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On Designing and Teaching “The Framing of Social Justice: Law, Culture and Politics ‘here’ and ‘there’”

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

While musicians often think in rhythms or notes and artists in perspectives or colors, I have potential syllabi rattling in my head. My medium is neither canvas nor score but rather the weaving together of books, graphic novels, guest speakers, dense academic articles, Youtube clips and provocative films into a scaffold body of knowledge. I then title such a creation with a colon and christen it with a course number. Like musicians and artists, I too go through life trying to share and provoke the unfolding puzzles that tickle inside.

My goal when teaching is to work with students so that they start to question what seems normal or is taken for granted, and thus become fluent enough in those knowledges (note plural) that they can develop their own questions. Rather than teaching students to “master” knowledge, my aim is to urge students towards a literacy of questioning and wrestling within many languages, perspectives and mediums. This was the inspiration of my most recent course: the Framing of Social Justice: Law, Culture and Politics “Here” and “There. “Here” because too often we think of human rights and social justice as just a problem that happens “there,” rarely questioning where either “here” or “there” may be.

According to my “course rationale”: the goal of the course was to focus on how social justice is understood, presented and created to problematize that which appears “normal” and “natural” and thus create both synergy and discord between the form, content, and process. Of course this all sounds very fancy; when one of my students was asked to describe the course her answer to her friend was much simpler, “framing, framing, framing.”

Form

Thirty students, mostly 3rd years, in a four hour evening block sat in a cramped classroom in downtown Vancouver. Many commute from the suburbs east of the city – Surrey, Langley and other parts of the Fraser Valley. As is the norm in most human rights and social justice classes the student body was mostly female, only a third male, but diverse in terms of languages, ages and ethnicities.

On the first day of class I used an old trick I learned from a professor of mine – I handed an index card out to everyone and, among other things, asked them to write three things they have questions about/are hoping to explore in the class. Their responses were used to break the class into smaller groups and to assign them to lead a class discussion based on a reading most relevant to their interest. Those focusing on economics/development were assigned to lead the class discussion on Banker to the Poor while others who indicated a strong interest in gender or youth were assigned Persepolis; issues of colonialism were addressed in many readings but especially Things Fall Apart and those interested in identity walked the class through In the Name of Identity. Every student was required to read all the texts and post a weekly reflection including a pertinent question in the online discussion board.

Many of these questions (at times slightly modified) were used for the “world café” discussion groups that we would have regularly in class. “World café” is a pedagogical method where people sit in groups and answer 2-3 questions; one person in the group is designated as the recorder and remains so throughout the whole process. The groups move to a new table while the questions remain with the recorder who shares a brief summary of the previous discussion for the new group to build off; and at the end of class the recorder reads a synthesis of all the groups’ discussions. Students did not know beforehand if their question would be selected for world café but were often excited to see their thoughts and questions serve as the impetus for learning.

There were a few obstacles to the form –the class was a Monday evening and there were quite a few holidays on Mondays. The room was too small, the heat would be shut off about 45 minutes before the end of class, and given that it was from 4:30 to 8:30 pm; there was a constant struggle against hunger and dropping blood sugar. Needless to say, the drive to mix mediums was important not only pedagogical —to ensure that people didn’t fall asleep.

Content

I am interdisciplinary in my training, thinking and teaching. I also bring 15 years of experience working with refugees, torture survivors, artists and advocates from all over the world. For me, learning is inherently interdisciplinary and praxis-based —and that is how I developed and delivered this class.

My primary goal was to ensure students had a firm grasp on the power of framing: how information is highlighted, withheld and manipulated and the affect such strategic use of information has on understanding what is considered an issue, a problem and/or a plausible solution. I wanted them to understand how framing affects our understanding of victims and perpetrators as well as the logic behind why certain things are deemed human rights issues and others are not. The constructivist school of international relations – particularly Alison Brysk’s notion of narrative politics (2013) and her previous work with Madeline Baer (2009) in framing – was very helpful here. So too was more basic understandings of agenda setting (Jutta, 2003; Carpenter 2007) and information politics (Keck & Sikkink, 1998). I also wanted to be sure that students understood that such structures of power were not inevitable, they are created and dynamic, and thus I also looked to more critical scholars who operated within the worlds of anthropology and politics such as Mamdani (2004), Mackey (2005) and Sylvester (2000).

