Teaching Global Issues: Bringing the World into the Writing Class

Rita Nezami

As Mohamed Bouazizi’s charred body lay in a hospital bed in Tunisia, I walked into the writing classroom in January 2011 and asked my students what they thought about the young Tunisian’s self-immolation. They looked at me with blank, bewildered eyes. I could see they had no idea what I was talking about. A month later, as thousands of Egyptians gathered on the Tahrir Square in Cairo, I asked those same students what they thought about the Egyptian protests and the Arab Spring. Again, those blank eyes stared at me. This time, I was bewildered.

It was then that I decided to encourage my students to learn about issues that are not strictly related to the United States. I decided to have students do research on current global events and write papers to critically analyze concerns that affect different countries, regions, and peoples. As a result, students in my class this time around know that Jordan has the world’s second-largest refugee camp in the world after Kenya, that Belgium just legalized euthanasia for certain children in extraordinary pain associated with terminal illnesses, what effect global warming has on different countries and species, how outsourcing exploits millions in India and Bangladesh, how Bouazizi’s self-immolation helped spark the Arab Spring. 

I’m perhaps not alone in finding an alarming number of students unaware of and unengaged by significant international developments, i.e., those that are likely to be widely covered in the worldwide, mainstream press. This witting or unwitting inattention or lack of interest among students is especially ironic given the cultural diversity in our classrooms. It seems counterintuitive that we should have to urge students who are as likely from the Ukraine and China as they are from Turkey, Iran, or Uruguay, to become more deeply informed about transnational and transcontinental news and trends. In fact, it seems that there’s little correlation between students’ demographics and the attention they give to some of the planet’s highest-profile debates and shared challenges.

For reasons we don’t fully understand, students severely limit their attention to matters that lie outside their immediate sphere of concern. This isn’t new. The same was said of students in 1958. However, there’s something different now: Access is easier and pervasive. Digital, networked access puts the world and its complexities and the most recent developments – or even real-time access through news blogs and other social media – in their pockets. The problem is choice: Why do students use the tools of unprecedented connection with the last hour’s developments anywhere in the world, yet most use these technologies to build personally customized cocoons that keep the world out. Are kids (and adults) naturally egocentric and parochial? Ask an adult in Georgia about the economic crisis in Detroit and listen to the answer. Perhaps they don’t care or know about anything that’s not in front of them. Yet, it’s important to compare how closely a Ukrainian student keeps tabs on news about her country now than, say, a month ago. 

It’s a transcultural isolation that – again, ironically – is strengthened by the personal networked digital technologies – the availability of which is often a function of class – that could so easily, in fact, make our students the most deeply informed population of students in history. Instead, those technologies often help, not just students but the larger culture, build their cloistered corner of the world. The urgent question becomes how our undergraduate writing classrooms can help students recognize the costs of their isolation from issues and debates that will shape their lives and how we can help them acquire the tools to question whether they live in self-imposed attention bubbles. How can we make it “cool” to be a global citizen whose scope of awareness, knowledge, and interest is the world?

When students do consider contemporary news and events as subjects for argumentative research papers, they tend to focus on U.S. issues. Such an exclusive American orientation, even among non-American students, narrows the scope of their intellectual worlds. Why should they care about the geography of their “intellectual worlds”? Because we live in a world that is more and more globalized. We have to remain connected with the rest of the world to obtain access to international information, conduct business deals, or simply Skype family and friends who live on another continent. Many of our students are satisfied with a horizon that they define by the very limited content that they choose and filter by using their mobile devices and social-media accounts.. As teachers, it is perhaps our task to convey the advantages and promote open-mindedness and curiosity about the rest of the world.

We teach composition and rhetoric, not social science or contemporary international politics, but writing and thinking don’t occur in a vacuum: Our students must know something about their world to competently write about it. If they don’t understand how the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon inspired protests elsewhere, if they don’t understand what caused the Arab world to rise against the dictators, if they don’t know how global warming affects other nations, and if they don’t realize that outsourcing has throttled American and European unemployment and endangered the lives of low-wage workers in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, then they are likely to have difficulties operating as global citizens in an interconnected, interdependent world where causes and effects are harder than ever to discern.

Ignorance is not bliss; it is dangerous. I suggest that part of the ethical aspects of our work is to give students reason to pause and ask whether some things have intrinsic, if not immediate, value. That they may find a moral obligation to know what other people are going through so that their compassion, and maybe their political action, can extend beyond themselves but to families driven into cardboard wind breaks on the wintry plains of Jordan trying to escape the sausage grinder of the Syrian civil war. Or to the little Bangladeshi boy who delights in swimming in a pond rendered a toxic cocktail by factories making clothes for Target.

