Knowing When to Teach Current Events

5 questions faculty members should ask themselves before they weave a recent controversy into their courses

Christophe Vorlet 
for The Chronicle

September 22, 2014

The shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer has generated national and even international discussion about racial profiling, police brutality, and racial and economic segregation in the United States. Many of those conversations have taken place in public in the form of news reports, town-hall meetings, blog posts, and numerous "think" pieces in the media. Given the rapid rise of Twitter hashtags like #TeachingFerguson and #FergusonSyllabus, and the Facebook conversations on the topic, it would appear that similar conversations are also taking place in college classrooms across the country this fall.

Consider that in early September, The New York Times ran a story titled, "Teaching About Ferguson," with resources and ideas drawn primarily from those who teach history. A few weeks earlier, Psychology Today did the same for psychology professors. And in late August, The Chronicle looked specifically at how a variety of professors in the St. Louis area were planning to incorporate the events in Ferguson, Mo., into their courses.

Because the controversy took place just as many professors were finishing up their syllabi and preparing to enter the classroom, it is little wonder that there was widespread interest in including the fatal shooting, the aftermath, and the underlying causes in our teaching. Of course, the events of the past summer might just as easily have had professors wondering about how to include a focus on the Israeli bombing of Gaza, the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa, or sexual assault on college campuses.

So this was not the first time, nor will it be the last, that professors have had to consider how to include rapidly unfolding current events in their courses as a way of connecting the classroom with the "real" or "everyday." But it may be time to ask a different question: Should everyone who wants to add such content to their courses actually do so?

Revising a syllabus to include popular culture and current events is not always in the service of the course or in the best interest of students. Not all news events are easily incorporated into every classroom, and it’s easy for a professor inexperienced in handling sensitive topics to do more harm than good.

I have grappled with these types of questions over the past 20 years—most often when teaching sensitive or awkward topics involving race, gender, or politics. Here are five questions I have developed to ensure that my enthusiasm for a particular topic doesn’t outweigh the overall goals and aims of the course:

1. Does including the topic allow me to teach students something that, within the context of the overall aims of the course, I think is important for them to learn?

Like most college professors, I have a general idea of what I would like students to know by the time they leave my class. That may include specific dates, names, places, moments, and scholarly arguments put forward in the readings. But just as often, I have structured a course so that students will be able to answer a question about the differences in, for example, what constitutes political organizing if it’s from the grass roots or the political elite. If the topic currently in the news challenges, makes more complex, or is particularly illustrative of an overarching theme I’m focusing on, then I may revise the syllabus to include it.

2. Am I familiar with enough scholarly sources to contextualize the moment or event beyond what is readily available in newspapers and social media?

If my choosing to "teach" a subject will ultimately amount to little more than chatting with students about what has been written in the mainstream or digital news, in my Twitter feed, or on my Facebook page, I will probably not teach it. If I am engaged by a topic, in order to teach it I have to be able to contextualize it with relevant scholarly work that I can present in a lecture or assign as readings. If I can’t do that, then I might chose to just spend a few minutes at the beginning or end of class, during which we all share what we are thinking about the subject and how it’s being represented in social media.

3. Is more gained by my teaching this topic than by my leading a town-hall meeting, urging students to organize a panel, or allowing them to discuss the issue during the first few minutes of class?

More than any other question, this is the one that has stopped me from revising a syllabus to include a unit on a current- events topic. If I am contemplating spending a week or more of class time on one topic primarily because I want to know what students are thinking about it, or think students need to let off steam, then I will probably choose to work with student groups to host an event or workshop that can accomplish those aims, rather than rework my syllabus.

4. Is this my "lane"?

There are certain topics, figures, regions, and historical eras about which I know enough to teach to others. I take those things to be my lane. Lanes can certainly change as our interests and training do. Like many professors, I have an opinion and can make an argument about many topics. But having an opinion, or the ability to make an argument, is not a substitute for training, research, and knowledge.

5. If I introduce a new topic into the course, am I prepared to teach students what they don’t know but may need to know in order to fully understand it?

It’s not always possible to know what students come to class having already learned. But it’s often possible to hazard a guess. For example, a few years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a report, based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, that found that more than half of the states fail at teaching the civil-rights movement. If a current-event topic requires a certain amount of background knowledge in order to teach it effectively, then I either have to further revise the syllabus to include that background information or take a pass on teaching that event.

This semester I am teaching a course, "The Black 70s," about race, activism, protest politics, and popular culture during that decade. We were always going to begin with a survey of urban rebellions and uprisings from 1964 to 1968, as a sort of "prehistory" for the course. By Week 3 we were going to be looking at the executive summary of the Kerner Commission reports on the riots of 1967, which chronicled the reasons each riot took place and outlined how government action and inaction were ultimately responsible. The commission found the main causes to be police brutality and overreaction; race-based disparities in housing, education, and employment; racial segregation; anger and frustration allowed to fester without acknowledgment or redress for far too long; and a basic lack of interest on the part of a majority of whites living in suburban communities regarding the lives and well-being of black Americans.

In the context of my course this fall, the circumstances that led to the events in Ferguson this summer helped to explain and make real a past that students had previously only dimly understood. That past in turn became a key means of understanding the contemporary consequences of both community and government inaction in the face of race-based injustice. For both periods of time, the students in the course are gaining both the skills and the knowledge to help explain for themselves and to others all the ways, as the Twitter meme says, that #BlackLivesMatter.

When the marriage of a current event and a course are that tightly intertwined, there isn’t a need to ask any other questions beyond one: How quickly can I get that syllabus revised?

Noliwe M. Rooks is an associate professor and director of graduate studies at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center.