Out of the Classroom, Into the Fire

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Spring semester was just beginning, and Cara Manket was looking for a class. If possible, she wanted something relevant to her major in political science, or her minor in gender studies.  If you’d have asked her whether she’d consider a course in public health that culminated in Africa, the junior probably would have smiled gently and offered to call mental-health services on your behalf.

Then she walked into a seminar led by Marjorie Margolies CW’63.

Margolies is a former television journalist who went on to serve a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, in 1993 and 1994. Several years after losing her seat, she founded Women’s Campaign International, a nonprofit organization that provides advocacy training for women in countries ranging from Azerbaijan to Uruguay [“Gazetteer,” July|August 2005].  She is also a senior lecturer at the Fels Institute of Government, where Cara Manket turned up on a Tuesday evening after reading what sounded like the ideal class description.

“It was in the course handbook as something like Women Leaders and Emerging Democracies, which sounded perfect to me,” Manket recalls. “And I had a friend who had taken a different class with Marjorie and loved her. But I go in the first day and she says, ‘This class is about malaria and Malawi, and if you’re not into that, you can just leave.’ I didn’t know exactly what was going on.”

Margolies laid it out for her and the other two dozen students who had turned up. The seminar would be a group endeavor on both sides of the pedagogical divide. Margolies would be bringing in guest lecturers whose specialties ranged from infectious disease to food security to philanthropy. Students who chose to stay in the class would be charged with producing a five-year plan for combating malaria in Malawi, to be delivered “for potential implementation” to the country’s minister of health in Lilongwe, the capital, after semester’s end.

This class was just one part of an experiment launched by Provost Ron Daniels in 2006. The Ideas in Action program, as it’s called, invites undergraduates to conduct research under the supervision of a Penn faculty member on a project initiated by a public official or policymaker from outside the University. In three years the provost’s office has teamed up with the Fels Institute to support 14 classes, issuing $5,000 grants to defray the cost of bringing each policymaker to campus.

The seminars have varied widely. Julie Sochalski, an associate professor in the School of Nursing, teamed up with Rosemarie Greco of Pennsylvania’s state Office of Health Care Reform, who enlisted the students to design a plan to extend cost-effective health coverage to all Pennsylvanians. Political science professor John DiIulio C’80 G’80 teamed up with a variety of policymakers to lead a class that produced “strategic action plans” on crime, education, and job-creation for Philadelphia’s new mayor, Michael Nutter W’79. Ruth Cowan, the Bers Professor of the History and Sociology of Science, linked up with U.S. Representative Joe Sestak, who charged her students with crafting a policy briefing on the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which was then making its way through the House and Senate in slightly different versions.

Cara Manket stuck it out after that first uncertain day, and ended up spending a week in Malawi at the end of May along with the three other classmates who could make the trip. Marjorie Ngaunje, the recently unseated Malawian legislator and minister of health, met them in Lilongwe, where the students sat in on a parliamentary debate and participated in roundtable discussions with the U.S. ambassador, USAID officials, and other policymakers and diplomats.

“It’s had a huge impact on my academic and career pursuits,” Manket says. “I’ve applied to be an intern with Women’s Campaign International next year, and I plan on staying very involved with the organization. And it has really gotten me interested even more than I was in international affairs and public health … Whether it be through the World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation—those are places I’ll be looking at for jobs. That’s a route I wouldn’t have taken if not for this class.”

Shawn Wang, a freshman in the Huntsman Program in International Studies & Business who grew up in Singapore, echoes that thought. “I went into it thinking it would be a one-off, just to fill a requirement, but even on the first day I had to change my mind.” He says going to Malawi opened his eyes to some weaknesses in the communication strategies he and several classmates had devised for their part of the project.

“Just to give one example, we focused a lot on billboards,” he says. “Billboards are a very American concept, actually. You go there, and yeah, there are billboards. But they’re all in the city. And who drives? That’s the first thing. Second thing: Who reads? There are very fundamental assumptions that you just don’t get when you’re in the classroom. One of the key takeaways I got from the course is that if you want something to get across, you really have to encode it in the local culture, the local context.

“After this course,” he adds, “I’ve seen that it doesn’t have to be just classrooms and textbooks. And it doesn’t have to be a kind of superficial involvement with the subjects that you study. I suppose people in the nursing school get the sense of this, but for everyone else, you don’t really see who you’re studying—or you don’t really have an idea of the complexities of problems you’re facing—until you’re actually going in depth.”

Ruth Cowan’s experience partnering with Representative Sestak for a 2007 Ideas in Action seminar focusing on the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act is emblematic of how intense these classes have been for students and professors alike. She calls it “a pedagogical challenge unlike any that I had confronted in my 40 years of teaching.”

