Teaching & Learning #1. Bringing today’s revolutionary world into the classroom syllabus … without throwing away the syllabus, tossing the keys on the table, and walking away in frustration

  • Ron Machoian, Ph.D., Col USAF ret.
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For those who study and teach the subject of revolution, human events over the past two decades provide a fascinating addition to the historical record.

Bringing Theory to Life

This assertion is no surprise to anyone reading here, but the last few years especially provide a learning laboratory that brings theory to life with dynamics that are nothing short of a whirlwind to harness in the classroom. Although jihadist insurgency has gripped the world’s attention since 2001, it is only one element of a more complete address that demands rapt attention by observers. To name only a few of the more notable episodes: the Arab Spring revolutions shook North Africa and the Middle East; the color revolutions replaced or pressured governments in many places, with the Ukraine and Georgia as two of the genre’s exemplars; the Velvet Revolution pushed aside a corrupt administration in Armenia in just a matter of weeks; cycles of civil unrest with related foundations have gripped Iran in various form; a population-based movement to wrest Catalonian independence from Spain; sectarian unrest that tests the new government of Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed; and within the last twelve months alone, persistent civil resistance in Hong Kong, an inventory of public demonstrations in France under the “yellow vest” heading, and civil resistance movements brought millions to the streets across much of Latin America in places such as Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia; not to mention the unbelievably botched coup attempt in Venezuela.

Recognizing Illusions

Revolutionary episodes in the 21st century’s opening two decades make it clear that stability may be as much an illusion as it is a hallmark of the political world. Many of these events are offset from traditional models of “revolution.” Rather than revolutions of the historical mold, some are described more accurately as spontaneous rebellion growing organically and touched off by seemingly innocuous events that become a proximate, representative spark. But even if not led by ideological design and fiery-eyed charismatic leaders, their character certainly resides somewhere within the subject’s domain. Some have been organized and led with disciplined fidelity to nonviolence, but others are marked by broad violence, either as a general strategy to reach revolutionary goals or as an adjunct erupting on the flanks. These episodes bear testimony that both validate and refine theoretical literature on the subject, and in the process create fascinating challenges and opportunities for teachers and students alike.

For professors in the field, real-world events present virtual learning experiences to support concepts. I currently teach courses on “Revolution and Insurgency” as well as “Nonviolent Revolution” – the latter especially can be a courageous undertaking given the world’s current dynamics. Each of these is an upper-division special topics course in the International Studies major’s global security track at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The challenge has been, how to address responsibly events that keep even journalists reeling, as part of an academic syllabus grounded in literature and representative historical cases?

Last fall, emerging headlines seemed to overtake and mock my syllabus almost every week. World events grabbed my students’ attention and begged center stage in classroom discussion (perhaps “demanded” is more accurate given their coverage?). This is true especially in the course on nonviolent revolution. I found that the constant narrative provided by unfolding events is at once both a gift and challenge.

Personalizing Relevance

I spent much time thinking about how best to address contemporary episodes while remaining true to a coherent address of the subject within a scholarly framework. The course cannot atomize into mere commentary on so many contemporary events, absent theoretical structure and historical context (that would be an interesting way to spend a semester but would be a different course entirely). But at the same time, the day’s events certainly deserve meaningful integration into the syllabus, adding inarguable relevance and a sense of authenticity. A student from Ecuador in a classroom on nonviolence wants to talk about the protests currently shaking his home in Quito, seeing events there in every line of assigned reading or in each discussion exercise. Another student, from Hong Kong, clearly wants to discuss the protests there at each opportunity, especially given the enthusiastic exchanges she endures with other students on campus from mainland China. These highly personalized stakes in the subject demand address but are best presented as an integral part of the syllabus, not just placed on top of it, as an awkward daily update that pushes its way into the classroom.

