Hot politics stirs 'Heat' generation

March 23, 2007

How do you motivate students today? Lecturer Amy Binns offers one approach

How can you tell the difference between Tony Blair and David Cameron?

That's not a joke, I really need to know. And how can you make politics relevant to 18-year-old media students when ideology is dead and TV's Richard and Judy get more votes than London's Mayor Ken Livingstone?

I teach an introductory politics and world affairs course at Huddersfield University to a particularly challenging and enjoyable group: first-year media students from largely non-traditional backgrounds.

They are hard to reach because they came of age in the Blair era, under an administration that sought to and succeeded in blurring the lines between the left and the right wings of politics. Several students come from households where no one reads papers or uses their vote, and they would rather be out there with their video cameras anyway.

These young people are fun because they are totally fresh, merciless in their judgments and passionate about many things - if they think they matter.

Therein lies the challenge: to make our Identikit politicians in faraway Westminster seem of relevance. I want the media of the future to include people who care about politics. But how to achieve this?

Then it struck me that one way was to rope in people who were better than me, clearer sighted and more committed: Quakers.

I decided to take my students on an 800km minibus trip to Faslane, near Glasgow, where peace groups have established a permanent protest camp against the Trident nuclear missile programme near the naval base that is its home.

Many students looked bemused by the idea, but a third of them were desperate to go. I was happy with this. Letting students self-select seemed as good a method as any.

The Peace Camp is a colourful, ramshackle collection of old caravans that has been parked near the base for more than 20 years.

When we arrived, everything I had hoped would happen did. The students were suddenly animated, wanting to record everything they saw.

The inhabitants proved rather a culture shock. Our students' robustly right-wing values came slap up against a brick wall of far-Left, anti-Establishment benefit-claiming crusties.

One student asked a resident what he thought of normal people - and he was surprised by the annoyance the question provoked.

The Quakers were easier. Their ideas of a personal quest for truth and individual responsibility chimed with our students' innate sense of personal autonomy.

Even the police granted interviews to our TV students, who were so flabbergasted to find themselves grilling senior officers that they lost composure and I had to whisper questions in their ears.

The demo was long and cold, but also illuminating. It was delayed because a hoped-for local television crew had not arrived, an object lesson in the importance and power of the media.

Then the arrests began.

The Quakers neatly out-manoeuvred the police, who had lost interest and concentration, and blocked the main gate en masse. They held hands, singing, and lay down on the tarmac.

The police allowed the Quakers to hold a short service before they moved in, young men carrying handcuffs and batons surrounding the circle of cagouled pensioners.

Police instructions to clear the road were ignored. Working in fours, the officers picked up the Quakers one by one and packed them into waiting vans.

Despite having waited hours for this, the students were astonished.

"Surreal" and "fantastic" were some of the comments. One later said: "I couldn't believe it was happening, it was just like a film - and I was filming it."

On the long drive back, the print students got out their laptops and started writing up for various local newspapers, while the TV students discussed when they could start editing their video material for YouTube and our own website.

The students were thrilled to see their work in the Huddersfield Examiner , and I was thrilled at their reaction. Since then, I have heard them excitedly discussing other Trident protests on the news, a real turnaround for the Heat and Zoo generation.

University should be about broadening horizons, but that is hard to do when a student cannot afford to leave home and must work three days a week in the local shop. It is even harder when most of one's fellow students are in the same boat.

Only a handful of our students were able to go on this trip, but I hope that it has opened their eyes - not just to new people and ideas but also to what they themselves can achieve.

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