Today, we feature Dr. Jessica Auchter of the Department of Political Science and Public Service, who received a WCTL High Impact Practices Grant in Fall 2019 for her PSPS 4000 Capstone Class, which allowed students to develop their own advocacy project in collaboration with Scholars at Risk. Here, she writes about her approach to experiential learning and teaching innovation.
1. The Innovation: Advocacy Work
What motivated your teaching experiment and what specific practice did you bring to your class?
Good research has to inform traditional academic paper writing, but it also informs human rights reports and effective advocacy work. I tasked students in my PSPS Capstone Class with advocating for a specific imprisoned scholar, working alongside the non-partisan organization Scholars at Risk, who works to advocate for scholars worldwide who have been imprisoned for exercising their academic freedom or right to free speech.
The PSPS Capstone Class has a focus on independent research. While the students each developed their own independent research project that culminated in a paper on the theme of democracy, I wanted the class to be about more than just a paper as an outcome of research. In the subfields that make up Political Science and Public Service, many of our students will go on to careers that do not involve research in the traditional academic sense. As a result, it is an important goal of mine for them to consider the myriad ways research can matter, especially in the lives of human beings.
This community partner, Scholars at Risk, would be able to help us with initial information and contacts for the project. This seemed to be a realm that allowed us to consider the practical impact of democratic decline, especially in the area of free speech issues. This meant we were working with a very real case, and with one individual who is in a precarious situation and whose life we could potentially impact.
The Goals of this advocacy work were threefold: (1) to help us better understand the relationship between democracy and human rights by focusing very narrowly on one case, particularly the obstacles and constraints to effective action, thereby helping us apply course material; (2) to help us see how research is used by stakeholders and focus on a real world situation, to help the students inform their own academic research projects as well; and (3) to force us to consider what it means to study human suffering and the relationship between engaged scholarship and advocacy.
The content and scope of the advocacy project was left entirely up to the students. The students even chose the specific scholar we would be working with out of three options that had been vetted by Scholars at Risk, and we discussed as a class the potential challenges and obstacles when we made the decision. In the end, they decided on Indian Professor G. N. Saibaba, currently imprisoned in India for his human rights advocacy work with the Adivasis and other ethnic minorities, and his related criticism of the Indian government and its development projects.
The High-Impact Practices grant would fund their project, and the decisions about how the funding would be used would be up to the students, reinforcing their agency in the advocacy project. In the end, the students developed and hosted an Advocacy Week on campus at the end of October 2019. They chose the events, with my guidance, and it was their ideas that they worked hard to implement.