Dr. Shareen Hertel (CLAS, Political Science)

Shareen Hertel: Experience guides her teaching

Shareen Hertel likes to say that teaching at UConn is her second career. But her first one, nearly ten years of working in the U.S. and abroad for the United Nations, the Ford Foundation and other nongovernmental agencies, was its springboard.

An associate professor of political science with a joint appointment in UConn’s Human Rights Institute, Hertel shares with students her experiences and practical knowledge about economic human rights. She teaches them how they can apply human rights principles in whatever career they choose – in science and engineering as well as business, law, politics and education.

“I’m very empowered by the practical importance of what I do,” she said.

Her upcoming book being published by Oxford University Press, Tethered Fates: Companies, Communities, and Rights at Stake, is about human rights in global supply chains.

Her classes attract a mix of students. She once had an anarchist and a military veteran in class, arguing opposing points of view. Her approach is, “How do I open a conversation instead of shutting it down?” she said.

In teaching, she draws on her own family background of diverse characters and careers and an atmosphere of mutual respect. One uncle was a fireman, and another was a renowned Chaucer scholar. Her grandparents lived in Tehran, where they ran an international school. Her parents brought her up in a mixed-race neighborhood in Michigan, where they were active in the civil rights movement in the ‘60s. As a college student, she lived in Bogotá, Colombia. Later she lived and worked in Venezuela, Mexico, Jamaica, Cuba, and Bangladesh.

“I probably can relate to just about anyone in class,” she said.

Returning to academia

She went back to school after working in the human rights field, earning her PhD in political science from Columbia University in 2003. She joined UConn in 2004, one of the first hires of the Human Rights Institute.  She has won teaching awards from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and her department, and in 2016 she gave the keynote talk for UConn’s President’s Series on Teaching Excellence.

Human rights are often associated with freedom of expression, the right to vote, or stopping torture. But the economic rights she studies -- poor people’s struggles around the world to get decent work and be protected from workplace abuse -- are often overlooked.

Ultimately, she tells students, every human being wants life to be better for their children and to live a life with dignity.

Research she conducted with another UConn faculty member, political science professor Lyle A. Scruggs, showed that most consumers are willing to pay more for goods that are ethically produced.  That is one of the lessons her students absorb as they learn about working conditions for those making the products they buy.

Her students study issues like this, writing term papers on a product they’ve chosen (an iPhone, for instance), tracing its supply chain, and participating in team-based panels to report their findings in sharply focused presentations. The teams themselves are mixed by gender and majors, providing students with the experience they will face in the “real” world of work.

“I really drill problem-based learning,” she said. It includes scholarly reading but also draws on material from companies and UN agencies.

Human rights: not just for liberal arts majors

The focus on manufacturing supply chains makes human rights particularly relevant for engineering students. “Assessment for Human Rights and Sustainability,” a course she co-teaches with engineering, was introduced in 2014. UConn is one of the few universities to link human rights courses with the engineering curriculum. Hertel is also part of a Business and Human Rights Initiative at UConn, which hosted a 2017 conference on the involvement of stakeholders such as workers and communities in light manufacturing.

The interface of human rights with business and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines creates dynamism in classes that have traditionally been filled with only liberal arts majors, said Hertel.

“They teach each other – it inverts their expectations of who their peers are.”

It also expands the range of students who can become change agents for human rights. Alumni of her classes now work in fields from medicine to teaching to economics. Learning about human rights affects their approach to work, she has found.

“The students are going to go out and apply what they learn.”

Mixing disciplines and ways of studying human rights is also her goal as editor of the field’s premier journal, The Journal of Human Rights. Rather than restrict submissions to political science or law scholars, she welcomes contributions from artists and those in STEM fields, too.

It’s a challenging time to teach human rights, she says, as volatile current events color the discussion.

“I’ve been heartened by the continued interest of students,” she said. They come to the subject with limited knowledge, “but by the end they’re teaching me, from their experiences.”

“You’re just teeing them up to go on out in the world and do amazing work.”

About Shareen Hertel: https://polisci.uconn.edu/person/shareen-hertel/

Learn more about stakeholder engagement in light manufacturing: https://businessandhumanrights.uconn.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/1850/2018/05/UConn-BHR-2018-White-Paper.pdf