Learning and unlearning the alchemy of human rights education

Photo: Angélica María Cuevas

Using different modes of learning (novels, filmstheatre, music, poetry, narrative-non fiction) is also an effective way of generating both empathy and critical thinking.

In the past few years, the human rights community has fostered an increase in critical approaches to human rights education. In addition to focusing on content, educators have paid more attention to the practice and pedagogy of human rights. Over the years, I have taught in a variety of institutions throughout five countries, both non-governmental organizations and universities/colleges. As such, I am constantly adapting to different contexts, languages, and styles of learning.

Rather than recount lessons learned, this piece aims to focus on what I—as an academic, activist and journalist—have had to unlearn in order to be more effective in human rights education.

Over the years, my courses have evolved from focusing solely on human rights abuses to human rights as a whole. When designing my syllabi I think holistically. Starting from a place of critical hope, I choose texts (a mixture of academic, journalistic and artistic) and design assignments that push my students to ask: what could our society look like if human rights are respected? We then explore the obstacles to this world of human rights, and how can we more effectively address those obstacles. In other words, I build my courses from an asset, rather than deficit model: recognizing our power, limitations and positionality, what is needed to build and sustain institutions and cultures that are centered on human rights?

In short, in these dark days, human rights classes can become spaces for cultivating both strategies and hope. This is not just done through content but also method.

As Indigenous and feminist (and Indigenous feminist) scholars have consistently tried to impart: theory and method and positionality are intimately linked. These intertwining factors determine what questions are asked or silenced, what people or groups are deemed worthy, or unworthy, of attention,  empathy and resources—and what groups or individuals are marginalized and thus never seen.

But this is not just about content or research questions: the classroom is also a performance. How educators represent themselves and treat their students serves as a model for their engagement with each other as well as the outside world. Even simple acts of learning people’s names builds a space, and expectation, of dignity.

But as educators we must also radically shake up what constitutes learning itself. In my classes, for example, students write weekly reflection posts online regarding the readings, and they end those reflection posts with a question for their classmates. All students are required to answer one question per week. “Learning” is a co-constructed process coming from, and perpetuated by, the students. The reasons are three-fold:

  • It evens out the power dynamics while motiving peer-based, grounded and culturally-relevant learning;
  • Too often “participation points” reward students who speak up in class; however, many of my students speak English as an additional language and may want more time to compose their responses; others are just shy or more introverted. By using these online interactions, the recognition of what constitutes participation expands;
  • These methods enable me as an instructor to build my classes from the needs of the students. This is a simple but key dynamic that has helped restructure power in my classroom while enhancing accountability.

However, the classroom is only one place for learning—and its walls need to be questioned. Bringing in guest speakers, providing extra credit for students when they go to events outside of class, and requiring students to conduct interviews with people “in the real world” all expand the learning possibilities. My colleagues, Kristi Kenyon at the University of Winnipeg as well as William Simons at the University of Arizona, both organize field courses (be they  across the world or across the railroad tracks) where “students” and those who are being “studied” become co-teachers. The Social Practice of Human Rights, International Human Rights Education Consortium and Arcus Center for Social Justice all provide opportunities to reflect on specific techniques.

Moving outside the classroom is integral, because it is within discomfort that learning takes place. It is when a student is pushed to their limit, or pushes the instructor’s limits, that one recognizes the borders and edges and can begin to question what had previously been unquestionable. Surprisingly, over the years I have found it is rarely content that makes students uncomfortable but rather what they perceive as a lack of clear direction/directives. Often students look to the instructor to tell them what to do and are unaccustomed to the expectation that they should exercise their own agency.

"Moving outside the classroom is integral, because it is within discomfort that learning takes place". 

Using different modes of learning (novels, films, theatre, music, poetry, narrative-non fiction) is also an effective way of generating both empathy and critical thinking. By employing what Alison Brysk refers to as “narrative politics” one can get better “buy-in” from the students to then apply a more theoretical lens. Through stories, one can focus on the people behind the policies.

Human rights education requires approaching education and advocacy from an asset rather than deficit model, ensuring students have the language and skills to engage with human rights work. One must engage with their empathy and already existing capacities. This requires a lot of trust on the part of the student as well as the instructor. Educators earn this trust through being consistent, available and provocative and consistently holding the students, as well as themselves, to very high expectations. In other words, as the instructor, I have to be willing to steer the ship while slowly giving up control.

Human rights courses are unapologetically political and critical—theories inform action and in the process students, as well as instructors, will recognize their own power and limitations in creating change. But in the end, it is the combination of passion, skills, risk, humility and trust that create the alchemy for solid human rights education and enable us to do good human rights work inside and outside the classroom.