30 August 2012

Beyond Pandering and Talking Down to People

Ed Carr was struck by the fact that his students did not know about the famine in the Horn of Africa that took place last year. He followed up with a conversation in his next class and blogged what he learned.
Students (or at least some students) don’t need to be spoken down to – they can handle hearing that a crisis has complex causes, that it is often difficult to identify anyone who is to blame. In short, they are looking for the opposite of the FWD campaign, which shied away from the really complex, big causes of the Horn crisis. Complexity, unto itself, will not scare students off. Instead, if you can get people to give clear, concise, interesting reviews of the complex causes of the crisis, this group of people will get more engaged. Think about it – not everyone is into Africa, or into food security, or into relief work. So when we yell “African famine!”, we are yelling to a small but dedicated fanbase. If, however, we unpack the causes of the Horn crisis, we find out that we have to address climate change/climate science, global markets, the politics of failed states, the regional geopolitics of East Africa, the workings of the US Government, the international politics of aid, etc., etc. In short, when we engage complexity, we find there is something that can draw in almost anyone on their terms. After the conversation with the students today, it seems really clear to me that they would like to be engaged in this manner – stop treating them like apathetic idiots who just don’t/won’t understand.
I tend to believe Ed is right on this point. The beauty of new media and social media are that they can present information and stories in varied ways that can capture different audiences. My personal hope is to find ways to put them to better use and come across others who are doing it already.