Do Our Students Understand the Relevance of What We Are Teaching Them?

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Natalia Ferretti, Political Science

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2001

In the Fall of 1999, I worked as a TA for the course “Political Change in Latin America.” I was aware that this was a very popular course among senior students at Berkeley, and that it attracted students with family roots in Latin America. Having born and grown-up in Latin America myself, I felt excited at the prospect of teaching what I knew best to a group of highly enthusiastic students.

Half way through the course, however, several students expressed to me their disappointment with the class. Their complaint was that the course was too detached from their real concerns, that it focused too much on elite politics, and that it said little about the everyday life of Latin American citizens. According to them, the course revolved too much around dry theoretical approaches, impersonal analytic perspectives, and “high politics.”

The complaint took me by surprise. Until my students decided to talk to me, I was convinced that what we were doing in the class was precisely what my students thought it was missing: we were explaining the origins of the main political and socio-economic structures that characterize Latin American countries today. For us, the connection between these macro-processes and the reality of everyday life was straightforward, and therefore, we took for granted that students would be able to make the link as well. But my students’ complaints showed me that we were wrong.

The task I had ahead, then, was to make the link explicit. Thus, in a wrap-up section, I created a hypothetical scenario. I told my students to pretend that it was 1962: the Cuban revolution had occurred only three years before, and it was threatening with extending to the rest of Latin America. With this information, I asked students to pretend that they were citizens of any one of the countries we had been studying, and to tell me, from that perspective, what their main hopes, fears, and living conditions were. Students soon began to realize, in their own answers, that it mattered whether they had chosen to be a citizen of Mexico or Argentina. The reason why it mattered was because the political structure that had developed in each of these countries gave them different capacities to fight the threat of communism within the institutions of a democracy. Indeed, those countries that were politically ill equipped for the task — such as Argentina — were vulnerable to the emergence of authoritarian regimes, with daunting consequences for their citizens’ security and everyday living conditions. I later asked my students to pretend that they were the leaders of some of the political parties of their chosen countries, and to tell me what their strategies and options were in each case. Again, students recognized in their answers that political leaders counted with different resources and constraints to respond to the situation, and that these resources and constraints had been created in earlier periods of socio-political development.

Did this exercise succeed in showing students the link between macro-political structures and the individual fate of Latin American citizens? In order to test this, I included a question in the midterm that asked students to pretend they had the power to travel back in history and produce changes in the political development of nations. Their task was to identify a major problem that affects the living conditions of citizens today, to trace its cause in the political history of the chosen country, and to make all the changes that would provide the solution. To my satisfaction, students’ answers revealed that they were finally able to link major political processes with the day-to-day living conditions of Latin American citizens. Further, the answers showed that students had achieved the ability to connect the abstract theories of political development taught in the course, with the unsolved moral and human-rights issues that are still pending in the region, and that had motivated my students to take the class in the first place.