Instructors use a variety of methods to deliver content to undergraduate students, including those that foster critical thinking. Although traditional methods like lectures, assigned videos, and exercises from textbooks can be valuable, facilitating engagement and interaction is typically a more effective strategy for student learning.
To enable this type of pedagogy, I often present field-relevant scenarios that involve multiple dilemmas to my students. Then I ask them to actively solve these problems, and propose viable solutions, through group based role-playing exercises.
What do I mean by scenario based pedagogy and problem solving?
One of my go to scenarios that I use in one of my undergraduate criminal justice classes is what I call “The shopkeeper’s dilemma.”
I ask my students to imagine a shopkeeper, akin to a Seven-Eleven or bodega owner, situated in a relatively large city such as Baltimore, Toronto, London, Paris, etc. The store faces a recurring challenge where homeless individuals, many grappling with mental illness and polydrug use, regularly shoplift small food items. While the monetary value of the stolen items is relatively low, (nonetheless leading to a loss in profits), dealing with these people has become a persistent nuisance. Despite displaying signs warning of prosecution and the presence of CCTV cameras, the shopkeeper’s attempts—whether verbally warning or attempting to ban these individuals from the store—prove ineffective as they keep returning.
Understandably, there are no simple solutions to this scenario. And the implications extend beyond the shopkeeper; if the shopkeeper opts to contact the police, a chain reaction of events and involvement by various criminal justice practitioners ensues. This is when things can become not just complicated but interesting too.
I challenge my students to consider not only how the shopkeeper might respond to the scenario, but also how other criminal justice practitioners (e.g., law enforcement, including a police dispatcher, a prosecutor, public defender, and even a judge), could react. Would other members of the criminal justice system become involved, why, and how might they respond? The participation of each of these men and women, and their respective actions carries numerous implications. I also ask my students to apply whatever they have learned to date in the class (via lectures, and reading materials) to this scenario.
I typically divide the class into four or five groups. I assign each group one specific role (i.e., shopkeeper, police officer, prosecutor, bystander, judge, etc.), and ask them to choose a spokesperson.
The spokesperson is tasked with assembling the group’s answers, and publicly explaining not only how their assigned person (i.e., police officer, etc.) might react, but also the optimal way to respond and the reasoning behind it.
Following each group’s presentation, we discuss the implications of these decisions. Sometimes I wait for all presentations to be made, whereas other times I immediately go to class discussion after each group presents. (I warn students about this strategy beforehand). The initial method can become a little boring and students will almost always want to jump in and criticize an approach. The latter method is more dynamic, and group spokespeople will need to think on their feet to adjust what their group decided based on the information that the other students present.
These types of exercises are not without their drawbacks
Coming up with appropriate scenarios like this one is relatively labor intensive. Occasionally, in order to develop a pool of ideas, sometimes I ask my students to suggest a relevant field specific ethical dilemma that might work well for the class. Alternatively, I draw inspiration from local, regional or national news events (i.e., police shootings, horrific crimes, etc.) as a reservoir from which to draw. In both cases I will modify these ideas depending on my perceptions about what will work best with my students.
For lots of reasons, many students, particularly those who are shy and or like to “hide” during class, are not keen on interacting with each other and are going to complain. (This is a little hard to fathom with criminal justice students who are going to have to interact with the public as part of their jobs).
Sometimes this discussion method is a little difficult to manage with zoom based classes, but the breakout room feature in this program is perfectly suited to enable this process.
Also some instructors may be tempted to factor student’s level and degree of interaction into a participation grade, the primary goal with this exercise is to get them talking, thinking and interacting, to challenge not just what they know but their decision-making choices.
Why is this approach helpful?
Let’s face it, over time most classes can get a little boring. For example, standing in front of a class and lecturing becomes tedious not only for instructors, but students alike. Thus, I’ve found that mixing things up (like using scenario based instruction) is often the best way to teach my undergraduate students about the complexities of the subject matter.
