Studying Human Trafficking Through Medical, Legal, and Historical Lenses

Studying Human Trafficking Through Medical, Legal, and Historical Lenses

Instructors: Katherine Jolluck (History), Rebecca Walker (Emergency Medicine), Stephan Sonnenberg (Law), Suzanne Lippert (Emergency Medicine)

Department/School: History

Course: HISTORY 5C: Human Trafficking: Historical, Legal, and Medical Perspectives

Audience: mix of law students, grad students, and undergrads (about 55 students in total)

Course Description: Interdisciplinary course based on lectures with inquiry-driven learning activities and an optional service learning component

Schedule: M, W 12:50 – 2:05p, Braun Lecture Hall


Four instructors from three different fields form the core of this teaching team. Because of the diverse strengths of the group, they are able to offer students a learning experience from several different angles. The course exposes students to the historical context for the development and spread of human trafficking, as well as the legal, medical, psychological, and public health issues involved.

"Probably the most important learning objective for this course is show students what human trafficking is, how it comes about, and how it is perpetrated," says historian Jolluck. To do that takes a multidisciplinary approach, one that the teaching team was well-equipped to offer.  

Through its combined efforts, the teaching team hopes to inspire students to look for new interventions in this difficult arena.  "I think there's a particular danger when we're sitting in beautiful Palo Alto surrounded by tech companies, where it's easy to forget that possibly there are parts of the world that we shouldn't feel comfortable with," says lawyer Sonnenberg.            

Team Teaching:


"Having colleagues from different parts of the university work together is  my favorite part of teaching the course," says Sonnenberg. "You know, we stress for our students all the time how important it is to challenge your thoughts and brainstorm and be open to new ideas. And one of the best things about teaching this course is we're doing that, as well."

For example, in discussing how one might present a former victim to a jury, the instructors talked about the tensions between legal strategies for making a strong case and psychological standards of care that help the victim recover.

"To make a powerful case to a jury, you often have to present that person as really vulnerable. But from a psychological standpoint, you're keeping that person in a really vulnerable position, right? You're not empowering them to break from that victim identity," explains Lippert, a physician.

By working together, the teaching team helps highlight the complex articulation between their different disciplines. "Even though it's difficult to coordinate, and it's maybe not the most comfortable kind of teaching, it's important for us to try to join with faculty in other parts of campus to offer some kind of a unified approach," says Jolluck, who brought the teaching team together.

Besides, says Jolluck, "It's a wonderful way to sort of shake up your way of approaching a syllabus or an assignment or an exam, especially if you've been teaching in one discipline for a long time."

The teaching team suggests the following two recommendations for successful team teaching:

  • Designate one person that will be seen as the leader of the teaching team. They will serve as the main contact for both students and other members of the teaching team. This person should make sure that the teaching team communicates regularly.

  • Take time to meet right before class or right afterwards to do a quick check-in to make sure that things are going as expected. If any complications arise, they can be voiced at this time.

Connection Between Research and Teaching:

While the instructors bring the benefit of their research to the course, the benefit flows the other way, too: teaching this course has had a positive effect on their own practice and research. Sonnenberg, one of the supervisors for Stanford's International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, reports enjoying the holistic approach of the class.  In his day-to-day work in the Law School, he's used to having one client and focusing on the specific context of their project. "What's really interesting for me personally is to take a step back to think about it in a less project-based mentality and a little bit more conceptually."

Lippert and Walker, both in Stanford's Department of Emergency Medicine, investigate how medical providers in the Bay Area can be an effective intervention point in trafficking. This course has influenced their clinical work and research. Now, they have come to focus more on social determinants of health and disease. "The more we can understand about the vulnerabilities people have that may put them at risk for trafficking, the better able we would be to recognize those individuals if they do show up in a medical facility," says Lippert.

Inquiry-Driven Learning:

Lippert introduced the inquiry-driven learning aspect to the course, which assures that the class stays learner-centered. Lippert adapted how she learned medicine to this more interdisciplinary context. She has students get into small groups and carefully examine a case study. Together, they come up with "learning issues," which are questions that arise in regard to a case. Then they go off and try to find the answers.

The case-study method is also wonderful way to harness the potential of the multidisciplinary character of the course: "What we really wanted to accomplish was not just presenting four different viewpoints--from the historical, the legal, the medical, and the public health--but we really wanted the students to grapple with how those intersect, how they can work synergistically, or how one may actually compromise another," says Lippert.

The instructors write the cases themselves, which are essentially fictional stories that are based on a composite of multiple true accounts. "A case is a story that provides the opportunity for the student to explore their interests in a structured way," explains Lippert. "It's the narrative that drives individual action and helps us explain what we're seeing around us."