By framing writing and research as intellectually seductive and ethical processes, those faces peering back at us, their heads gone blank from overwhelming family and academic disasters, worries about grades, tests and paying tuition, may opt to find room in their days, maybe even in their consciences, to plug into the world occasionally and try to answer what the French writer Simone Weil said is the most important question of all: “What have you suffered?”

Here are some global issues that may especially engage students:

  • Arab Spring and its evolution into Arab Winter (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya et al. Causes and consequences, from hope to despair)
  • Syrian civil war (Geneva negotiations, plurality of opposition groups, Russia’s support for Assad, humanitarian crisis, civilian deaths, refugee camps)
  • Israeli-Palestinian conflict (stagnation of peace process, settlements, status of Jerusalem, Israeli violence in Gaza)
  • Contemporary genocide (Bangladesh, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, Darfur, Northern Iraq; definition of genocide, responses of international community)
  • Climate change/global warming (support and resistance to claim of climate change, causes, most-affected countries/regions, endangered species, agricultural implications, changing weather patterns, disruption of traditional trade patterns, differential political affects, poverty, disease)
  • Outsourcing (corporate exploitation of low-wage labor; shift of low-order tasks; poor and dangerous working conditions, pollutions, health hazards, invisibility to end consumers who demand low prices, quality control, rural to urban migration)
  • Child labor (enforcement of existing international treaties, economic incentives of, relationship to globalization and Western hypercapitalism)
  • Fuel supply and price volatility (prices and supply as political leverage; correlation with political stability; significance for financial markets’ stability; relationship to geopolitical alliances with fuel exporters and toleration of human-rights abuses)
  • Crisis fatigue (paralysis in face of surfeit of emergencies and outrages, knowledge of which is made possible by digitally delivered 24/7 news cycle; irony of co-existing crisis fatigue and crisis apathy in different populations)
  • European economic crisis (definition of; causes of; attempted and proposed solutions; implications for the welfare-state’s viability; implications for trade and investment with nations in crisis; crisis and political stability; instability as weapon; relationship to shifts in global economic superpower realignment)
  • Ukraine (causes of instability; implications for the EU; similarities/differences with Chechnya? First post-Cold War Russian-American confrontation; what’s at stake for Russia (e.g., Black Sea fleet); implications for formal/informal relationships between Russia and former constituent states, i.e., precedent for resistance in Chechnya, et al.?)
  • Child labor (cause for international posturing? Enforcement of international treaties? Economic advantages of; relationship to globalization)
  • Cross-cultural attitudes toward the hijab, burka, and other group-identifying clothing cues
  • Deforestation (as a kind of environmental, rather than outright political, colonialism?)
  • Corruption (government, corporate and civil corruption)
  • Trans-cultural proliferation and consequences of American fast food
  • Illegal immigration (racism, danger of border crossing, vulnerability, low social status, unemployment, exploitation, lack of access to health care and other social services, fear of deportation)
  • Police violence (cultural differences in identity and function of “police”; boundary between appropriate use of force and “violence”; enforcement of laws against)
  • Pan-global organizations’ effectiveness (UN, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, et al.)
  • Capital punishment (ethical objections, racial bias, errors, inconsistent sentencing, cultural differences in crimes considered punishable by death, debate about deterrence)
  • Discrimination (racial, gender, abled/differently abled, class, geographic, ideological, religious, ethnic; individual, group, state responses to; use as an internal/external weapon)
  • Terrorism (“one man’s terrorist is another man’s martyr”; definition of; responses to; purposes of; effectiveness of, backlashes from; effects on political stability; philosophical/theological; political/justification/condemnation; objective distinctions between “terrorist,” “freedom fighter,” “murderer,” “patriot”? Implications for victim’s states’ foreign policy?)
  • Hunger (its causes, attempts to alleviate, political effect of, as weapon)
  • Digital-and-networked technology dependence (implications of infrastructure vulnerability; as a weapon and field of battle; interpersonal relationships, e.g., text or hug? Implications of rhetoric of texting and tweeting for conventional conversation; implications for attention spans and community involvement; privacy and surveillance; redefinition of “community”? Devices as modes of connection or places to hide?)
  • Natural disasters (economic effects of, responses as political theatre, attention fatigue)
  • Legacies of colonialism/new forms of colonialism aided by economic and digital globalization
  • E-waste (Who does the dumping and who gets dumped on? What are the environmental and health costs? What is the relationship to political and economic power, i.e., where the dumping occurs; efforts to curtail e-waste; effectiveness? Compliance?)
  • Dictatorship and state-sponsored brutality (responsibility of international community, trade sanctions, UN resolutions, boycotts)
  • Illiteracy (conventional, digital, cultural, political, economic)
  • LGBT issues (discrimination/cultural acceptance and resistance, political power of the LGBT community)
  • Reproductive rights (debate over pro-choice/pro-life; role of government in regulating women’s bodies; religious opposition; rape victims; teen pregnancy; debate about when life begins)
  • Violence (as represented in digital and conventional media; definition of/cultural understanding and acceptance of, economic leverage of, cultural valorization of violence in construction of masculinity; domestic violence).

