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Engaging Students in the Community and the World: Does the Rest of the World Really Matter to Our Students?

 

November 19-20. 2010
Howard University
Washington, D.C.

Jeffrey Gaab, Farmingdale State College

Are our students concerned about issues and events that occur in other parts of the world? If so, where do students acquire information about global issues? This essay examines the experience of two groups of students enrolled in introductory Western Civilization courses at the State University of New York College at Farmingdale1. SUNY College Farmingdale is a comprehensive college of applied science and technology where the majority of students are commuters working full-time jobs. This project examined how our students find out about issues such as international terrorism, science, and technology (all issues that are current in the news and which have international ramifications), where they learn about these issues, and how seriously they regard international affairs.

Two different groups of students, in two different introductory history classes, were given an assignment. Students in introductory Western Civilization classes were chosen because they represented a cross section of the college by student age and gender2. Western Civilization classes presented the best opportunity to further this study since the course content has a substantial international component. Group one was assigned their topics; group two could choose "any issue" they thought important in the news. Students in group one were asked to find and report about a news article on any two of the following topics: climate change, global warming, international terrorism, or nuclear proliferation. Students in group two were asked to find and report on any news event they thought important to them in their daily lives. Students had to show not only how and where they found the articles, but that they had in fact read them. Then, students were asked to summarize the article and to describe who wrote the article and why. In their essays, students were asked to identify where they usually learn about the news and other global topics, and where they found the articles they chose. Lastly, students were asked to evaluate the issue: how important was the particular issue for them? Where would they recommend a fellow student go to find more information on these issues3?

The students in group one, assigned topics by the instructor, overwhelmingly used the Internet to find their information (87.5%). 75% of these students found information on the New York Times Web site. 18.75% cited a scientific journal or magazine, and another 18.75% cited their local newspaper or Web site as a source of information4. Only 12.5% of these students used a printed news medium. Not surprisingly it is clear that most students use the Internet to get their news. The most interesting result to come out of group one is the significant amount of students who chose the New York Times or NYTimes.com as a source, since most of our students are not regular New York Times readers.

The results of the students in group two, those students choosing any article, varied slightly. When allowed to choose any issue they thought important in the news, the majority of students used the Internet, but only a small number used the New York Times. Surprisingly, several students found information on the Huffington Post Web site which is not a local news medium. The majority of students in this group still used the Internet as their source of information (61.5%), but here only 19.2% used the New York Times or the NYTimes.com Web site. Students cited "Yahoo! News" as a popular news source on the Internet. When students were asked to find issues that they felt impacted their lives directly, 84.6% consulted their local news media. In group two, only 3.8% of students used a printed news source. It can be argued, therefore, that our students get the bulk of their information regarding community as well as international events from the Internet. Clearly, the printed newspaper is becoming a thing of the past. Some students cited television programs as a source for their news. Students mentioned "The Daily Show" with John Stewart and "The Colbert Report" as "less biased" than the major network news broadcasts.

The results also demonstrate that the New York Times may not be the "newspaper of record," at least for our students. When students were required to investigate issues of science and technology, climate change or terrorism, the New York Times appears as a major source of information. However, when students were allowed to search for any article they felt relevant to them, students overwhelmingly consulted local media. This might suggest that the New York Times covers science and technology and global issues better than local media, or the New York Times is better able to position itself on the Internet than other media. One of the more disturbing results of this research is that of the students in group two, only 23% chose articles related to global issues such as terrorism and climate change. The students in the survey seemed unlikely to research international issues unless specifically assigned to do so.

