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Student Led Advocacy and the ‘Scholars in Prison’ Project

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This is a excerpt from Signature Pedagogies in International Relations. Get your free download of the book from E-International Relations.

This chapter explores the interplay between didactic and experiential learning in the context of International Relations (IR) teaching. Using the case study of a course designed around a community partnership with the Scholars at Risk Network (SAR), it examines impacts on student learning as well as instructor delivery. Confirming the benefits of experiential learning in providing experience in a range of professional skills to students, the study also points to the realities of the emotional labor involved in experiential learning. It also reveals how such pedagogical approaches alter the understanding of “expertise” and how this can impact students’ understanding of their role within the discipline. These findings provide important insight into the utility of blending didactic and experiential modes of learning, the learning opportunities and ethics of exposing students to the emotional labor of academic work as well as important reflections on reciprocity when experiential learning takes the form of partnership with external actors.

Although IR is not normally seen as a vocational training program, many of our students go on to have careers in related fields and we hope that much of what they learn in our courses will prepare them for their future professions. With this, experiential learning (EL), which provides students with hands-on experience, or the opportunity to “learn by doing,” is increasingly seen as integral to IR education. Not only do these types of experiences provide students with much desired transferable skills that will help them professionally, but they are also assumed to encourage deeper and/or different forms of learning of disciplinary knowledge(s) that more traditional forms of didactic learning often do not easily facilitate.

Following a brief exploration of the history and use of EL, this chapter will present an example of EL, which was integral to the running of an undergraduate IR seminar at the University of British Columbia. Run in partnership with SAR, this human rights course saw students produce various deliverables on four cases from SAR’s Scholars in Prison Project, which aims to free wrongfully imprisoned scholars around the world. After presenting an overview of how the course ran, including essential inputs from the community partner (SAR), this chapter will explore how a combination of both didactic and experiential learning created unique learning outcomes.

Using survey data[1] and author reflections (comprised of both the faculty member who ran the course and a student who took the course), we demonstrate how the types of learning that stem from experiential pedagogies not only provide students with professional development opportunities, but also challenge students to think more critically about core conceptual and theoretical content, the realities of political praxis outside of the discipline, and, finally, what learning looks and feels like in International Relations. The findings from this analysis point to several key conclusions regarding the use of experiential pedagogies that instructors should consider in their course design and that are worthy of further research. These include the impact EL has on teaching faculty (not only on students) in terms of emotional labor, ethical issues regarding the reciprocity in some EL opportunities and the importance of exploring the emergent outcomes when didactic and EL are used in tandem. All of these impacts, explored in detail later in the chapter, can be considered as examples of what Shulman (2005) describes as either “implicit” or “deep structures” in IR as they illustrate both the moral elements of teaching and how students come to attain such forms of knowledge(s). In other words, emotions, ethics, and being open to emergent outcomes are not simply results of learning, but are central to underlying (and sometimes changing) ethical assumptions about IR and about the realities of how we learn or “come to know” the discipline.

Experiential Learning: A Complement to Traditional Didactic Learning

The goal of experiential-based learning is to integrate and synthesize learning through the application of client-focused or project-based learning (Riefenberg and Long 2017, 580). The majority of such pedagogies are geared towards facilitating student opportunities to make important connections between their academic skills and prior didactic learning to real-world practice (Hauhart and Garage, 2014). These learning opportunities require the ability to succinctly communicate project issues and develop relationships between students and their colleagues (Nordin et al. 2015, 127). Scholars such as Barr and Tagg have noted that collaborative models of teaching where students work with teachers to construct knowledge create strong and meaningful learning environments (Barr and Tagg 1995 as cited in Lantis 1998, 41). This often emulates real-world models of collaboration, meaning that EL often seeks to prepare students for professional life after they graduate.

EL can be contrasted with didactic learning, which focuses on the modes of instruction with which scholars are most familiar in a university classroom—namely instructor-led lectures alongside student discussions of course material and coursework related to the content set by the instructor. This didactic content is generally seen as setting out core concepts and debates related to the discipline. Assignments are largely set for students to showcase a mastery of this canon—generally in the form of research essays or exams (for a discussion of didactic learning and alternatives, see Walks 2015). As an interesting aside, academic disciplines such as nursing, which are often founded on much more experience-based modes of learning, are paradoxically interested in increasing didactic knowledge in their curriculum (Westin, Sundler and Bergland 2015).

With regard to IR, EL has existed alongside didactic learning for several decades. One of the most obvious forms of EL can be seen in the use of simulations, which has roots in Cold War-era classrooms. In these cases, EL has been used as a means of interacting with real-world issues in a controlled classroom setting (Lantis 1998, 39). Simulations of peace negotiations, trade talks, and other global gatherings, such as those related to climate change are also common features within IR classrooms. Experiential pedagogy in IR has also evolved to include internships, field courses, and involvement in faculty research, leading to an increased understanding of political science through application (Kenyon 2017, 98).

As an example, Kenyon describes a work opportunity where students investigated ethical dilemmas and worked in dialogue with development practitioners. These experiences came with unique teaching needs both in terms of pacing and resourcing. They found that, due to the structure of the course and the need for swift communication, smaller classes and teaching assistants were necessary for detailed feedback and assessment of students (Kenyon 2017, 98). Another example from Gammonley et al. (2013) describes a study abroad trip that involved cases concerning human rights violations ranging from gender-based violence to human trafficking. Students were directly involved in policy practice, working to create “global community building and social change” and “exposing them to values about human rights and providing them opportunities to develop practice skills” (619). This experience had ongoing impacts on students’ understanding of their role within international politics, with the authors noting that participants found that they were more compelled to “intervene” in the human rights situations following the study abroad trip (631). Policy advocacy education based on EL, therefore, took on a greater depth and led to more work upon their return to the classroom (621).

In another study, the pedagogical approach of combining in-class learning with collaborative projects regarding leadership and policy demonstrated that students came to understand the subject matter better, and that, alongside this, there was evidence of increasing competencies in policy analysis and other tools used in students’ placements. Students noted that their professional competencies such as written communications, teamwork, and leadership capacity increased following their placement (Sandfort and Gerdes 2017). Indeed, what the above studies observe is that EL is uniquely positioned to teach students far more than content or traditional academic skills, such as critical thinking, research, and writing. It left students feeling more compelled to dig deeper into the subject matter and left them, in some cases, with a sense of responsibility to act on what they had learned. Further, it equipped them with several transferable skills that would serve them in a broad range of future professions. At the same time, these opportunities created logistical dilemmas that instructors may not have to consider if delivering courses more traditionally, as EL often requires a more responsive, hands-on approach from instructors. These findings guided the initial questions asked and explored the case study at hand and are explored in greater detail in the remainder of the chapter.

The SAR Student Advocacy Seminars: Background and UBC Experience

SAR Student Advocacy Seminars offer a template for experiential human rights learning. Support for running a seminar, or integrating elements of the seminar into already existing courses is provided by SAR staff to professors whose universities are SAR members. The seminars have multiple aims, one of which........

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