international academic programs I am placed at the heart of cross-cultural dialogue across many different settings. One takes place traveling with students from 10 different countries on a program concluding study tour where we visit sites along the Eastern Seaboard related to U.S. history, centers of governmental and economic power, and, as our program focuses on social entrepreneurship, headquarters of leading social enterprises in the American tradition—such as D.C. Central Kitchen which provides job training in food services to released convicts and homeless in the D.C. area. This fall, that study trip took us on a weeklong journey through NYC, Philadelphia, and culminated with four days in Washington D.C. during election week. Experiencing the 2016 election in D.C. was quite remarkable, especially in the company of students from Southeast Asia from very different cultural, religious, geographic, and economic backgrounds.

One of the key learning objectives of this Obama Administration-funded academic program, Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative (YSEALI) is for students to explore U.S. history, politics, and our economic system. Not surprisingly upon arrival on the campus of the University of Connecticut in early October, the election came up constantly. How to talk candidly to a room full of bright international students about the two major political party candidates and why Trump was receiving such strong support proved to be a challenge from day one. How does one comfortably tell someone of Islamic faith that one of our Presidential candidates was talking about making it much more difficult for them to enter the country, indulging in the idea of putting them on a watch list, and having them endure “extreme vetting” (whatever that means) during each return trip to the U.S.? What do you say to foreigners when, according to exit poll data, 13% of the American electorate said “immigration” was the biggest problem facing our country, with 64% of those who reported voting for Trump? Or when 41% of the electorate said they want to build a wall (apparently the current fence is not big enough) along the entire Mexican border—and 85% of those that want that wall voted for Trump? Because you have to start somewhere, I would revert to the beginning by telling the long American story of racial resentment and strife, economic disparities, and slow, very painful progress made by some groups in the never ending struggle for equal rights under the law. Chronological order was my refuge in trying to answer these difficult questions.


On the left: YSEALI students meeting American teachers at the University of Connecticut—negotiation exercise.

I designed the curriculum to include academic sessions from different speakers on U.S. history—some of which addressed the brutal treatment of the Native Americans—and also sessions on African-American history, freedom of speech and press in the digital age, Asian-American cultural understanding, and economic rights in the U.S. These and other sessions helped to put the current state of racial, economic, and cultural issues facing the U.S. electorate in 2016 into context. However, the students kept a steady stream of questions coming, many raised in informal settings, throughout the program regarding the election and why Trump was getting such strong support from a nation of immigrants that calls itself “the melting pot.” The interplay between informal discussions with students, especially during our study trip, and in class with its formal discussions, led to a dynamic exchange of ideas in a cross-cultural context that might have long-lasting effects on learning via experiential exposure to rights, politics, and history. Check back here on Wednesday December 12th, for the second part of this entry describing our site visits and experiencing the election in D.C.



Part II here.

YSEALI students having fun while doing community service at Foodshare in Hartford, CT.


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Author Jack J. Barry, Postdoctoral Fellow, Global Training and Development Institute, University of Connecticut.



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.