This method can be tailored to suit the dynamics of any class size. It is applicable not only to smaller classes of 20-45 students but also scalable for larger class sizes that fill lecture halls. The only limit is your creativity
Moreover, most fields are messy and often there are no correct answers, just better and worse approaches to situations given the facts that are present at the moment or competing things that are happening with the actors that are involved.
I’ve also found that scenario and roll playing exercises forces many of my students out of their passive bystander status and to be more active participants in their own learning. Additionally, the more real life the scenario (problems that the students may forced to solve when and if they become criminal justice practitioners) the better the learning experience.
More importantly, this approach fosters deeper and more meaningful interactions among students and between students and instructors.
The future is now
In sum, if instructors want their students to do more then be able to recall information that is presented to them in class, it’s crucial to push them out of their comfort zones and actively engage them. Although scenario based exercises are not the only way to accomplish this goal, they are some of the most cost-effective tools that are available to instructors. It’s a bit challenging at first to introduce this type of pedagogy in the classroom, but overtime it gets easier as you learn through trial and error which scenarios are most appropriate and which kinds of prompts work best.
Photographer: Dan Nguyen
Title: Bodega buy
Multiple types of graffiti and street art can be found in public spaces throughout the world. Not only does this work transcend the techniques used in its creation, the places where it appears, but most importantly its content.
Some of the most memorable, pivotal, impactful, or even shocking kinds of graffiti and street art (conveyed in terms of a written expression, imagery, or both), is work that might be considered to be satirical. It pokes fun at public figures, organizations, or entire countries.
Examples of this kind of thought-provoking work include, but is not limited to:
- Banksy‘s iconic “Girl with a Balloon” and powerful statement “There Is Always Hope.”
- Blu’s mural in Bologna, Italy, depicting various military and political figures engaged in a giant game of war-themed Monopoly.
- JR’s Women Are Heroes Project featuring portraits of women from different parts of the world, challenging social norms and promoting awareness of women’s issues.
- Shepard Fairey’s iconic OBEY Giant campaign critiquing propaganda and conformity.
- Swoon’s paper cutouts, addressing social issues like poverty, homelessness, and inequality.
However, it’s essential to recognize that what makes these graffiti and street artists (and their pieces) stand out is their frequent use of satire. This work isn’t merely a manifestation of resistance; it’s a deliberate attempt to force us to stop and possibly consider “what is wrong with this picture” and why the situation it depicts should be addressed.
Whether this sign and signification motivates us to engage in some form of political participation (e.g., join a protest, donate money to a cause, etc.) is a different matter, one best addressed at a different point in time.
And, predictably, dictators, leaders, authoritarian regimes, and powerful interests try to abate graffiti and street art that challenges their benevolent and peace-loving narrative. Yet, in today’s digital age although the piece of graffiti and/or street art might be defaced, painted over or abated, photos of the piece can be distributed on all manner of social media, spreading the graffiti writer or street artist’s message further.
However, the narrative doesn’t conclude with the act of creation, removal and distribution, nor the possibility of motivating people to take action.
When, and if, these creators gain fame or positive recognition and transition into more commercial and possibly gallery spaces, persistent interrelated questions arise:
Does this progression in the individual’s career compromise or dilute their original message? Does this mean that they have “sold out”? Must all graffiti and street artists evolve from tagging to more intricate social commentary that involve the use of satire in their pieces to establish their names, and perhaps financially support themselves engaging in their craft?
These questions, unanswered here, linger inviting further reflection, research and scholarship for individuals interested in thoughtfully considering the impact of this kind of work.
Photo title: Banksy
Depending on lots of factors (including your specialization, college or university, and the number and type of news media outlets where you live), academic criminologists may be asked by reporters, journalists, and other news media support personnel (like bookers) to provide commentary or analysis on crime and criminal justice related topics.
More specifically, news media organizations might contact criminologists for their insights about:
- recent crimes
- unusual crimes
- crime rates, especially violent crime and homicide
- criminal justice agency plans, actions, and responses.
