Learning in real time

Bradley professors often use worldwide events, such as the global Occupy movement, top, and the Arab Spring in the Middle East, above, to make class material more relevant to students.

It is a revolutionary time in the world. Ask Dr. John Williams, associate professor of history. While flipping through slides of revolutionary years in one of his classes, 2011 now joins the likes of 1775 and 1848.

“We went over what happened throughout the years and when there were major revolutions. I added 2011 and showed them images from the global Occupy movement and the Arab Spring,” Williams says. “We can compare and contrast current events with previous revolutionary years. I think it’s a good way to teach students about the past and make them more aware of the present.”

Relating past to present is a common practice at Bradley. Dr. Williams’ classes discuss the Tea Party movement, present-day civil rights issues, such as same-sex marriage, and how they compare and contrast with historical events, including the civil rights, anti-war, and student protest movements since World War II.

“In the process of loosening up as a teacher, I have learned to do more of this,” says Williams, who has taught at Bradley for nearly 15 years. “Students who never discuss otherwise start discussing when I bring in current events, and that shows me they are interested and that my ultimate goal — increasing engagement with the class material — is being reached.

“I hope they take away a more open mind than they bring in. That’s one of the key purposes of a college education. Obviously, I hope they also take away knowledge, but more importantly, I hope they take away skills on how to attain knowledge themselves and how to have analytical discussions and debates.”

Dr. Williams’ colleague, Dr. Rustin Gates, assistant professor of history, says it’s sometimes difficult for students to draw connections between their own lives and the material he covers in his four classes on Asian history. An event such as the earthquake near Sendai, Japan, in March 2011, is a recent event students followed on the news.

“It provided a real-world example of what happens when disasters hit,” Gates says. “By learning about this earthquake and past ones, the class can try to determine how Japan will be affected by the next one and how the country will deal with it, whenever that happens.”

Gates, who lived in Japan for five years and has taught at Bradley for five, has drawn more general comparisons, such as Japanese landlords circa 1920 and students’ current relationships with landlords near Bradley’s campus.

“Students may pick and choose what resonates with them, but even if there are only a few times they can relate, it makes for a better class, better exams, better grades, and overall, just a better learning experience.”

Dr. Larry Aspin, chair of the Department of Political Science, teaches five classes, including current topics ranging from terrorism, to cyber security, to elections.

“All of my courses touch on what’s going on in the world right now,” says Aspin, who has taught at Bradley for nearly 30 years. “It’s not possible to teach political science without bringing current events into the classroom. Our students are interested in what’s going on in the world around them, so they are paying attention. You can kick off a discussion about the current election very easily because they are not just knowledgeable about the topics, they are also participating in them through internships.”

Students in Dr. Aspin’s classes often are required to answer a final exam question asking them to predict the future based on the past and the present. “Current events are not treated in isolation, but rather placed within historical trends and theoretical frameworks which can be utilized to anticipate future current events.”