Human Rights Studies at UC Davis – Year 10 Text of comments delivered at the UC Davis Teaching History Conference – May 8, 2021

Human Rights Studies at UC Davis – Year 10 Text of comments delivered at the UC Davis Teaching History Conference – May 8, 2021

Human Rights Studies at UC Davis – Year 10

Text of comments delivered at the UC Davis Teaching History Conference – May 8, 2021

This last year, UC Davis’ Human Rights Studies Program surpassed 1000 enrollments in our courses, making us the largest program in California and we thing perhaps the nation.

 It is an exciting, rewarding, and relevant field to teach and do research in and students respond well and engage enthusiastically.

In this, our time of a much overdue racial reckoning, and the rights-based discussions around the pandemic’s unequal toll and unequal access to vaccines, my experience has been that the interdisciplinary structure of Human Rights Studies provides an important way to explore difficult histories and futures.

Image:  HMR 1 Fall 2019

We read in the enthusiasm and interest of our undergraduates their experiences and preparation in high school.

Recently, and the broader context for this seminar, is that our program — and in collaboration with the History Project and the Genocide Education Project —received support from the UCHRI – the University of California Humanities Research Institute and the UC Davis-based Davis Humanities Institute to build a research, outreach and support network around Human Rights Studies Education and across the research university – high school education divide. 

The grants are to support a specific new research format, which frankly is quite old, but we just forgot about it, called “engaged research” or what we also call “public scholarship.”  The idea is that the university should support opportunities for faculty to build research questions and opportunities around the needs of the community – writ large.  In this case, that community is made up of secondary educators, their students, and community organizations engaged in historical and educational advocacy that we seek to serve with this project.  In other words, you are not our “research subjects,” but rather we hope will become our collaborators.

This renewed commitment to engaged scholarship is very important to us in Human Rights Studies.

Among our short-term and medium-term goals are:

  • Figuring out how to meet the expressed will of the people of the state of California that certain historical atrocities and moments of mass human rights abuses be taught in our high schools;
  • Contributing to a dialog on how those past atrocities can be integrated better into curriculum and in particular how they might figure in a broader effort to teach human rights to 21st century Californians;
  • Meeting a whole host of international agreements and treaties to which the US is a party requiring Human Rights education; and
  • Creating a format and funding mechanisms for a sustained effort to support this endeavor.

First: What is Human Rights Studies?

What Is Human Rights Studies at UC Davis?

  1. Human Rights Studies is the multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary scholarly effort to understand the history, theory, and criticism of the Human Rights Idea – the idea that human beings have rights, including economic, cultural and social rights, simply because they are human beings, and not on the basis of national citizenship, belonging to the right ethnic group or being the right color, gender or sexual orientation. 
  2. Human Rights Studies professionals seek to understand and critique the International Human Rights System: that is the host of governmental, non-governmental and intergovernmental institutions, especially those associated with the UN tasked with protecting and promoting human rights. Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch would fit under this element, as would laws, treaties, and conventions, for example the Universal Declaration of Human RightsUniversal Nations Declaration of Indigenous People, all the Convention Against Torture, that define human rights and the measures required for their defense.
  3. We study forms of Human Rights Abuse in the present and the near-past, especially systemic abuse: Apartheid, the Armenian Genocide, Jim Crow, Totalitarianism, Slavery, and Settler Colonialism being among the best examples.
  4. We study the Human Rights Struggle, that is efforts by individuals and groups to oppose human rights abuse and create more just societies.  In this sense human rights can be approached as part of the embodied and lived experience of everyday people, including refugees and indigenous peoples, and not just an elite or Western practice.  At UC Davis, we tend to focus a great deal of our research on this element through the lens of area studies – hence our courses on Human Rights in Latin America and Human Rights in the Middle East.  In this element we also seek to understand struggle as it is expressed through the arts, music, and other forms of culture.
  5. We celebrate Human Rights Achievements, that is moments in the successful defense of the Human Rights Idea, and use the tools of storytelling in its multiple forms to explore episodes of resistance, survival and perseverance.
  6. Through teaching and research, Human Rights Studies professionals work to understand and support Human Rights Advocacy.  This includes the full embrace of forms of engaged scholarship and closing the gap between theory and practice. Human Rights Studies professionals engage in policy advocacy, often provide expert testimony, and work outside of the academy in international organizations.  In this element, Human Rights Studies teaching will often invite human rights activists, advocates and defenders into the classroom and emphasized internship activities with Human Rights organizations and career preparation in Human Rights work, broadly conceived.

One thing Human Rights Studies is not is a pre-law track, though we certainly have many students that hope to pursue the law.  Anecdotal evidence from major public law schools suggests that public interest law, especially international human rights law is being deemphasized because of the relatively poor placement rate.

Human Rights Studies at UC Davis

UC Davis is home to the largest undergraduate Human Rights Studies program in the country – with 1000 students in our classes this last year.  We should have around 1200 next year. For the last couple years, we’ve averaged nearly 50+ minors.

The program is administered by a program committee drawn from across the College of L&S, our faculty and instructors come from History, Art History, Anthropology, Spanish, Native American Studies, Religious Studies, and Cultural Studies. 

I encourage you to visit our program home page for more information.

A critical take-away is that over the last decade at UC Davis, we’ve developed an advanced level of multi-disciplinary expertise in the teaching of Human Rights Studies that we are looking to share.

As part of that, I thought I could share a quick element of my own teaching to illustrate some of the opportunities afforded by Human Rights Studies.  I’ve chosen a short interview Eleanor Roosevelt gave on the inaugural celebration of International Human Rights Day, which used to be a week.  Mrs. Roosevelt led the UN effort to establish the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was supposed to be a weeks’ long project, but turned out to have taken years.  In this 1951 interview from the very early days of television, Mrs. Roosevelt takes a very radical stand on human rights.  Let’s watch.

For my students I emphasize that Mrs. Roosevelt was not an international lawyer or diplomat, but rather a politician and what we might call today an activist. She outlines in her speech how and why to move human rights forward by calling on her audience to build human rights into the hearts of people everywhere – what I interpret as a call to establish a culture of human rights, to integrate fully into peoples’ awareness and conscience that all of us have human rights. 

Having lived through war, and have lost so much to conflict, she speaks with such force and confidence. 

We are hoping to leave time for discussion.  So I’ll end here, however, you’ll hear this again during our talks, please to take our short survey on Human Rights in the California Classroom and our “flyer” on our upcoming workshop.

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