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Course Spotlight: Fall 2017

In the fall of 2017, students and faculty from the University of Michigan and the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) in Brazil participated in a unique, transnational course on the history of the Inter-American Human Rights system. Using video-conferencing technology, students in Brazil and the United States participated in real-time classroom discussions and collaborated on group presentations across the two continents, as they delved into the development of the Pan-American Human Rights system. The course was collaboratively taught by Professor Sueann Caulfield at UM and Brazilian Federal Judge and Professor Carlos Haddad at the UFMG Law School.

Sueann Caulfield is Associate Professor of History and Residential College at the University of Michigan, where she was the former director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and currently heads the Brazil Initiative Social Sciences Cluster.  She specializes in the history of modern Brazil, with emphasis on gender and sexuality.  She has won awards and fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Humanities, and American Council of Learned Societies. Her publications include In Defense of Honor: Morality, Modernity, and Nation In Early Twentieth-Century Brazil, the co-edited volume Honor, Status, and Law in Modern Latin American History, and various articles on gender and historiography, family law, race, and sexuality in Brazil.  Her current research focuses on family history with a focus on paternity and legitimacy in twentieth-century Brazil.  She is particularly interested in questions of human rights in Latin America, and has participated in a number of workshops, cross-country teaching projects, and exchanges around topics of social justice and social action.

Carlos Henrique Haddad is a federal judge in Brazil and a faculty member at the School of Law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, UFMG). In addition to his legal practice, he also specializes in the history in modern Brazil, with an emphasis on law and slavery. He has been a fellow at the University of Michigan Law School. He has also collaborated closely with faculty in the Department of History, with whom he has co-authored articles, taught courses, and established human trafficking and slavery clinics in Michigan and Minas Gerais.

Transcript of the interview

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Sueann Caulfield (SC): Carlos, we've been teaching this course on the history of the Inter-American Human Rights system all fall semester. We now have one week left, so it's great that you were able to come in person this week to visit the class. And I realized that it was perfect because [the course] was really bookended—I went the very first week of the semester to your university, the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil, and I was with you to teach the very first class that started us all out. So today it’s a good opportunity for us to reflect on what we did this semester. And I wanted to start by remembering how we got started with this. I remember that you were here [at U-M at the time].

Carlos Haddad (CH): Yes, I spent my fall semester in 2014 here in Ann Arbor. And I was invited in 2016 by the Brazil Initiative to come back to Ann Arbor. I think that everything starts at that time, in 2016, when we thought to create a course between the two universities.

SC: Right! Yes, I remember that it was Brazil Initiative’s Bebete Martins who actually had the idea. So we had lunch, and then we met with some of the LSA tech people, who explained to us how we would create the technology that would be the most compatible at your university and at our university. So that was really lucky!

CH: Yeah, I had to purchase special equipment through the video conference technology. So everything starts there in that lunch.

SC: And that made a lot of difference because the technology worked really smoothly—much more smoothly than I could have expected. In thinking about the technology, how would you describe the course?

How did it work? What was it about? When you tell your colleagues about it, how do you describe it?

CH: As a lawyer, my vision of the course focuses on how the Inter-American Court has impacted and influenced the legal domestic system [in Brazil]—from the decisions, the recommendations. For Brazil, especially, the Inter-American Court has a special effect in my country, because we have had several cases decided by the court, and they have actually changed our domestic legislation and even judicial decisions.  

SC: It’s so interesting that your perspective of the course—as a judge who’s actually tried cases of human rights in Brazil successfully, and as a law professor—are really different from the way that I approach the course, as a historian teaching American students. My conception of the course is to think about the ways that the system came into existence in the first place: the relationship over time, since Independence, of civil society, social movements, political activism, and the construction of states, in the United States and in Latin America—as well as ideas about race and nation and how it is that we create the concept of “rights,” and how that concept turns into an American—that is, a Pan-American—discussion before there was any consideration of an actual system, an Inter-American Commission or an Inter-American Court.

CH: And there is a special [situation for us] because I’m also the director of the Slave Labor and Human Trafficking Clinic at UFMG Law School, and we had the possibility to study contemporary slavery in the Inter-American system through our course.

SC: Yes, and it was really interesting because the way that we set this course up was also determined, a little bit, by the time[-zone] changes. At the beginning of the course, we had one hour together. Towards the middle of the course, we had two hours. And then, the last six weeks, we’ve had three hours together, which allowed us to really build rapport.

