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How Teaching an Honors Course Informed my Research on Human Trafficking Counter-Efforts

Feb 23, 2016

Most professors at a university like UW are passionate about both research and teaching. Our research often informs the courses we teach. Sometimes, the process of teaching sparks us to conduct new research, or helps us deepen our understanding of a subject.

Soon after I embarked on a multi-year study of efforts to counter human trafficking, I developed and began teaching a multidisciplinary course in the UW Honors Program called "Understanding and Combating Human Trafficking." I have spent several years teaching this course while also conducting field research and the crossover has helped me distill my knowledge about the complexities of counter-trafficking efforts and subsequently shaped my new book on the topic. The challenge of communicating clearly with students about these complexities helped me articulate key points for readers of my book, certainly. But there was another, unexpected way that teaching for Honors benefited my research — through the interactions I facilitated and witnessed between Honors students and local counter-trafficking experts.

My field research for this book included participant observation in counter-trafficking efforts and dozens of interviews with professionals whose jobs center on helping victims, bringing perpetrators to justice, and affecting the kinds of societal changes that are necessary to prevent trafficking in the first place. The relationships I developed with local counter-trafficking experts in the course of this research helped me persuade some of them to visit my Honors course and share their expertise with students. Students clearly appreciated the opportunity to learn directly from survivors, police detectives, federal investigators and prosecutors, social workers, victim services specialists, community organizers, and advocates for ethical business practices about what it takes to counter human trafficking.

The happy surprise for me was that the interactions between students and experts benefited my research on the challenges of collaborating against human trafficking across sectors. This happened in two ways. First, students boldly asked visiting experts insightful questions about their work — and the visitors responded openly and reflectively. On several occasions, I heard something new and compelling in the exchange between students and experts that I had not heard in my own interviews, which inspired me to follow up on these in-class disclosures in subsequent interviews.

Second, these visits informed my research due to the interactions between experts in the class setting. I sometimes invited two or three guests to the same class session, either because they work together in the same sector (e.g. in different aspects of victim services) or because they work together across sectors (e.g. in victim services and law enforcement). Although in the course of my research I witnessed hundreds of collaborative interactions, in the classroom setting the students and I were able to engage pairs or trios of visitors in dialogue with each other about their collaborative work. As these experts articulated their respective — and joint — accounts of how they try to coordinate with each other, I gained a greater understanding of interactions I had witnessed in other settings. In retrospect, having multiple experts visit a class session together was akin to hosting a focus group (in contrast to conducting an interview) in terms of the comments generated. The insights I gained from multi-expert conversations in classes shaped what I looked for as I observed collaborative practices, and how I interpreted my fieldnotes.

In sum, I am very grateful for the opportunities to teach in Honors. I enjoy bringing the fruit of my research to students, and I appreciate greatly the ways that the course has enriched my research. I look forward to teaching it again in Spring 2016!

Learn more about Dr. Foot's book here:  http://CollaboratingAgainstTrafficking.info