Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Human Rights a Team Effort in New Class

Lucye Rafferty/The Hoya Government professor Anthony Arend emphasizes a point during last Monday’s Human Rights: A Culture In Crisis class lecture. The class is team-taught by Arend, English professor Daniel Porterfield (cen

Dr. Porterfield is looking for an answer.

The English professor walks up and down the steps of McNeir Auditorium with the readings for the day in his hand, followed by 120 pairs of eyes from students on either side of him. This time, however, instead of asking one of the students, Porterfield turns around and looks at the front of the class.

“Dr. DeGioia,” he says, addressesing University President John J. DeGioia, who is sitting at a table onstage with government professor Anthony Arend, “Did anything in these readings help you pick up something about the human rights discourse?”

Without missing a beat, DeGioia explains what he learned from the assigned essays, finishing with an observation about how the benchmark of a society is its treatment of “people on the bottom.”

Porterfield nods, thanks him and continues.

No, DeGioia and Arend have not taken the unusual step of auditing another professor’s class. Rather, philosophy specialist DeGioia and law specialist Arend provide the other two parts of the teaching trifecta for the class Human Rights: A Culture in Crisis, team-taught by DeGioia, Arend and Daniel Porterfield, an English professor and the Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs.

The class was offered for the first time this spring, but is based on a seminar DeGioia and Porterfield taught together two years ago about the philosophy and literature of human rights. Porterfield says in the course of teaching that class, he and DeGioia realized three things.

“A, we needed to introduce into the dialogue the perspective of international law, very much,” Porterfield says. “B, we realized that this was a course that could be acceptable for more students. And C, we realized we needed a high voltage shot of energy to complement our slightly more reserved natures, so we sought out Dr. Arend.” He smiles at his colleague, who is known among students for his gesturing lectures and lively teaching style. “And so we developed a new course.”

The class meets Monday mornings in McNeir and Tuesday evenings in Reiss, where it often hears a guest lecturer speak about various aspects of human rights. On five occasions, the guest has stayed for dinner after the lectures and continued the discussion with a portion of the class. The speakers have included people like Sister Dianna Ortiz, Director of Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition; Philip Marineau, CEO of Levi Strauss; Abiodun Williams, Director of Strategic Planning for the United Nations; and Anthony Lake, Georgetown professor and former National Security Adviser.

“The speakers have really been great,” says Fred Flather (SFS ’03), who noted that Sister Ortiz in particular had given a very moving lecture, which dealt with her experiences as a torture victim in Guatemala. “There was just dead silence as she was talking . She put a real face on the `culture of human rights,’ which the class is about.”

Mondays are set aside for discussions of the readings, which range from books about human rights theory to literature by victims of human rights abuses. The first week began with readings by such diverse figures as Frederick Douglass, Elie Wiesel and Kerry Kennedy Cuomo; throughout the semester, the class also read works about human rights issues in East Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Porterfield confesses that he worried at the beginning of the semester about whether it would be possible “to have a class size of 120 that would leverage the advantages of having multiple [professors] and at the same time provide an intimate enough setting so that people could have an individualized learning experience,” he says.

He, Arend and DeGioia therefore devised ways to perpetuate a small-classroom environment as they planned the structure of the class. The dinners with the speakers – in which about a fifth of the class can participate each time – are one way to do it. But they also hold joint office hours for an hour and a half each week – sometimes in Midnight Mug – which usually draws about a dozen students, Arend says.

“It basically allows you to have a larger class, but in effect this is the colloquium which students can then participate in,” he says. “We’ve encouraged everyone to come to these things, and we’ve generally had very good feedback.”

Porterfield also sends the students “Deep Thoughts” e-mails two or three times a week, consisting of various inspirational poems and speech or book excerpts. Arend, for his part, plays “Deep Tunes” during breaks in class time, such as, once, the 10,000 Maniacs song, “What’s the atter Here?” about child abuse.

The professors also had to coordinate the logistics of team-teaching, with the three taking turns leading class discussions on their particular areas of expertise. The integration of the disciplines of philosophy, law and literature has worked well, according to Mike Griffin (COL ’05).

“My favorite part of the class is that the three disciplines of law, literature and philosophy are fused together,” he says. “And then we take this theory that we learn in lecture, and we apply it to the speakers who are on the frontlines of the human rights crisis . It is quite an experience.”

Griffin notes that he took the class largely because of the three professors’ reputations as “outstanding lecturers.” But many other students also say they decided to take the class because of how important they feel human rights are in today’s world.

“Human rights culture permeates all aspects of life,” Flather says. He adds that he intends to enter politics after graduation, and that a knowledge of the human rights culture will be useful in his potential career.

“We all get confronted with elements of this culture, and we all come to terms with the conflict embedded in making rights claims,” DeGioia says. “I’ve come away with a deep respect for the way in which this group of young people is wrestling with the question: `what is my responsibility for sustaining a human rights culture?'”

It is an especially important time to be teaching human rights, he adds. 55 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in Geneva, DeGioia describes the human rights culture as one “in crisis.”

“The evidence of the crisis is Rwanda, Kosovo, Cambodia, various international tragedies where violations of human rights have been rather significant,” he says. “And we try to look at these and try to understand, what’s going on here? What’s the source? .We’re trying to evaluate it from three different perspectives.”

“In a sense, I’m sorry this is such a relevant course,” Arend adds. “Some days, it’s right off the front page.” In addition to discussing classic human rights violations, he says the class has also discussed the issue of whether it is legally or morally justifiable to torture someone in order to extract potentially life-saving information. He cites cases where the United States has arrested members of the terrorist group Al Qaeda and has had to decide how to interrogate them. He also says he reviewed a number of court decisions about the rights of Taliban fighters being held in Guantanamo Bay that were handed down just in March.

“I learned the most about the legal aspect of human rights,” says Kristin Benson (COL ’03). “I’d never taken a law class before, especially one relating to human rights.”

She adds that she hopes to be a high school history teacher in the future and intends to pass on much of the information she has learned in the class to her own students. “I never learned anything about human rights when I was in high school, and I think it’s really important,” she says.

For many others, the class has seemed to sharpen their focus on world events and world problems.

“Whether it be addressing global poverty, the HIV-AIDS epidemic or the suppression of political rights, for me, the class has brought to light the urgent need for international focus and action on human rights abuses around the world,” says Justin Wagner (COL ’03). “The class forces students to really wrestle with the multitude of problems currently associated with the human rights culture in the world and then determine what we each as individuals can do to improve it.” Wagner is a former member of THE HOYA’s editorial board.

“After this class, I am infinitely more aware of the issues and challenges that face human rights in the world today,” Griffin says. “Hopefully, I can take what I have learned and use it to become a more informed person who can make some difference in global issues.”

Arend notes that a world undergoing such “fundamental changes” necessitates a multi-faceted approach in order to understand it. “There are changes in structure, there are changes in power arrangements, there are changes in the role of states .and there are always questions about the individual: what role does the individual play and what rights does an individual have. And we don’t have any one answer; there are in fact many answers.

“And so one reason to have a course like this is . not only to be able to understand what the issue is, but also to understand the range of responses to the issue . [whether they be] literary, legal or philosophical.”

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