On September 27th, thousands of people made their voices heard on Parliament Hill during the Ottawa climate strike march. Hours later, Dr. Melanie Adrian started the inaugural “University: Uncensored, Ottawa Summit for Academic Freedom” with a show of hands: “Who was at the strike today?” About half the room, full of students and activists, raised their hands. This group was well aware of the connection between academia and advocacy.

Dr. Melanie Adrian prepares students to develop effective advocacy platforms for Scholars at Risk in her LAWS 4903 course.

Dr. Melanie Adrian prepares students to develop effective advocacy platforms for Scholars at Risk in her LAWS 4903 course. Photo by Scott Adamson.

That connection is the focus of Adrian’s fourth year seminar in the Department of Law and Legal Studies, entitled “Academia and Activism: Advanced Fourth Year Legal Seminar” (LAWS 4903 A). The course, the first of its kind in Canada, promotes research, fosters understanding of human rights mechanisms, and develops advocacy skills by involving students in the real cases of scholars facing human rights violations. Adrian draws the cases from the international Scholars at Risk (SAR) network, which protects and advocates for scholars experiencing persecution because of their research. She is the Chair of the Carleton University SAR initiative.

The course takes on questions surrounding truth, fact, and identity in light of what Adrian calls “scholarship-activism”. Students grapple with the relationship between research methods, evidence, and positionality within the context of human rights promotion and academic freedom. In parallel, they work in teams to build and execute an advocacy platform for a Scholar at Risk, gathering evidence and applying advocacy strategies to their real-world case. Students ultimately produce a report on their work that may be used by SAR to further its mission.

So how does one prepare students for this kind of task?  Adrian says that when she started the course last year, there was no template for students to follow. Moving forward, “I wanted them to have more concrete visions of what [advocacy] could look like”. She found an effective design at the SAR Student Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C., a two day event that requires students to engage in hands-on workshops about human rights before a day of advocacy on Capitol Hill. Adrian was inspired to adapt the model for a Canadian context. Using funding from her Discovery Centre Fellowship for innovative teaching, alongside support from SAR Carleton, the Faculty of Public Affairs, and the Department of Law and Legal Studies, Adrian set out to make the Canadian model — the recent summit— a reality.

Advocacy in Action

The summit was open to any Carleton student interested in advocacy and Adrian’s fourth year seminar students attended as an experiential learning activity to help build their advocacy skills for the class. The summit was an immersive, day and a half event combining theorizing, practice, and models of advocacy in action.

By exposing students to the significance of understanding rights frameworks and advocacy strategies for adoption, connecting them with activists well-versed in effecting positive change, and outlining key steps for developing and presenting a case, the summit offered students a strong foundation for connecting course material with the advocacy project they undertake.

Throughout the summit, students had the opportunity to engage with at-risk scholars, members of the SAR community, and former students in the course. Sam Turgeon-Brabazon, a summit facilitator and former LAWS 4903 student who attended the Student Advocacy Days in Washington, noted that the opportunity to connect with individuals who have been directly impacted by advocacy is priceless. Through interactions with Scholars at Risk, he says, students “cannot help but get passionate about the defense of academic freedom around the world.” Turgeon-Brabazon credits the course – and Adrian’s engaging approach to teaching – for enhancing his critical thinking skills, capacity for scholarly collaboration, and effectiveness when liaising with the government and non-governmental organizations.

Conference organizers

Émilie Ovenden (Carleton alumna), Kyla Yates (Roger Williams University), and Alec Verch (Carleton University) welcome attendees for day two of the summit.

Although the activism projects are still underway, the relevance of the summit is already clear for Marie-Claire Cherismé, a fourth year Law student in the course. Before the summit, Cherismé’s group had not yet decided on a strategy for their project. The summit provided clarity on how to get started, how to identify resources needed for successful implementation, and how to approach change-makers. Beyond the course, Cherismé acknowledges that knowing how to do research will be key for her future advocacy projects: “Even if you’re starting small, I think it’s very important to know the steps, what kind of research you need to do, and what kind of researcher you need to be.”

A High-Impact Learning Experience

While the summit serves as an essential activity to prepare students for the complex task ahead of them, it is just one component of a course that embodies a number of important qualities for advancing student learning. High-impact practices are a series of teaching practices that have been empirically linked to student engagement, deep learning, and success. When used effectively, they can be transformative in terms of students’ knowledge and skill development.

High-Impact Practices in LAWS 4903

  • Students work on active SAR cases, discovering the real-world application of their learning
  • Students commit significant time and effort to their project over a full semester
  • The platform is a collaborative project, requiring meaningful peer interactions
  • Students complete periodic reflections to track and integrate learning
  • Students publicly display their learning through their platforms and a final report sent to SAR

For Turgeon-Brabazon, who graduates this fall, the course was a highlight of his time at Carleton: “It provided me with an opportunity to have a tangible impact on improving the life of an at-risk scholar while also providing me with a curriculum that is consistent with the academic rigor you would come to expect in a fourth year university classroom. It’s a class that blends academic and applied learning perfectly.”

While the summit certainly provided opportunities for students to learn about and practice their advocacy skills, Adrian states that building students’ advocacy skillsets is not her primary objective. Instead, her end goal is “to have students think more broadly about the bigger, deeper, more complex issues” and about the strategies they can employ to affect them. Whether they choose to tackle academic freedom, climate justice, or other key issues, Adrian’s students are better equipped to confront important challenges critically, through an evidence-based approach, and with advocacy strategies in their toolkit.

This is just one example of how FPA educators are creating high-impact learning experiences for their students. If you have a story you’d like to share, please reach out to Niamh O’Shea.

How Was the Summit Organized?

Day One
Students were engaged in conversations addressing the meaning of academic freedom and the complexities of defining advocacy. Students heard from Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, on the value of human rights frameworks in discussing academic freedom; from keynote speaker Waneek Horn-Miller on how her identity and cultural lens as a Mohawk woman has informed her approach to activism; and from a panel of advocates who spoke to the challenges and opportunities associated with various strategies for effecting change.

Day Two
The students moved from theory to practice. The day started with guidance from a senior civil servant about how to use Canadian human rights mechanisms to advocate with the government. Workshops on how to present a case to government officials and how to maximize networks for broad scale impact were also on offer. In one workshop, students practiced presenting advocacy cases to facilitators, who posed as government officials with various levels of authority and amenability to taking their cases forward. Students ended the summit by teaching their peers about key concepts they’d taken from the workshops to reinforce their learning.

Back to Teaching in FPA

Thursday, October 24, 2019 in
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