Studying World Politics with Undergraduates: A Life-Changing Experience

What can be gained by teaching first-year university writing courses to traditionally-aged undergraduates? A deeper appreciation for the way teenagers see the world. No matter how much knowledge I attain through continuing study and travel, seeing the world through the eyes of 17-to-19-year-olds is a rare treat and a never-ending journey of amusement, wonder, and expectation.

When I think of undergraduate writing students, many of whom are multi-lingual, and bi-cultural, I think of the tremendous amount of effort the students put into sharpening their skills of observation, question-asking, and analysis. For example, one semester, I asked my students to consider the world events known as The Arab Spring. Most of the students were familiar with the tremendous changes happening abroad. Most got their information through traditional news channels. Many were also familiar with social media. Some wondered about the connection between social media and, what was commonly called, The Egyptian Revolution.

After reading Wael Ghonim’s book, Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People is Greater than the People in Power, and engaging in discussion and writing assignments, students engaged the question of the degree to which existing social structures facilitated information-sharing regarding the political situation in Egypt, vs. the degree to which social media facilitated the sharing of information. Then, students were given the task of conducting research on this question. They broke into teams and each team created a group annotated bibliography addressing this question, and other discoveries pertaining to the topic.

For the students, this was an exercise in critical thinking and an opportunity for them to hone valuable analytical skills. For instance, the students had to learn how to navigate the library. To help them gain a foothold, I arranged for the research librarian to meet with the students. They learned the basics of conducting research, and they learned the difference between a peer-reviewed journal article and a general-interest newspaper article. The students sharpened their literacy skills by learning how to critically read and analyze a journal article looking for assertions, evidence, and commentary. Students further analyzed the claims of articles to see how facts were supported. 

This annotated bibliography assignment, which took about two weeks, was but one assignment of several designed to get students familiar with academic scholarship, and to welcome them into the community of scholars. A key component was self-reflexivity, meaning, I asked the students to reflect on their own experiences with social media, and the world at large. Surprisingly, several said that they refrained from using sites such Twitter and Facebook. When I asked why, they stated that the sites detracted from the quality of time spent with friends and family in real-time. This changed my perception of youth and new media. Previously, I assumed that most teens were active users of social media. I had to adjust my assumptions and question what led me to believe the stereotype of teens always connected to technology. 

The end result of this foray into critical thinking, media, research, and world politics was a combined annotated bibliography that all of the students could read since I placed their work on the e-learning platform Blackboard.

Through this group annotated bibliography project, my students learned to work as a team and they saw themselves as creators and disseminators of not only information, but also knowledge.

I am especially proud of the fact the students tackled this tough assignment together. Over the years that i have taught introductory writing courses, I have noticed more and more students who are majoring in the sciences, or business, as opposed to the arts and humanities. I am not sure if this is the case, in general, or if it is a regional trend. What I find interesting is that the process of collaboration is one that is generally accepted in the sciences, but marginally recognized in the humanities. Therefore, I take pride in this annotated bibliography project. I endeavor to demonstrate symbiosis between disciplines.