Teaching Tips

Background:

From Outrage to Courage, the book, grew out of courses I have been teaching since 2001 at Stanford University within the Human Biology Program on “critical issues in international women’s health.”  Hundreds of students have taken the course, which is taught in highly participatory classes of about 36 students.  The goals of the course, beyond the simple transmission of information, are to stimulate students’ concern about the situation of women worldwide and to communicate forcefully the reality of our interdependence and the possibility of change.

I make the point in the book that I believe that what we do may be important but that the way that we do it is more important.  Therefore, if you plan to teach a course on international women’s health and human rights, I would advise that you develop a course that allows students great participation in an environment that encourages trust and respect.

Some of the topics—violence against women or access to reproductive health services, for example—are controversial and very close to the experiences of many of the students.  The style of the class, therefore, is important.  One of the things I say to my students on the first day of class is that I want the class over the ten weeks of the quarter to operate “the way I want the world to be—everyone being respectful of each other, listening with interest and openness, being courteous, especially with those who may disagree with you, and especially operating in ways that are mutually empowering to all.”  Even though we are together in the class for only ten weeks, I believe that it is important to build community.

In the paragraphs below, I describe some of the techniques that I use to try to create an environment of openness and respect.  I also include a sample syllabus.  Individual teachers will do research on and decide which readings you will want the students to read.  The syllabus below assumes that you will be using From Outrage to Courage as the main text for the course.

Timing of class and duration:

My classes meet twice a week, on Monday and Wednesday mornings for an hour and a half at each session.  The Monday class is when the topic for the week is introduced, either by me or a guest resource person (or both). During the Wednesday class, the student team (of four students) leads the class in an exercise to deepen and broaden our understanding of the topic.  This exercise may consist of a skit, a focused discussion, an exercise in which the class is divided up into small groups to tackle questions having to do with the week’s general issues, and so on.  The students are very imaginative, I find, and come up with “fishbowl,” focus groups, role playing, and so on.  It is important that the Wednesday activity be based as directly as possible on the readings for the week.  This student exercise takes about an hour; I use the remaining half hour of the class to have general discussion on the reading and/or the topic of the week, to show a short video, or to hear from a guest to the class.

Size of class, leadership, and small group meetings:

Teaching in the quarter system, I like to keep classes to 36 students so that during the ten weeks of the quarter you can divide the class up nine teams of four who provide leadership on Wednesdays to lead the class.  This number also allows for the creation of twelve small groups (or “ecologies of three”) that meet for an hour sometime during the week to talk with each other about the readings.  These are self-organized groups: one student takes attendance, and comes into the “section” with trigger questions for discussion.  (I used to have my teaching assistant lead much larger sections, but I have found that it works much better to have students self organize during the ecology meetings.)  Little groups of three are wonderful: students bond with their partners in their ecologies, there is no hierarchy, and all students participate more actively.  It is also easy for the three students to get together to have their meetings.

Schedule for the week and requirements (see also the sample syllabus):

Almost every day of the week, something is happening in connection with the class:

  • On Mondays, we meet for an introduction to the topic of the week.
  • On Tuesday evening a movie is shown.  (The four weekly leaders organize the time and place so that they can meet in groups to see the movies; they take attendance.)
  • On Wednesday, the second meeting of the class happens, during which the student teams (usually of four people) lead the class for an hour.
  • On Thursday and Friday, students meet in their ecologies of three: these are self-organizing, as mentioned above, and students take turns over the weeks to take attendance and to report to the TA where and when the group met.
  • On Saturday at midnight, each student’s weekly email, sent to me and the teaching assistant, is due.  Students are asked to send a short email (perhaps four or five sentences, unless they want to write more) letting us know how they felt about the reading, whether anything in particular stood out for them, or whether they had any significant questions about the reading. I try to respond to as many emails as possible, but at the very least, these emails sometimes serve as the basis for discussion in the next week.  PLEASE NOTE that the in their emails the students are commenting on the reading that is relevant to the NEXT week of class, so their questions can provide background for the Monday and Wednesday meetings of the subsequent week. These student responses are collated on the web on a google doc (without attribution and not including any emails from students who specifically ask that we not include their emails).
  • On Sunday or very early on Monday: the teaching assistant sends the collection of student responses to our guest speaker for the week.  The responses are also available for all students to read so that they can see what is on the minds of their colleagues.
  • BLOGS:  Please see the sample syllabus for information about the blogging of students.  Each student maintains a blog from the second through the tenth week of class.  These blogs are posted to the web, so anyone can read them (but not comment on them).  This project allows all students to check in with others and see what their colleagues are doing as the weeks go by.  The students can ask questions or make suggestions, and the process of compiling the blog posts and comments becomes very much an interactive process in my classes.  I am very excited about the use of blogs in my classes: not only does it raise the quality of students’ writing (because they realize that they are writing for the “world,” not just for the other students in the class, but it also takes advantage of the students’ expertise and curiosity, thereby raising the general standards of content in the work of the students.

Convening the class with the intention of the group becoming a community, if only for ten weeks):  I try very hard to convene the class in a room that can accommodate all students sitting in chairs in a circle so that everyone can see everyone else.  During classes early in the quarter, we play “names” games, during which all the students (and the teaching assistant and the professor) learn the names of all students.  One such game is to have a student begin and then each subsequent student around the circle repeats the name of the first student and every other student up to and including the speaker.  Obviously, the last student in the circle has to try to remember all the names (and I usually locate the teaching assistant in that place.)  We strive to have all interactions in the class be mutually empowering.

Content:
The book, From Outrage to Courage, was based on my courses; therefore, for me, it provides a starting point for every week’s discussion.  As you see from the sample syllabus, many other readings are required or suggested for the class.  If you teach a similar course, you will add other readings so that discussions can be comprehensive and lively.  Students should be strongly urged to locate other sources on the topics listed in the syllabus to critique and/or add to the book.  An interactive website can be very helpful in encouraging students to be active readers and critics.

Guest resource persons are important to my course, and I identify them from local organizations that might be working on some of the issues (e.g., the local Women’s Crisis Center or Planned Parenthood Chapter); from the faculty at my university or at some other local university, many of whom may have traveled and/or done research on a relevant topic; and among the students themselves, who bring rich backgrounds to the class. Increasingly, films are available on the topics listed in the syllabus; I have asked students to research such films and to suggest appropriate films for the class.  Finally, I have put together and briefly annotated a list of novels, memoirs, and journalistic accounts, mostly by non-U.S. people, for the students’ use.  Students are required to choose one such book and read it during the quarter; a short book review is required toward the end of the quarter.

Style:
The style of the class is designed to be based on the following principles:  mutual empowerment, mutual learning, evenhandedness, courtesy, generosity, compassion, trust, and respect.  There is a conscious attempt to give reality to such principles.  This is important in any setting, but it is especially important when some particularly sensitive issues are discussed.

Final Note:  Please feel free to email me if you plan to teach a course on international women’s health and human rights and think that I may be helpful. Please see www.outragetocourage.org for a sample syllabus.

Good luck!

Anne Firth Murray

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