- police shootings and use-of-force issues.
- crime rates, especially violent crime and homicide, during significant anniversaries.
- the hiring of new criminal justice personnel, in particular leaders.
To begin with, although all manner of news media exist, most of the reporters and journalists who interview criminologists typically work for either print or broadcast organizations. Likewise, there are lots of new media formats, including live interviews that take place in broadcast studios, and other situations where interviews are done over the phone or via e-mail. In the latter context, the reporter may only be interested in extracting a short quote or very small clip from the entire time that they talked with you (the source), to integrate into a larger news story or news segment.
Meanwhile not only are there numerous types of news media organizations, but there are various kinds of reporters (e.g., general assignment, breaking news, and specialists). In big established news organizations, there will be highly specialized beats, including policing, courts, corrections, and juvenile justice. But in small town news outfits, the reporter covering the cops may be the same as the one covering the local church happenings.
Print journalists, as opposed to broadcast reporters (e.g., radio and television) basically extract one or more quotes from sources to get their opinion, to round out the story they are working on, and to put some color in the narrative. Broadcast can either be live or they tape the segments and get a sound bite.
Over the past two decades, particularly among the large national news networks, there appears to be an increase in having subject matter experts (e.g., Criminologists) come to the studio for live segments. There is also considerable diversity in these settings too.
Sometimes you are asked a appear on panel with one or more other experts and the host asks you and the other “guests” relevant questions, while the producer mixes up the visual component with some B roll footage (shots of an incident or similar ones under discussion). Alternatively, it’s you and the host and they pepper you with a bunch of predictable, but sometimes irrelevant, incendiary, or provocative questions.
There are also all various stages in the process of being interviewed including the initial inquiry or invitation, where the reporter or the production assistant may sus you out to gauge your subject matter expertise, willingness to participate in an interview, and your political leanings. For example, news organizations like Fox News Network, most likely does not want to interview (or have on as guests on a show) Criminologists who have strong left leaning opinions.
Sometimes the process of being interviewed is mediated by your university’s department of media relations. In this case the reporter contacts this office, asks them who would be best to talk about the particular subject, and then the media person at your institution of higher education contacts you.
Likewise, in the case of a live broadcasts, occasionally you are given the questions that the host will ask beforehand, but more likely you are put on the spot. Your ability to sound less than a babbling idiot depends on your ability to think fast on your feet. It is also the time when the host asks you questions that are the most provocative and out of your subject matter expertise, including forcing you to take positions that are out of your comfort zone.
Disadvantages of doing news media interviews.
Many professors and instructional staff, regardless of the discipline, don’t like talking to the news media.
And, there are lots of well-founded reasons why. To begin with responding to news media inquiries can be a major inconvenience and interruption.
For example, earlier in my career, I chose to ditch well laid out plans to make progress on a paper, grade exams or essays, etc., not to mention childcare contingencies, to be interviewed. Shortly after arriving driving the television studio, finding a parking space, having make up applied, escorted to a studio, and having a mike attached to my suit jacket, I was told that there was breaking news and my services were no longer needed.
Doing a good job may include prep time, drive time, and waiting around time. This is time that could be better spent doing other more pressing and enjoyable things..
Interviews can also be exhausting. One day I did eight interviews in connection with the DC beltway sniper shootings starting at 8 am and ending at 11 pm. I could have said no at any point in time, but I thought that it was important to provide thoughtful commentary on this important local developing crime story.
Professors and instructors may find news media inquiries to be needless interruptions and inconvenient, cost too much resources (especially time), and their public comments can lead to unwarranted criticism from people who read, listen to or watch their commentary in the news.
Just like a consulting gig, many professors think that they should be paid for their efforts. After all someone other than a colleague, student, or journal editor is asking you for your expert opinion. But being paid for a news media interview is rarely the case.
Also, although your dean, provost and university president may like that fact that you are quoted by the news media, or appear on the news, but if your opinions are highly controversial or you seem foolish, you also run the risk of making university personnel cringe every time you are on the news media. Your frequent appearances may also run the risk of fostering jealousy among some of your colleagues.