Another main goal in the work was to break down how information is presented. Why are some sources valid whereas others are laughed off as fringe? How is legitimacy established and how is it challenged? How does this translate into news and truth and how can this maintain or frustrate existing power structures? Here I turned to some of the more sociological and communications literature: classics such as Herman and Chomsky (1988) and their focus on political economy but also Lisa Wade’s powerful work (2011) on the dynamics within the ‘sphere of consensus” and Zandberg, E., & Neiger, M.’s piece (2005) on how journalist’s identities will often be torn between their “nation” and their “profession” – particularly in times of threat and conflict. One of the most consistent threads in the course was the belief that we all have an unstable self in a world that views such instability as a threat. And it is for that reason that Stuart Hall and Maalouf were core texts.

So far I have written mostly about the academic texts that made up the class – it is a way to legitimacy as a professor: look, there are citations; it is a real university class. But this was by no means the majority of the material. There were a lot of films integrated in the course: A Red Girl’s Reasoning, Schooling the World, Milking the Rhino, and many of the books were distinctly not “academic.” Through memoirs, fiction, and graphic novels, we could unpack so many of the theoretical frameworks discussed in the more academic texts.

There was a purposeful blurring of the boundaries of the classroom and the real world. When I originally proposed the course Fruitvale Station was on the syllabus, but something called “Ferguson” happened in the meantime. Rather than Fruitvale Station we examined the comic journalism of Dan Archer – what does it mean to have a graphic representation of Roshomon logic when examining the intricacies of police brutality the US? The same thing happened two weeks into the course when Maclean’s published the piece “Winnipeg: Canada’s most Racist City” written by a non-Indigenous Winnipegger about the systemic, structural and pervasive racism against the Native population in Winnipeg. How was social justice being framed here? What was addressed? What was left out? How was victimhood and agency and power being represented and challenged? It became clear that original lessons plans needed to be set aside as we unpacked reality.

Process

I am, by most accounts, a very organized and at times rigid over-planner when I teach. Although my politics and academic work ask questions that focus on ambiguities (“the grey”) I don’t take well to too many surprises in my classroom. So, it surprised me how both the students and I seemed to come to a collective agreement of flexibility and flow within the class. There were other times when the realities of life meant that assignments were combined or due dates shifted. Prior to this class, in my ten years of teaching university I had never changed a due date for an assignment. But there was something about the synergy throughout the content, form and process that permitted me to better read the rhythm of learning.

Initially, I wondered if this flexibility would undermine my authority in the class – would students now think I was a push over? Quite the opposite. The students were able to work harder and better when they realized there was a process of mutual respect.

At the same time the students themselves were nervous for the first six weeks. Who is this professor assigning novels and comic books and giving extra credit if we go to public events? They were unsure, given the lack of tests and final exams, how they were going to be assessed. One particularly outspoken member of the class raised her hand and said, “We just don’t know what to do to get a good grade.” This was one of the strongest moments of truth – and I decided to be transparent about my pedagogy: the discussion posts and responses, quiz, group presentations of required readings were all means of evaluation but what I was evaluating is the learning, digesting, and wrestling with the material.

The discussion posts ensure you are reading but also that you are thinking and that you are taking responsibility for your learning and the learning of your classmates. The reading logs enable you to make connections between the various readings and films, to pull out themes and contradictions between different forms and disciplines and schools of thought. To analyze. Facilitating a discussion was a forum to practice synthesis, analysis and creativity with complex information. There was no “right answer” rather they would need to select and frame the information they deemed most important so that one’s points can be conveyed most clearly. In other words, there was no mastery of information rather the entire class, like social justice, was various forms of practice working towards a larger goal.

In the class the larger goal was the final project. Students worked in groups of two or three and chose from a list of preselected books. None were classic “academic” – some were fiction (Half of a Yellow Sun and Slash) some narrative nonfiction (Behind the Beautiful Forevers) and journalism (There are No Children Here, Crisis Caravan, Reefer Madness). But some did not fit neatly: Zahra’s Paradise is a graphic novel chronicling the aftermath of the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran and The Truth Behind Stories is a series of stories where identifying truth itself comes under scrutiny. The students’ assignment was twofold: write a 12-15 page critical analysis placing the work and the author and the reception of the text in context, citing a minimum of ten sources.

And then I wanted the truth beyond facts.

In addition to an academic paper I asked the students to imagine they were sitting down and interviewing the author or one of the characters in the books. What questions do they want to ask? This would be a 10-12 minute presentation to class.

