Taking Risks in the Classroom

October 06, 2009

I never thought that preparing a simple writing course would change my life and that of my students.

In the summer of 2007, as I geared up to teach "Public Communication" in the fall, I was going through the ritual of scouring newspapers for ideas and topics when I ran across a disturbing article. It described the legal difficulties of Troy Davis, a man on death row in Georgia who was awaiting execution the following day. The article said Davis had always maintained his innocence. As I continued reading I was troubled to hear that he had been on death row for nearly 18 years, found guilty of killing a police officer. The article said that, while Davis was convicted on the testimony of nine witnesses, seven of the them had since recanted and one was believed to be the murderer. There was no DNA evidence in the case, and many people were supporting Davis and pleading for his life, including Pope Benedict XVI, Desmond Tutu, and Sister Helen Prejean.

I barely slept that night. The next day, I was relieved to discover that, within hours of being executed, Davis had been granted a stay. That's when I knew my students would have an important project to work on that fall semester.

As soon as I got to school, I began making calls. One call to Amnesty International led to other calls to Davis's supporters. Amnesty also suggested I contact Davis's sister, Martina Correia. Before I could, she called me. Her passion and love for her brother moved me deeply. Speaking out about her brother's case has been her focus, despite her own battle with breast cancer.

After several conversations, I asked Martina if my writing students could help in some way. One thing led to another, and the course began to take shape. Our first activity was to designate a particular class session as "Troy Davis day." Students signed petitions to support a new trial and created birthday cards and posters for the 39-year-old. One student put together YouTube birthday messages that were later read over the phone to him by Martina on his birthday.

More important, the students wrote letters on Davis's behalf to the Supreme Court of Georgia and to Georgia lawmakers. They also wrote to Hillary Rodham Clinton, then a U.S. senator and presidential candidate, regarding the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act signed by President Clinton. The act limited Davis's ability to appeal his conviction. Basically, prosecutors were using the act to argue that it was "too late to present the recantations as evidence."

But my students' work did not end there. They wrote pitches to the news media seeking coverage of the story, and essays that they sent out to newspapers throughout the country. They started a blog, called "14 Grads" (there were 14 students in my course), to express their feelings about class work and Troy. Students also corresponded with the death-row inmate and learned about his struggles and his life behind bars.

Their passion led me to attend a march in Savannah supporting Davis. But it all came together when I actually had the opportunity to meet him. My two hours with Troy prompted me to write my own opinion column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the day of a Georgia Supreme Court hearing on his case.

Troy was overwhelmed by the students' efforts and felt they made enormous contributions to his case. He didn't expect people outside his own family to care about his situation. He thought young people were more interested in "partying and going to clubs." At our meeting, he told me, "It shows me that there is humanity left in this world."

Perhaps the most moving day for the students was the last day of class. As we were putting together a book of all the work we had done over the course of the semester, Martina walked into the classroom to surprise the students. She had flown in from Savannah to be with us. Troy had asked that she personally thank the students for everything they had done. As she made her way around the room, hugging each student, she expressed the impact each of them had had on Troy's life. Yes, it was simply a class, but they took a risk by helping someone they knew only through the media.

Martina also told the students about a lawmaker who had initially refused to talk with her about her brother's plight. Since the students' efforts, however, that same lawmaker had pulled her aside at a function and said she was "receiving a lot of letters in Washington about Troy." Now the lawmaker wanted to talk about the case.

It's been nearly two years since that course ended, and Troy's case has its had ups and downs. His appeal was rejected by the Georgia Supreme Court, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, and the 11th Circuit Court in Georgia. He has faced four scheduled executions. This past spring, he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As the months went by, Troy's cause grew bigger and bigger, drawing attention from thousands of people and groups like the NAACP.

Then on August 17, a miracle happened. The Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for Troy. "The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing," said Justice John Paul Stevens.

All of the students who wrote on Troy's behalf in that 2007 communications course have now graduated. But it was wonderful to get several e-mail messages from some of them on the day of the Supreme Court's decision, expressing their happiness and thanks for being involved.

Troy's case is not over. A federal judge has been selected to review the case. But the entire experience has made me re-examine my own teaching. What role do we as professors have in our classrooms? Is it appropriate for us to use politics as a pedagogical tool? Do we have the right to use our classrooms for activism?

I'm a firm believer that students learn best when applying everything they know to real life—especially in the communications field. I took a risk in making Troy's case part of my course. But I taught the course as a professor and practitioner of communications. It was not a law course. It was a writing course, and that is how I approached it.

More than ever, I wanted students to understand that words are powerful and can make a difference. Was it worth the risk that some students might be upset by the case, or that some of my colleagues might think it an inappropriate topic for a writing course? Yes. Would I do it again? Absolutely.

In some small way, the students' voices played a part in Troy's life—and that is something I realized as I read all their recent e-mail messages.

Perhaps Troy's words in a letter he sent to my department many months ago sum it up best: "I tell all my supporters about your school and they are truly impressed at the support you're giving me as well as wanting to know more about your college and how they can get their kids involved. … Now that you have shown interest in helping me prove my innocence, I feel I'm definitely in good hands."

Gemma Puglisi is an assistant professor of communications at American University in Washington.