Challenging Extremism Course: Making Social Impact from a Classroom
In contrast to most classes, the Challenging Extremism course does not rely on the already established style of teaching. Being the result of the combined efforts of the Journalism and Mass Communication(JMC) and Political Science and European Studies(POS/EUR) Departments, the class led by Professor Lynette Leonard and Professor Robert Phillips introduces the dual-teaching model unique to AUBG and emphasizes on students’ independent and undisturbed working process.
“We thought about doing it within the department, but we also found out that POS was willing to do it, and rather than having two teams on campus, we thought maybe we could do this as a joint thing and it might work really well,” Leonard explained. “We then talked with the Dean about different ways of which we could do it because there is not a lot of co-teaching on the campus, I think this is one of the first co-taught classes, so we had to work out the logistics of how that would be.”
As described on AUBG’s registration platform, the class will participate in the Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism program in collaboration with Facebook, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Supporter of the program is EdVenture Partners (EVP), a “marketing organization that connects businesses, government agencies or nonproﬁts with learning institutions and faculty around the world,” according to their mission statement). The students’ mission is to develop social and digital media initiatives, products, or tools that counter prejudice, online hate, and extremism. The objective is to design a campaign that is credible, authentic, and believable, and then implement it with a budget of $2000 plus $400 in Facebook ad credits.
Leonard, who has previous teaching experience in dealing with such real world applicable projects, expressed her personal motivation for taking part in the course.
“This came out not too long after the U.S. election, and it’s something I’ve been concerned about for a while, and I like projects that make a difference,” she commented. “I haven’t had a chance to do it here, because some of the projects that I did in the States required a lot of coordination with high schools, and it’s difficult here because of the language barrier, I’m also not sure how to work through all of the layers of bureaucracy that are here. I like student-led projects like these, because I think it is about students generating ideas.”
According to third-year students Jetmira Allushi and Rumyana Kercheva the program’s unique features played a crucial role in attracting their attention to the project.
“What drew me to this class was the fact that it was designed as a project, and that we would have creative freedom, as well as funding, which meant that whatever we came up with, we would have the capacity to implement,” shared Allushi. “So far its too early to say, as we are still in the phases of research and planning, but I believe we will end up having an actual project and make a difference.”
“I was expecting it to be fast-paced and actually we are going slower than I initially thought,” added Kercheva.
Another trait of the Challenging Extremism course is that it counts as a JMC and POS/EUR elective and many students can use it to their benefit.
“I am a JMC major and I regret not doing a POS major, so this is a win-win for me,” commented Kercheva. “It is useful and important because it is a real project and you get the chance to do the things you know in theory or have researched.”
“Part of the research we have done on our choice of topic [Challenging Fake News and Fake Narratives] had a political context to it, in terms of analyzing how social media and the internet is used to benefit certain narratives, agendas, and recruitment tactics towards extremism,” noted Allushi. The rest of the work done benefits people from whatever major, because the line of work is multidimensional (from research, PR, content creation, to figuring out web design, or in our case plan our budget to pay someone to do that).”
The project itself goes through five phases:
1. Program Launch: team registration.
2. Campaign Development: research; brainstorming; preparing a creative brief that outlines ideas, plans, and tactics; getting budget funds.
3. Implementation: bringing the campaign to life, tracking real world impact and results.
4. Submission: showcasing the campaign from start to finish with key tactics, strategies, and results as highlights.
5. Competition: after the works are reviewed and scored, top teams are sent to regional and global competitions.
Although structured and coordinated, the Challenging Extremism course bears some challenges to itself too. Leonard considered the biggest difficulty for the students to be the accelerated time schedule. Elaborating on the latter, the need of an academic rhetoric and experts talking about the current situation with extremism around the world, demanded the establishment of a tight schedule, distributing most of the academic content in the first four weeks. According to Allushi, the biggest challenge is to get a large group of people to agree on issues and coordinate work. “Having two professors makes it easy, but a main aspect of the project is to work independently so professors can only act as facilitators or moderators, and in cases we have some idea that is entirely impossible to implement, to say no to us,” she explained.
“Probably the hardest thing for Bobby [Phillips] and I is that the whole program is student-driven and anything that is the campaign part has to be entirely done by the students,” added Leonard. “Sometimes it seems to us that the students are occasionally looking at us like asking “So, what are we gonna do next?” It’s like they are getting pressed. Any problem-based learning is a funny thing because students say they want it, but when they find out what that means, that they have to take full ownership of their education and the direction that it goes, and they have to plan their timeline, some can do it very well, others just can’t.”
Allushi went on to comment the non-typical method of teaching, praising it in terms of managing work and independent brainstorming without worrying about the professor’s opinion or the participation points. However, Kercheva raised a concern regarding shared responsibility given that relying on other people may lead to counter-productiveness and inefficiency.
These other people, the students from the class, are divided into six departments, that work simultaneously independently and together to reach the final goal:
The students have already created a group explanation of the term extremism. On their first account, it is “comprised of radical views, measures, actions, and movements that are in relation to a community and occurs when there are contradictions with the values, norms, and expected behaviors of that community.” They also describe extremism as “the collective advocacy for the use of violent measures to the outcome of pushing forward a set of ideas and beliefs which largely limit the rights and freedoms of a peaceful demographic.” Kercheva considers the process of coming up with a definition beneficial, given that the students have a clear idea of what they are dealing with. Leonard described this as one of the commonly used methods to provoke the interest of the class among other strategies.
“Critically looking at other campaigns people have developed, analyzing them, also can help fill your own and also puts points of conflict – you could either love a campaign, or criticize it,” stated Leonard. “Making those judgments and having to share them already puts up a point of tension, then having to come up with their own creative ideas and take a stand, share their ideas with others. But for any good team to develop, they have to have points of conflict, and they have to resolve them and move forward. It’s all strategic.”
Furthermore, Leonard expressed her concerns about the seemingly lacking enthusiasm among students and their tendency to avoid debates and conflicts. She also shared her expectations that the group would be asking for help and for details. However, these expectations were proven wrong.
“But they don’t tend to have questions, which is usually not a good sign, because it often means they are not feeling comfortable, or they are not thinking,” said Leonard. “Either of those are not good positions to be at this point. They need to be curious, they need to be asking a bunch of questions.”
Allushi was more optimistic about what the future holds for their project. She expressed confidence that after getting through the planning phase and into implementation, things will move a lot faster. “The fact that we have a deadline from our sponsors (Facebook and US State Department) on when to submit the plan and get into implementation makes it easier for us, and also professors encourage us to move forward at a reasonable pace,” she shared.
Conducting such a course is indeed a complex and demanding task. According to Kercheva, there are worries and uncertainties such as whether there will be enough time or if the campaign is focused enough on extremism. There are also difficulties and challenges which the professors are facing.
“It is difficult to teach this way, it’s more work than a regular class,” confessed Leonard. Sometimes, because we’re not jumping in and leading a lecture, it seems like we’re doing less work, but in many ways it’s a lot more work we need to do.”
But students and professors seem to believe and trust each other and this is a stable basis for success with the project. “It’s completely up to the students and I don’t think they’ll let us down.”, expressed hopes Leonard. Student-driven teaching is on its way of proving to be successful at AUBG and the joint efforts of departments, professors, and students are already showing some results. What will be the final outcome? The answer will be given after Jun. 7, at the time of the final submission deadline.