Rather than dedicating singular stand-alone lessons to contemporary dynamics, I instead have attempted to relate current events to theory and the historical record by extending what I will call each “lesson cycle.” By this I mean that the conceptual underpinnings are addressed (phase one of the lesson), then applied or highlighted via discussion of a historical case (phase two), and then projected to contemporary events (in phase three) – e.g., current Iranian social unrest, or unfolding events in Hong Kong or Quito. In this way, concepts are delivered and supported by a historical case that already enjoys an existing body of critical literature and primary testimony, and then the lesson is animated by relating it to current events that are familiar to students. Students embrace questions such as: how might Iran in 1978 look today with the introduction of Twitter and other social media platforms as a revolutionary network? How might the revolution’s character and its outcome “look” different in 2019 than it did in 1979? What elements are shared by Iran’s so-called Green Revolution (2009) and the weekly events taking place in Hong Kong? How do the natural histories of the two movements diverge from one another? What elemental contexts influence the two episodes differently and press them toward unique outcomes? In this manner, at least in design, lessons are delivered in a sort of “three-step” teaching/learning cycle instead of only the first two steps – theory and historical case. The previous two-step cycle is replaced by theory, historical application, and contemporary comparison – becoming what I am calling a three-step lesson cycle.

Using my syllabus on nonviolent revolution as an example, theoretical models are presented in several very strong scholarly works on the subject, while philosophical foundations are found in the records of notable practitioners such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Cesar Chavez. What I will call the traditional “second-phase” is to apply this foundational scaffold to historical case study – thereby presenting a virtual experience to enhance and build on philosophies, concepts and scholarly discussion. India’s nonviolent revolution and the American civil rights movement are two of the more accessible episodes, with a great amount of valuable primary material as well as critical literature available in support.

But, in today’s context, there emerges a third-phase in this teaching sequence – the historical case becomes an intellectual threshold to discuss one or more of the many contemporary events that both model and challenge concepts and historical lessons. This has several advantages I think, even if offset from a traditional case that relies on refereed literature and historical scaffolding.

Constructing Learning

Contemporary cases enthuse students via personal stake in the world around them. There is a level of human interest presented by events that are taking place in the “here and now” that moves beyond even the historian’s enthusiasm for those in the past. No matter how well the past is brought to life by primary testimony, diverse perspectives, and meaningful artifacts, it remains in the past. Extrapolating concepts and cases to contemporary events offers the students an opportunity to assume the role of today’s strategic analyst without the advantage (or impediment!) of knowing how the “story” ends.

For the student, an increased level of authenticity is realized that otherwise is only role-played. Educational theorists support this assertion: “When curriculum is viewed as deriving from the experience of the learner, [e.g., in the contemporary world just outside the classroom], coherence and relevance increase, there is more whole-to-part reasoning and learning is viewed as constructing rather than receiving.” (Wurdinger and Carlson, 2010). Teachers and students can together apply theory and lessons-learned from historical cases (the first two “phases” of the lesson) to the world today (the third phase), identifying the influences, opportunities and limiting factors that may very well predict, or at least influence, dependent pathways, whether those be in Hong Kong, Santiago, or Barcelona.

I concede outright that my commentary here represents nothing new pedagogically or even particularly insightful. Some may conclude that I am merely pointing out an obvious approach to constant classroom challenge. Anyone who has attended a faculty development seminar at some point in the past decade probably has heard some discussion of the value of painting historical cases with contemporary relevance. But for me, given the daunting pace of revolutionary episodes taking place in the world, it is a rather purposeful translation of problem-based learning theory to bring contemporary dynamics into my syllabus with some degree of coherency.

This post expresses my own realization, as a teacher in strategic studies, that today’s emerging events, appearing at breakneck speed, need not present a distraction to the syllabus. Or, be relegated to five rushed minutes in epilogue to the daily discussion. Instead, they can be embraced as a relevant “third phase” to the lesson at hand, offering welcome opportunities to amplify learning along novel pathways.

Author: Ron Machoian, Ph.D., Col USAF ret.

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