The sources that researchers have at their fingertips are vast. Please note that “globalization” is just one of the many global issues. We may need to make students aware of this distinction.

Here is a preliminary list of resources, any of which may be good starting places for students curious about choosing a global issue to research and actually accessing substantive background:

The New York Times: Abundant coverage of breaking news and amazingly in-depth reports about the entire range of international subjects.

The BBC World Service: Like the New York Times‘ international coverage, the BBC offers both news of the moment, but, more importantly for our students, online multimedia packages of research and the views of experts from all sides of international controversies.

The Council on Foreign Relations: Publishers of the august journal, Foreign Affairs, the CFR’s in-depth research resources.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization: NATO’s e-library is remarkable for its breadth and depth of resources.

The Congressional Research Service: If you’ve never taken a peek at the output of Congress’ own, huge research resources, this may take your breath.

The Economist is also a valuable research source.


I would like to acknowledge Jeffrey Green’s contributions in writing this piece.

3 thoughts on “Teaching Global Issues: Bringing the World into the Writing Class

  1. Rita, Thank you very much for writing this post–and I don’t say that for formality. I think that more and more writing teachers should discuss this issue. We should foster an awareness about the broader world (including at the national level) among our students.

    We use something for reading and we ask students to write about something anyway; and there are a LOT of benefits to making global issues that something to read and write about.

    Besides the needs and benefits of introducing global issues and/or perspectives into writing courses that you highlight here, there also less direct but significant benefits. For instance, as Gene highlighted during the program meeting at the beginning of last semester, fostering global and multiple perspectives can help us engage students in important local issues that are conventionally treated superficially, avoided, or misunderstood.

    In the past few years, the Association of American Colleges and Universities has been consistently showing (through conferences, publication, and even research) that cultivating the sense of global citizenship is, or should be, a part of “liberal education” in our time. We are not officially a part of AACU, and that may be why I haven’t heard about the subject on our campus or in the system; however, there are related initiatives and discourse communities that we could learn from (or even join).

    Our own field of teaching writing has a certain amount of resources/interest on the subject; in a post that I wrote on my personal blog last summer, I tried to highlight some of what I found on the subject in our field (as well as beyond it).

    I’m looking forward to more conversation on this subject. Thanks also for sharing a big packet of useful resources. -Shyam

  2. This is a very valuable perspective and list. One thing that crossed my mind: the dependency on digital and networked technologies is an excellent point because those are global issues, to be sure, but we should be quick to point out that technology is not only a problem or a trouble, but a solution and an opportunity. For example, tweeting has saved quite a few lives during natural and man-made disasters. Global issues are certainly changing the face of societies across the planet, and dealing with this change is the work that our students face. I like how you point out that issues which have become commonplace in the composition classroom, such as arguments about capital punishment, are issues of global concern, not just domestic, and a perspective on how these issues affect other localities makes research new, fresh, and relevant for study.

  3. Two big new points I’m taking away from Cynthia’s response. First: “For example, tweeting has saved quite a few lives during natural and man-made disasters.” A lot of times, people just think about Twitter and tweeting (and those who are critical also think about the worst uses of the application, such as people tweeting what food they just spilled on the countertop); they should think about what “use” they could put tweeting to. Networking and building communities, sharing ideas and developing professionally, engaging students, learning about and even affecting world events, etc, etc. That’s a great point– it made me think.

    Second: “Global issues are certainly changing the face of societies across the planet, and dealing with this change is the work that our students face.” Absolutely. Global issues are not a new or fancy or elitist concerns. If we think about them, they affect us all the time. Our students can live a lot more successful and meaningful lives (socially and professionally) if they are informed, if they can adopt multiple perspectives, if they can see the big pictures. Very important points–

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