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Walton Brown-FosterWalton Brown-Foster
Teaching How to Evaluate the Range of Perspectives

 “Why don’t we nuke all our enemies and annihilate them?” a student once earnestly asked in Dr. Walton Brown-Foster’s American Foreign Policy class, which had been delving into strategic issues and the use of force. As it hung in the air, the question might have mushroomed into a fallout of toxic responses. Instead, because a climate of civility had been firmly set from the start by Brown-Foster, the give-and-take that ensued was measured and instructive. “That course of action suggests human beings are easily expendable. How would you feel if that happened to your country?” was followed by, “What are the consequences if other people know that is your strategy? Are you encouraging cooperation or fear and would your leadership be credible?” Through probing and debate, the range of perspectives was put on the table and evaluated.

A seasoned professor of political science with CCSU since 1984, Brown-Foster understands well how sharply drawn opinions put students at swords’ points. “There’s a great deal we can learn from each other,” she tells students, “but this cannot happen if students feel uncomfortable about speaking up, afraid their ideas will be treated harshly or not ‘listened to’ respectfully, or are worried about what will be said to them or about them once they do speak up.” Since politics traditionally excites visceral reactions, she advises, “As long as your opinion can be grounded upon a solid foundation and is presented in a tone respectful to your classmates, engage at your most provocative level.”

But if students simply express their opinions, even if tolerated by the class, she believes, “there’s no real learning.” Some students, she’s says, are “sure their opinions are the only ones possible.” She wants them to examine their assumptions, check that the facts used in their argument to draw a conclusion are correct. One of her teaching goals is to help students “understand, critique, access, apply, and recognize the implications of the different theories, methodologies, and perspectives of the subject matter.” Another goal is “to get students to take responsibility for and ownership of their ideas and opinions. That cannot be achieved until they become critical and honest thinkers who evaluate all aspects not only of others’ viewpoints but also their own.”

Students respond to Brown-Foster’s “rigorous and demanding” expectations, according to Dr. Paul Petterson, political science department chair. “Her courses have been well-received, and the new course she developed in Religion and Politics, although it started as a special topics class, is now a regular offering because it is in high demand.”

Whether the course she’s teaching is World’s Political Systems, American Foreign Policy, International Relations, Government and Politics of Latin America, or Government and Politics of Africa, Brown-Foster considers the different learning styles of students. Her teaching tactics work to reach the didactic learner, intent on verbal duels and constant argumentation, as well as the passive learner, who absorbs information, and others who learn best by doing. Since no class is ever the same and students, even repeat ones, constantly change their philosophies, she’s had to “adjust to their unique characteristics” in order to “see the light bulbs go on.” Brown-Foster has concluded that for many students learning is an affective process. “They have to feel they are learning,” she muses. “Beyond the objective tests, you almost have to touch their souls to awaken them to knowledge.”

Brown-Foster also employs new technologies to appeal to the “cyber generation,” and her students now access relevant course information through a Web site. She has developed online courses for Charter Oak State College and for Online CSU, which lists CCSU classes. Booked to capacity is her online course on international terrorism offered through Charter Oak State College, for which Brown-Foster has served on the Committee on Degrees and History and Humanities and has been past dean of faculty. “The online learning environment attracts self-starters who feel comfortable writing and expressing their positions clearly,” she observes.

A Wide Horizon of Achievements

Brown-Foster, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, has done post-doctoral work at the University of Georgia, and served as a visiting professor at Yale University in the department of Afro-American studies, continues to add to her achievements. Since joining CCSU, she has served on numerous University committees, as chair of the department of political science, and president of the faculty senate. With areas of teaching and research specializations in American foreign policy, international relations, comparative politics, political economy, African and Latin American politics, and race/ethnic relations, she regularly contributes journal articles and monograph chapters. She is the author of Reaching for Higher Ground: Democracy and Race in Brazil, Britain, and the United States (Edwin Mellen Press). She is also co-editor of Africa Update, a quarterly newsletter of the African Studies program at CCSU.

A speaker on scores of panels at academic conferences, she is looking forward to being a discussant on “American Policy Toward Africa” at the African Studies Association meeting in Philadelphia this November. This past summer she participated in scholarly conferences focused on weapons of mass destruction and on terrorism. Presently, she has a book proposal, “African American Experience and U.S. Mideast Policy,” pending review by select publishers.

Modest about her accomplishments, Brown-Foster is proudest of her students’ successes. She beamed when she received a note from former student Erin Liljedahl, who wrote: “I’ve been accepted to the Caribbean and Latin American Studies program at New York University! I couldn’t be happier, because this has been my dream school for my whole life. American Foreign Policy and International Relations were both fundamental classes in my study and have helped shape my interest in global politics and the U.S. role. I just hope you realize how integral a role you played in my academic studies!”

— Geri Radacsi

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