Creating

The results were phenomenal in creativity, application, depth and ingenuity: movies, musical scores, live theater. Many of the students chose to get a hold of the authors themselves or interviewed other experts, artists, and writers. Student projects ranged from a film portraying the point of view of the protagonist’s son in Slash and a talk show interview with the brothers in There Are No Children Here With the student’s permission (as well as those interviewed) I am sharing three projects – a video, a two-person play, and an audio podcast – that represent the praxis inherent in the class, and inherent in all social justice.

“Not to assume one thing, but understand several”

The first is a video created by Melissa Tang Choy and Kelly Go that reflects on how journalism and humanitarian crisis are explored in Crisis Caravan, a book that explores the sick interrelationship between NGOs, humanitarian aid organizations and the media. In order to delve deeper into this topic, Melissa and Kelly chose to interview three journalists: Linda Polman, the author of Crisis Caravan; Aaron Goodman a visual journalist/filmmaker and professor who has worked in Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and some of the poorest areas of Vancouver; and Katelyn Verstraten, a journalist who has worked for Canadian mainstream print media. As Melissa and Jelly explained, the goal of interviewing and interweaving these three journalists spoke to their larger understanding of framing social justice: “Having the opinion of the three different journalists who worked with different media helped to diversify the voices. This is similar to what our class has taught us – not to assume one thing but instead understand several…the different processes of journalism and what it meant for different journalists.” The topic of their video, the “crafting of stories” was chosen after they had conducted all the interviews. As is often the case in a “real” newsroom, “The format of the project was actually decided upon before the creation of the content.” They had chosen to use video, “to make the difficult topics we touched upon more entertaining and accessible (and) the drawings were crucial to [do] this.” (View video here.)

“Comprehending the mind behind the madness”

The second project is a two-person play by Gabrielle Jolly and Mahjobeh that illustrated what wasn’t in Zahra’s Paradise, a web based comic turned graphic novel published by Amir and Khalil. These two students made a unique team: Mahjobeh spent most of her childhood in Iran and is fluent in Farsi and Gabrielle, grew up in Canada with an interest in critical race studies but was unfamiliar with the 2009 uprising. Neither were readers of graphic novels. Although they both enjoyed the book, they noticed that the “oppressor” was “often only described by certain key words such as ‘the regime’ or ‘the dictator,’ whereas those protesting are given names and life stories.” But they wanted to understand both the oppressor and the protester: “What is the rationality behind the abuses and the secrecy? What is the logic behind the dictators and oppressive regimes; comprehending the mind behind the madness, so to speak.” To do this, they chose to write a play as if President Ahmadinejad was being interviewed and designed a talk show for the Iranian diaspora equipped with a clip providing footage of the protest as an intro. In their play, President Ahmadinejad, through the body of Mahjobeh, takes the stage. Gabrielle and Mahjobeh explained that what they were most proud of was creating “an ‘out of the framework’ approach” that demonstrated “an alternative framing approach that wasn’t necessarily used in the graphic novel itself.” (View script here.)

 “Integrate our own voices and perspectives while remaining respectful”

Gurpeet Kambo, Emma Crane, Samantha Yano produced an audio podcast that brings to life the power of storytelling. They explored both the content and medium of The Truth about Stories, a collection of stories, originally crafted as part of the Massey Lecture series by Thomas King an Indigenous (Cherokee) and Greek/German novelist, academic and public intellectual. “We decided to interview other Indigenous storytellers to discuss and expand on the ideas King presents and to see what perspectives these other individuals had on Indigenous storytellers,” the group reasoned. They interviewed Gordon Hill, author of 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance, a graphic novel of the history of Canada/US from Indigenous perspective, and Roberta Price (Musquem) an Indigenous Elder who works with stories for healing. Gurpreet, Emma and Samantha chose to bookend their interviews by sharing personal stories and reflections, emulating King’s style” by highlighting “a piece of little known local history” of the  solidarity between Indigenous peoples and Indian [Sikh] immigrants in Vancouver   Their motivation was to integrate their own voices and perspectives “while remaining respectful and not usurping the voices and perspectives of indigenous peoples…”

“It is important to note here that King uses a lot of personal stories to explore larger political and social issues,” they explained. This premise served as an engine for the podcast as the students incorporated their own truths in how they crafted the piece. In looking and listening for stories, they said, ”it struck us how often important stories simply exist in mundane, everyday places and we often do not realize.”

We spent the entire four hours of the final class – when the students presented their final projects – laughing, cringing and learning. My students taught me that in order to really teach  the framing of social justice I had to risk immersing myself in the form, content and process and, in turn, give up control to that which is created. (Hear podcast here.)