Many professors and instructors worry that they will say something inaccurate, silly, or that their comments will be taken out of context and that this will negatively haunt them. This is more of a problem with broadcast news organizations. But if it is print or all they want is a clip then there is less likelihood of this occurring.
Likewise, because of the strange, novel, or unusual situation, many professors and instructional staff, may find being interviewed by the news media to be awkward situations and get unnecessarily nervous.
Finally, if you are commenting on a controversial subject, then be prepared for push back and maybe even hate mail. Earlier in my career I was on Bill O’Reilly and questioned the evidence upon which he claimed that there was an increase in crime in NYC. The producers liked it because it added a little drama to the segment and they thrived on controversy. In the next 24 hours however, I got lots of e-mails, and phone messages calling me all sorts of names and questioning my authority.
Thus, if you are too thin skinned then you might want to think twice about which news media outlets and formats you are willing to cooperate with and what topics you prefer to act as a subject matter expert.
Advantages of serving as a news media source
There are numerous benefits acting as a source and being interviewed by the news media.
Talking with journalists about important aspects of crime and criminal justice can be a way to break up the monotony of your day.
Speaking with the news media can and has been for me relatively interesting and mostly fun experiences.
Although professors and instructional staff who are interviewed by the news media are generally not paid for their time, occasionally there will be other benefits. Some years back, I once got a trip from Washington DC to NYC paid including two nights in a decent hotel and food. But in this day and age of shrinking newsroom budgets, not to mention the rise of Zoom, Teams, and FaceTime interviews this sort of arrangement rarely occurs.
Another advantage for professors is that talking with the news media generally counts as community service. Thus it’s important to keep track of these sorts of opportunities and to list it on your vita.
News media appearances may give you an opportunity to test some of your ideas with an audience beyond your students and colleagues.
Also, as I’ve advised before, it’s important to periodically get out of your lane. Especially if this means trying something new or different.
Given the importance of the news media in shaping the publics and politicians’ ideas about crime and criminal justice, acting as a credible source for the news media is not only a way to see how this important actor works in their news gathering efforts, but it’s a way to correct things or to set the record straight about one or more subjects that you have expertise in.
Most importantly, your expertise in the fields of criminology and criminal justice, if properly conveyed by the news media can minimize sensationalism, biases, and oversimplification in the reporting process.
How to optimize news media interviews for a positive experience?
Some criminologists are interviewed more frequently by the news media than others, and there are various reasons why this occurs.. If this is something you aspire to do then not only must you have appropriate subject matter expertise, but it helps if you are articulate and reasonably accessible.
Given the fast-paced nature of most journalism, reporters often operate under tight deadlines. This means that you can’t unnecessarily postpone responding to news media inquiries and expect continued interest from the media professional. Timeliness is crucial.
Also, once you agree to be interviewed, journalists and hosts will pose a range of questions related to criminology and criminal justice. Although you may be tempted to answer every question that may arise, it is advisable to politely decline when confronted with queries beyond your specific area of expertise. If circumstances permit, recommend another knowledgeable individual.
Although news media professionals may offer excuses, such as being on deadline, or make appeals to your ego, it’s important to remain within your expertise, or “staying in your lane,” is key.
Likewise, sometimes the questions you are asked appear to be designed to provoke extreme positions. Even if you are experienced in public speaking, it’s crucial to handle these types of inquiries with caution.
Over time, professors and instructors who work with the news media will gradually be able to identify reporters who are not only well-informed about the subject matter they are asking you questions about, reliable, and those genuinely interested in learning about the issues they inquire about, and those less invested. A useful strategy involves educating media personnel on the subject they’re investigating, as many are open to such discussions. Taking this approach enhances interactions with the media, fostering a more informed and productive dialogue. In the end, this process can contribute to better-informed decision-making by the public and politicians regarding crime and criminal justice.
Photographer: Kristin Wolff