Each of us always met [in our respective classrooms] for three hours—so I would have two hours [with my students] before we met [your class online], and then one hour together. And you had the opposite, at the beginning. Then we had this expanding [overlap] until the end now.

It’s funny that I had forgotten that, because it feels as though we’ve been together the whole time all semester. It feels like we’ve all gotten to know each other really well! Yet we know each other through the video screen that we’re using to talk to each other, across continents, through technology.

CH: Yes, sometimes I saw a portal in front of me, and I would think, “If I just step ahead, I can move from Brazil to the US!” So the technology was indispensable to the development of our course.

SC: The fact that it worked so well really made it feel like we were together. And when I think about what the students enjoyed the most in the course, or the feedback that I’ve gotten from students so far, it’s that they really wanted more interaction with their Brazilian counterparts. And I was so glad! This is the first time that I’d tried this in a course: having students do presentations and group projects outside of class, with their counterparts in Brazil, through video-conferencing. My students told me that was definitely the most rewarding part of the course. They also talked about how much they really enjoyed getting to know [each other] and becoming friends with the students in Brazil with whom they were working.

Also, my students [unlike yours] are not law students—they’re history and international studies students, some of them are from the Residential College. And they talked about the [different] perspectives of the Brazilian students, not only because they’re from Brazil, but their perspective as law students. I really admired the way that the Brazilian students would have a concept of how to present the case, in the social interest—

CH: Yeah, it’s very important because our students have different backgrounds—and the law students handle the law—so it’s very good to see the different perspectives from the American students.

SC: I think that by coming together they were able to see—how is it that civil society, concepts of law, and then practice of law are all part of the same conversation?

CH: Yes!

SC: What would you say were your biggest pedagogical goals for course?

CH: In Brazil, the learning, the teaching of law schools is basically through lectures. The student only has a passive hold, and they only take notes. Instead, I think we put the student at the center of the school, and it’s very important because it stimulates them to think critically. I think that’s the lesson, the most important one—the critical thinking.

SC: I would agree that, for my students, having to think about the relationship between social movements, Inter-American diplomatic relations, and ideas about human rights—and then the attempts to create a system to adjudicate human rights—requires a lot of jumps and a lot of pieces of learning coming together. We’ll see with the final papers, but certainly on the basis of their presentations and the kinds of questions they’re asking toward the end of the class, I’m feeling very optimistic that they have really learned to think [this way].

CH: Yes, and they will soon be on-the-ground actors in our society. So it’s very important to teach them to work and to study together.

SC: I think—to wrap up—that we came to the course thinking about the topic of Inter-American Human Rights Law from different perspectives. Now, at the end of the course, I’m thinking—what were those differences? What does the Inter-American human rights law mean to students in Brazil? How is it relevant to them?

CH: The Inter-American system of human rights has a strong influence in the Brazilian legal system: We changed our legislation [because of it], and we have some cases decided by the Inter-American Court. So the Brazilian students can perceive the importance of the court. Maybe in the US things are different [in this respect]. What do you think?

SC: I think they’re, yes, very different. When we started the course, none of my students had any familiarity at all with the Inter-American Human Rights system. Most of them didn’t even know that the Inter-American Human Rights Commission or the Inter-American Human Rights Court exists. [American students] have no knowledge of them, much less the consciousness of how they came into existence as part of this Inter-American diplomatic and political process.

For them, I think what was really interesting was to think about the United States as part of the Americas. And to think about the Americas as creating institutions and ideas, in relationship to the United States. So when they chose and studied cases from the United States, that activists and NGOs in the United States have brought to the Inter-American Commission, it was really interesting and eye-opening for them to realize that there are arguments within the United States about whether the Commission should have jurisdiction in the United States. For the most part, I think my students have become convinced that this is a valuable system, and that we are part of it—like it or not.

CH: Yeah, I have the same impression. At the end, they concluded that we are integral to all of these countries’ unique American system.

SC: As a final question, what kind of feedback have you gotten? Do you think the students have appreciated the course, what they’ve learned? What aspects in particular?

CH: I think they loved the course! They asked me if next semester we will be able to take another course like that. And they suggested, “If you change the topic, all of us want to continue the same model of learning, with the American students!”

SC: I think that was pretty mutual. I know that’s the information I got when I did a mid-term review; and, at the end of the course, they’re talking about how it’s so sad that our course is ending, because they’ll really miss the students that they met in Brazil. So hopefully we can do it again!

CH: Yeah, sure!

SC: I think we’re good.