Monday, March 24, 2014

Consumer Pressure

Please see below, or visit the website for the Oklahoma Science Teachers Association, for information about the upcoming Second Annual Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip!

Like most college instructors, I wish to give my students an experience that will make a real difference in their lives. Sometimes it is as simple as getting them to take a close look at the world around them, which they may never have done before. Once they have done it, the first step has been taken and they might continue the habit. Well, maybe half of them will.

But I think it is important for us to also participate in some form of activism. While I admire the work of Bill McKibben and,  I have all kinds of excuses why I do not personally undertake such activities. But it occurred to me that there might be something else I could do, which I have a specific ability to do, and which not everyone else has.

I teach classes. And I want my students to become activists on some issues. And students want extra credit. And voilĂ , the perfect fit: have the students write letters.

I have to choose the issues carefully, so that they are related to my field (biology) and are not partisan. But there are plenty of such issues. I decided to start with something that is pretty straightforward: tobacco.  Nobody takes the position that “tobacco is a blessing to the world.” Well, I think, anyway. I realized that I could get students to write letters to tobacco corporations, expressing their disapproval (or horror, if they prefer) at what the tobacco corporations are doing, and their refusal to purchase products or invest in the corporations responsible for them.

This is not as easy as it might sound. A student might have no idea what to write, and almost certainly not how or to whom. So I did this work for them. I drafted a model letter (but I will require students to use some of their own words and insert their own feelings and experiences). I tracked down the contacts to which they could send physical letters or emails. This is not always easy. Some corporations very effectively insulate themselves from the public. Some of the tobacco corporation websites cannot be entered by anyone under 21 years of age, which covers most of my students. If nothing else, there may be media representative emails to which the students can write. The media reps do not want to be bombarded by activist emails, but, tough beans. If they get a lot of emails, maybe they will report this fact to management that is above them. If they don’t want emails, they shouldn’t put their email addresses on the website. I also encouraged students to direct their comments to the CEO, whose name I provided, for each of four major tobacco corporations. (This is down from seven in 1994 when the “seven dwarves” presented perjured testimony to Henry Waxman’s committee in the House.) I also provided the brand names marketed by each company.

This may seem to be a futile exercise. But if this idea spreads beyond my classroom, and if it is maintained over the years, it might make a difference. These comments may never be read—certainly not by the CEO—but they may be counted.

Once a student has written these letters, it will never be as difficult again to write an activist letter.

I had to think carefully about possible legal difficulties, and specifically mention them in the document I posted for my students. And I posted a PDF file rather than an alterable Word file. And I made this an extra credit activity rather than a requirement, for now.

And I hope you, my readers, may join in. And if you have students, get them involved also. You may access the PDF file at my website; the specific URL is here.

Let’s get our students over the activation energy that is preventing them from becoming participants in our economy and society, based on the things they are learning in our classes.

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