A huge part of inquiry-driven learning is teaching students how to ask appropriate questions that can actually be answered (without pursuing a PhD). Some issues that arise are:

  • What sources of information should you use, and how do you know these are reliable?

  • How do you interpret conflicting information from different sources?

Unbeknownst to the students, the details included in each case are designed to drive the students to investigate particular aspects of trafficking. The cases are so rich with different angles of approach that it's up to them to select the learning issues that most intrigue them.

For example, one case that students really connected with was on chocolate production in Côte d'lvoire. Lippert reports, "Given that I'm in the medical field, I wrote a lot of occupational hazards into the case, so that the students really had to look at hazards of agricultural labor." Instructors also wrote in details about a Vice President of Sourcing of the fictional company so that students would grapple with how complex the supply chains are and try to figure out how much a VP actually knows. How much power does he have to intervene? Other aspects included border control, transit, and policy concerns. Many students ended up focusing on the consumer side, because chocolate can really hit home.

Group of students sitting outside on lawn, talking. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford CTL.On day one of a case, students join the same group they have been assigned since the beginning of the quarter. They each volunteer for one of three roles:

  • The Scribe - The scribe does not simply take notes. They help their colleagues refine their questions and remind them, "How can we narrow that question a bit?" or "How do you actually broaden that question?"

  • Resource Managers - For narrow questions that can be investigated quickly, the resource managers look for answers on the spot. "So if it's just a definition, one of the resource students can actually look that up online, and that actually helps them create a much more sophisticated question to research later," explains Lippert.

  • The Timekeeper - Budgeting time and making sure the group moves through the case in an efficient way is an essential skill.

"I feel like that's one of the beauties of case-based learning, as well: you're not just teaching content.  You're teaching these skills of how to communicate with each other across disciplines and how to actually facilitate a meeting," says Lippert.

Faculty serve as facilitators, but intervene as little as possible to allow students to drive the learning process.

On day two of the case, each student returns to class with a two- to three-page document that summarizes what they've learned in response to the questions the group formed on day one. They share their research with fellow group members and have a rich discussion weighing their findings.

Service Learning:

The teaching team believes it's very important for students to get experience in the anti-trafficking movement to see what the realities are like. Increased exposure helps them understand where the frustrations are. So they included an optional community engaged learning component in the course.

Says Jolluck, "They need to learn that there's a lot of not very glorious, grunt work that needs to be done, and that you can't expect to be a savior. You need to do some important but low-level work to build up capacities to help trafficking victims, to influence policy, and to spread awareness."

The teaching team has worked closely with the Haas Center for Public Service, which has generously provided a dedicated service learning teaching assistant for the course. The service-learning TA runs a discussion section just for the service learners. She also serves as  a liaison between the teaching team, the students, and the community partners. In the last week of the quarter, the service learners present the projects they've been working on to the rest of the class.

One such project is with the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking, a group of law enforcement officers, social service providers, and trafficking experts who are trying to prepare for 2016, when the Super Bowl will come to San Jose. Often, the Super Bowl has been described as a major trafficking event.

"What's really interesting is we've looked at other cities in the United States and also internationally that have hosted major sporting events, and we're finding that there are a lot of myths about that correlation between trafficking and major sports events. Some of those myths are actually quite counterproductive from a trafficking standpoint," explains Sonnenberg.

"What we're hoping to do is to inform that conversation early on so that, yes, there can and should be preparation for the 2016 Super Bowl. But it should be the right kind of preparation so that any efforts to combat trafficking actually have a positive result." Service learners in the course are working with the South Bay Coalition to help make sure that happens.

Students get to talk with people who have been trafficked and soon learn that they have very diverse backgrounds that often defy categorization. Says Sonnenberg, "The students never fail to be inspired by those interviews or those conversations."

Students also gain more awareness about local trafficking. "I think most of the students come in thinking that if there's human trafficking here, it's people brought from overseas and immigrants who are entrapped and enslaved. They are very surprised to find that American-born individuals are also exploited in similar ways," says Jolluck.

Some service learners have continued to work on anti-trafficking projects outside of the course. One has gone on to spearhead a campus movement to get Stanford certified as a fair trade university. Another student did a series of paintings inspired by her anti-trafficking work and exhibited them in a one-woman show in the Stanford Art Building. Yet another student is working with other undergraduates to form her own anti-trafficking non-profit.

Lessons Learned:

Like many Stanford professors, the teaching team has been struggling within the confines of a ten-week quarter system, which can present particular problems for service learning projects. "The real world outside of the confines of the classroom don't always operate on the quarter system," reports Sonnenberg.  

Students also struggle with the curtailed timeline. