Greetings from Geneva Switzerland, where I am presenting at the 18th International Humanitarian Conference, an annual event put on by my colleagues at our Geneva campus, this year on Access to Health. I had the chance to put one of our favorite topics, teaching failure, into practice while here.
The opening night of the conference, which is aimed at students and the community, includes a roundtable conversation on campus with Webster students on a human rights topic, usually linked to the year’s chosen theme by our Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies. This year the topic was statelessness, and I was asked to be on the panel.
The students–a mix of undergraduate and masters-level graduate students–are encouraged to participate, but in years past have usually just sat back and let the faculty talk. This year looked to be much of the same–the chair asked a number of good questions, but for whatever reason–potentially including the presence of unfamiliar faculty–they were unwilling to do so. I asked for the mic, then, and encouraged them to fail–to ‘dare to be wrong’, as I put it, but that joining the conversation was worthwhile, that this was a safe space to do so, and that learning only comes through being willing to fail.
I don’t know if it was my encouragement that got them talking*, but there was a fairly spirited discussion after that about issues of statelessness, identity, and nationality. I like to think that it helped. It also may have helped that the faculty disagreed with each other, showing the students that there is no single ‘truth’ to find. What I can say for sure is that a roundtable with lots of student participation is light-years better than one where the faculty completely dominate the discussion.
*Edited to Add: I spoke with a couple of the students today and they said that my comments did really help them get over their insecurity about speaking. So there’s some anecdotal data, for what it is worth.