I am an adjunct community college political science professor (adjunct means part time junior college teacher in search of a full time job). I teach introductory International Relations, American Government, Political Science and other courses at a highly diverse (multinational, multi-religious, multilingual) community college outside Washington D.C.
A major part in all of my classes is media literacy where I require students to analyze current political events using a variety of media sources including broadcast, print, and internet sites of their choice. I encourage a comparative approach by requiring dual sourcing of major stories in order to “screen” for media bias and to look for corroborating and conflicting information.
The recent “cartoon war” about the Danish “Mohammed” cartoons has presented a great teaching/learning experience to analyze a political event and to look at the role of media. I transferred the cartoons to overhead transparencies and presented these to all of my classes at the end of my lectures. I permitted any student to leave should they desire. I did not keep statistics on dismissals, but most of my students remained including Muslim students in all of my classes. By a show of hands, approximately 2/3rds of my students had not seen the cartoons, although most were aware of the controversy through our class discussions or by following news headlines. I did not conduct any discussion during the presentation and provided only minimal explanation of the cartoons. I also provided several overhead examples of anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli, and anti-American political cartoons from primarily Mideast sources but also American sources in order to offer some contrast to the Danish political cartoons. My initial follow up request was as a voluntary extra credit question (“Regarding last week’s “cartoon” presentation, was it valuable; why or why not?” please provide a few sentences explaining your thoughts) during scheduled exams one week after the cartoon presentations.
The following is a rough non-scientific review of the results:
-In my American Government class approximately 90 percent of my students who responded said it was valuable tool. Some reasons included that students had not found them easily accessible in main stream media and it gave more information in order to make a better analysis. The 10 percent negatives said the cartoons, not the presentation, were disrespectful.
-In my afternoon International Relations course 100 percent of respondents said it was a valuable tool because it was the first time most students had seen them, it provided information about an international political event in order to make a better analysis, and it gave some perspective especially the non-European cartoons.
-In my evening International Relations course 91% of students said it was valuable for similar reasons as mentioned above.
I had an extensive after class discussion with one Muslim student and the 10 percent negative responses were from both Muslim and non-Muslim students with opinions ranging from sacrilegious to not valuable because they were not in the original media format.
I plan to discuss the results when I grade and conduct test reviews, but my initial reason for entering the controversy was to illustrate the role of media in both democratic and non-democratic systems and its vital and sometimes irresponsible role as an independent political actor in itself.
As a political science instructor, I recommend to my students to do as complete research as possible from as many sources as possible and do as thorough analysis of competing, conflicting, and corroborating information. The difficulties in accessing the information (and cartoons) and in analyzing a controversial political topic was illustrative of serious political science even at the community college level.
I leave my students and other readers to reach their own conclusions as to this imperfect exercise involved in researching political issues and analyzing political events.
Pat Smith teaches at Northern Virginia Community College and holds a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley and a M.A.L.D. The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. Smith is a former Peace Corps Volunteer to Mali, a former US Naval Officer, Special Operations, Pacific Fleet and has lived, worked, and traveled in various Muslim regions of Africa and Asia.