“Basically,” she says, “there were some students who knew a little bit about medical genetics, but not enough to understand what the issues were. There were no students in the class—and in fact I might even have to include myself—who knew about health-insurance law, and there were no students who knew anything about employment-discrimination law. So we had a lot of background to get under our belt.”

As she started preparing her lectures over the summer, Cowan realized that her students could just as profitably mine that background material themselves, splitting up into teams and presenting their findings to the class. But unlike most group projects, these would have to dovetail together toward the same end goal, which left scant room for mistakes. If one student made a hash of his assignment, the entire class risked embarrassment if that section made it to the congressman uncorrected.

“It was very exciting, and very nerve-wracking,” Cowan remembers. “Because if they failed, I was going to have to backtrack and redo it for them.”

Some students found it difficult to face the editorial feedback and “polite criticism” Cowan had to dish out. “Nobody had ever told them before, in some cases, either that they were wrong, or that were was no way an uninformed student was going to make sense of what they’d written. It was a bit of a shock to some of the students. Others got it as a valuable pedagogical lesson fairly early on. They recognized that they’d never had to do anything like this before, and that chances were that they were going to have to do it regularly in the rest of their lives.”

For Daniels, that’s part of the whole point. “It’s giving students a sense of the power of ideas—and how hard really good applied policy-research is to do,” the provost says. “It has to on one hand be rigorous, methodologically and normatively, but at the same time it has to be accessible to a decision-maker, and take account of not just the challenges of policy, but of politics.”

Ideally, the students aren’t the only ones getting something out of it, Daniels adds. “It’s a unique marriage—one that serves the University well, but also contributes in a really tangible way to a problem that a public decision-maker is seeking to address.”

That was partly what Sestak, a freshman congressman getting up to speed on a big issue, was after. “I thought it would be of great benefit to see what an outside group, that had time to look at it in an agnostic way, without blinders on, would come up with.”

What they produced wasn’t perfect, but it was substantive and valuable, he says.

Yet to hear Cowan tell it, the distance their report fell short of perfection was felt keenly—even painfully—by her students when Sestak zeroed in on its weaknesses during their last meeting.

“The mood in the room was sweaty,” she says. “That’s the best way I can describe it. I don’t think all of the students were appalled, but there was one who had authored one of the problematic parts, and the congressman just kept hammering at him, and he couldn’t answer the questions. And you’ve been in a class when that’s happened. The student gets upset, and then the other students get upset for him.”

Sestak remembers it a little differently—perhaps because the business of crafting legislation isn’t built on sensitivity to anyone’s self-esteem.

“I don’t remember there being criticism,” he says. “I walked them through and said, ‘You’ve made this assertion; how would you back that up?’ I think that the key to learning is to make sure you have a healthy critique. Recognizing that they did due diligence—in fact they did outstanding work on it—but I wanted them to know that I needed additional information to help me go down and battle this out. So in a sense, I treated them there as though they were not in a classroom any longer, but as though they were my staff.”

In Cowan’s view, that paid off—not least for the student who’d endured the third degree. “The young man was able to overcome it,” Cowan says. “He actively participated in the revision, which was a wonderful thing—for him and for me.”

That revision, it’s worth emphasizing, occurred after the semester was over and grades were already in. How often does that happen?

“Not terribly often,” says Cowan. “Which was another indication that this was a class unlike most others.”

Margolies concurs with Cowan that teaching an Ideas in Action course is not for the faint-hearted, but maintains that the payoff is big.

“You can teach an academic course and the students can get a huge amount out of it, but there’s nothing that takes the place of this kind of experience.” The trip to Malawi, Margolies adds, “was the thing that took the lens and made it crystal-clear. At least it did for me—and I was surprised, because I thought, I know everything.”

Now that the experiment has run its course, Daniels says his office is evaluating the Ideas in Action program to determine whether—and where—it will get a permanent home within the University.

“These courses are enormously exhilarating,” he says. “They’re also enormously taxing on the faculty members and decision-makers who collaborate with us. That’s why you don’t see a lot of repeat offerings of the courses—and that’s to be expected. You want to take a moment, a public-policy issue, and address that through this program, and then imagine that the year following, as that issue recedes, another one, involving another collaboration, comes to the fore.”

It’s a lot for any professor to take on, and not every faculty member who’s been through the wringer is jumping to do it again, but John DiIulio has gone back for seconds, and Ruth Cowan says she’d do another one in a heartbeat.

“It was enormously stimulating intellectually and pedagogically,” she says, putting it simply. “I’ve been teaching for 40 years, so stimulation’s at a premium.”


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