Teaching Human Rights – Tools for the Interdisciplinary Classroom


Human Rights is an interdiscipline, a field that is not at home in any one discipline, but is informed by a multitude of disciplines and theoretical approaches. The Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut has created what has become known as the Connecticut School of Human Rights where research and teaching are located at the intersection of disciplines, providing a forum for collaboration across different fields of inquiry. Accordingly, undergraduate students pursue human rights as a second major; joint faculty show how history, political science and law, but also engineering, literary studies, and biology amongst others merge in the field of human rights; and graduate students pursue a certificate of human rights in addition to their primary field of studies.

In my own case human rights has functioned as a bridge of different research interests. With a Master in Political Science and History and now as a Ph.D. candidate in German Studies, human rights pulls together literary, political and historical sources and approaches. Like other graduate students, I experience this interdisciplinary work as invigorating, but at the same time ask myself about my position in the academy. How do I navigate the different demands now and as a future scholar who has to publish in my primary discipline? And what about the other side of the academic coin? How do I teach an interdiscipline?

The last question prompted ten graduate students to form a working group on “Teaching Human Rights,” short THR, in 2012. Coming from diverse fields such as Anthropology, English, German Studies, Political Science and Social Work we read and discuss articles on interdisciplinarity in general, about interdisciplinary teaching and teaching human rights. We evaluated textbooks which, if they exist at all, rely heavily on one discipline. Interdisciplinary teaching is often veiled team-teaching where each instructor conveys lessons from their own discipline but the instructors and approaches never actually meet. Furthermore, while practical material exists for K-12 “Human Rights Education,” we observe a clear lack of resources for college instructors. Seeking a solution that would allow us to teach material from other disciplines without pursuing a program in those fields, we founded an open-access online database for college instructors: The Teaching Human Rights Lesson Plan Database.

Housed at the University of Connecticut, we run the database with an editorial board of six graduate and former graduate students. While we still read and discuss articles in our meetings, the database now provides a practical work environment in order to reach out to college instructors who would like to integrate human rights in their classes, independent from their discipline. The editorial process is interdisciplinary as the two reviewers are housed in different disciplines from each other and from the contributor. We particularly pay attention to objectives that are relevant to a multitude of fields, material that is easily accessible, and activities that support critical thinking across the disciplines. Categories and tags facilitate the search for activities that relate to the theme of the class. Additionally, syllabi allow instructors without previous knowledge in the field of human rights to create their own interdisciplinary classes. The lesson plans can be used for those human rights classes or in any other class that ever so tangentially addresses human rights.

We write on our website:

The core of our methodology is the belief that human rights is not the province of any one academic discipline, and thus interdisciplinarity is necessary to provide a robust multifaceted understanding of human rights. Only by studying human rights from the multiple and intersecting perspectives evolving within and between the disciplines, can we present students with a complex, yet accessible appreciation of human rights.

Especially the syllabi of the “Introduction to Human Rights” courses embrace this belief by teaching human rights from plural perspectives and with a variety of material – theoretical texts from different disciplines, as well as primary sources such as literature, music and film. But even if we do not teach a whole class on human rights, rights-based texts and theories offer profound contributions to any class. Human rights do not only penetrate every discipline, they are also prevalent in the daily lives of our students. Students encounter human rights in the news, but are often not aware of underlying human rights issues in literary texts, in movies, television shows and even video games. Here, the humanities in collaboration with other schools can raise the students’ critical awareness.

I teach literature and culture courses, but firmly believe that students need contextual knowledge to truly work with texts. Reading human rights declarations as (literary) texts is a natural expansion of my discipline. However, I am not a trained legal scholar, nor am I an anthropologist, art historian or medical professional. Teaching, for instance, a novel on genocide and justice like Nicol Ljubić’s The Stillness of the Sea will require skills and theories of some if not all of the above mentioned disciplines. Here, the database can provide practical tools to integrate different kinds of sources, already scaffolded for teaching. And vice versa: teaching a module on the International Criminal Tribunal can benefit from the integration of a novel such as Ljubić’s text and make a theoretical subject more tangible for students.

Only a growing database can truly achieve our goal of a tool that allows instructors to add to their own classes. We aspire to establish a wider community of instructors who engage with human rights. We welcome comments on already existing activities and contributions of additional lesson plans. Graduate students as well as professors are equally welcome to add to the developing archive of materials and tools. Most of all, however, instructors across the country are invited to use the teaching activities to bring the multitude of fields that make the interdiscipline of human rights into their own classroom.

Browse our lesson plans, comment on them, leave a message and contribute your own lesson plan here: http://teachinghumanrights.uconn.edu/

Nicole Coleman
Department of Literatures, Cultures & Languages
University of Connecticut

Image: Logo for Teaching Human Rights.

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