Sunday, April 10, 2016

How to Make a Hard Course Easier

I am currently teaching the hardest course I've ever taught, a philosophy department course on "The Ethics of Immigration Policy." It's hard because the material is new to me so I'm learning along with the students; it's hard because the philosophical questions here are extremely challenging (I chose to teach the course in part because I didn't yet know what I thought about them); and it's hard because the controversial nature of the material in a class that is so diverse in terms of students' political views and relevant life experiences can make discussions a teensy bit tense and uncomfortable.

But it's also one of the easiest courses I've ever taught, as the material offers nonstop opportunities for course enrichment. So my tip to my future self, should I ever teach such a course again, is: Find these opportunities and seize them. Don't worry if you're diverting too much class time away from standard lecture-and-discussion. Pounce on every chance to make the material come alive for the students in every possible way.

For this particular course, these opportunities include:

1) Guest lectures from colleagues with vastly more expertise than I have in the empirical background for these issues. So far we've had Prof. Glen Kuecker (Central American History) on the sources of migration to the U.S. from Mexico and Guatemala, and Prof. Brett O'Bannon (Conflict Studies) on international refugee conventions. Next up: Prof. Oscar Gil-Garcia (Sociology and Anthropology) sharing his case study of a "coyote" helping migrants across the Mexican-U.S. border, and Prof. Christina Holmes (Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) on gendered dimensions of migration.

2) Films that bring to life the stories of the real people behind immigration statistics. I was only going to show one film in class, God Grew Tired of Us, about the Lost Boys of the Sudan. But I allowed the students to talk me into screening a second film, Documented, in which Pulitzer-Prize-wining journalist Jose Anthonio Vargas outs himself as undocumented migrant from the Philippines. In addition, I'm requiring students to watch one additional film outside of class; I did a screening last week of the first option, the heartbreaking 2007 fictional film The Visitor.

3) Extra credit for an array of fascinating talks on campus: a lecture by Rights Watch activist Grahame Russell; a conversation with former Congressman Lee Hamilton who helped craft the United Nations doctrine of "Responsibility to Protect"; and a talk by Earlham College Professor Thomas Hamm on parallels between the attitudes that made possible the Japanese internment during World War II and responses to Syrian refugees today. I also learned this morning that Gobin United Methodist Church on campus is hosting a luncheon after worship next week with a presentation by a Syrian refugee family, with a Syrian vegetarian feast. Extra credit plus fabulous food!

We've also heard a presentation from one student in the class on the eight years she spent in a refugee camp in Thailand, after her family fled persecution for their Mon ethnic identity in Burma. I'm working on organizing one more presentation by Exodus, a refugee-resettlement group in Indianapolis.

With the exception of the extra credit talks, each of these takes valuable class time (and even with the outside-of-class talks I give students class time to share their reactions). But at the end of the day, at the end of the semester, at the end of their lives, which will students remember more? Yet another class discussing yet another chapter of our (excellent) primary text, The Ethics of Immigration  by Joseph Carens? Or a powerful guest lecture by someone who has spent a whole career thinking about recent Central American history or about our responsibilities to refugees, or the wrenching testimony of a refugee classmate?

So the class is hard in some ways, but wonderfully easy in others. If I ever teach it again, may it be in another environment in which so many enrichment opportunities are available, and with the courage on my part to embrace them.

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