So if our students are not interested in science, technology, terrorism or the environment, issues in which the rest of the world seems very interested, what issues are of most concern to our students? Most students in group two (46.1%) chose articles on the economy or employment issues. 30.7% of students in the same group chose articles on the Rutgers University student suicide5 or issues related to hate crimes, sexual choice, and privacy. The economy and the Rutgers story were the two biggest stories in the press at the time of the assignment. In group two, only 7% of students chose an article on the November elections; another 7% chose articles on the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

At first it appears that, to many of our students, the rest of the world does not seem to matter. On the economy, students seemed to be preoccupied with employment and unemployment issues. Many of our students are dependent on their employment to continue with their education, so their concern about jobs is understandable6. Students in the survey did not link the US economic recession to a broader global economic downturn. Most students viewed the Rutgers suicide story as one of personal sexual and civil rights, or as an episode of bullying on college campuses. Surprisingly, students did not recognize the issue as a legal or criminal issue: the increasing misuse of technology (by private citizens and the possibility of government agencies) to spy on people and expose their private lives.

The good news is that, when required to engage important international issues in the classroom through discussion, students were able to make the important connections to their lives. For example, one student was unaware that global warming and climate change were issues of concern for developing nations. The student assumed that climate change caused environmental problems only for the developed world. From reading on the issue, the student was able to see that changes in the environment, combined with a lack of proper medicine and technology, contribute to the spread of disease and infection in the underdeveloped world that could spread to other parts of the globe7. Other students, studying the issue of nuclear power, examined whether or not nuclear power could be a cleaner alternative to the use of fossil fuels and a possible solution to the rise in green house gasses. Still other students examined the idea of "going green" in light of possible economic and job costs8. These are all issues and questions being vigorously debated in other parts of the world. So, if our students are compelled to think about global issues as a regular part of their course of study, they can make the important connections and observations to their lives, make decisions about solutions to these issues, and therefore become more civically engaged citizens.

Therefore, the problem is not where students obtain their information, nor is it fair to say that students are unconcerned with global affairs. This exercise demonstrated that students are capable of finding the information and engaging the material if required as part of their course work. These students get their information about global events from the Internet or the television, if at all. Many of our students, working full time while also attending school full time, simply do not have the time to study international news issues sufficiently outside of the classroom. This is why students seem more interested in local issues, and less concerned with international affairs. This would also explain why students in group two largely consulted local papers and Web sites (media that students would expect to pay more attention to local issues) even when they had the whole wide world (Web) before them.

Instructors, particularly in the social sciences, must continue to expose students to broader international issues that students will not seek out on their own by incorporating these issues into the course curriculum. Instructors should be encouraged to develop a "Current International Events" module into all courses clearly connecting international events to local issues, students' personal experiences, and the class content. Further, instructors must use the Internet to introduce these topics to their students since students overwhelming consult that type of media to get their information about the community and world around them. Even better would be to get students to travel and learn about the rest of the world firsthand. In this regard, instructors could encourage students to participate in international student exchanges and study abroad programs on campus. In short, instructors can engage students in the community and the world if we can convince students that, to coin a phrase, "all global politics is local."

1SUNY Farmingdale is a college of applied science and technology located approximately 30 miles from New York City on Long Island. 75-80% of our students are local students. The majority of our students are commuter students that also work full-time.

2Each class section had at least 40 students enrolled; therefore a total of 80 students participated in the survey.

3While all students were given extra credit for the assignment and the answers they supplied, the real intention of the exercise was to discover if students are interested in global affairs and where students actually learn about important international events.

4In this case, the local newspaper is Newsday, which is Long Island's only local newspaper.

5"Rutgers Student Believed To Have Committed Suicide After Classmates Allegedly Recorded Him In Gay Sexual Encounter." The Huffington Post, by Danielle Wiener-Bronner First Posted: 09-29-10.

6This is especially true for our older students, many of whom have returned to college study to change careers or prepare for new employment after a job loss.

7Students also made the connection of how issues in the underdeveloped world had the potential to affect the developed world in an economic way. In this particular case the student chose: "Third World bears brunt of global warming impacts" by Paroma Basu. University of Wisconsin-Madison News. November 16, 2005. http://www.news.wisc.edu/11878

8In this case students came across articles about the "next generation" of nuclear reactors and the latest safety standards in the industry. For example, "The New Nukes" in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ.com), by Deborah Smith, September 8, 2009

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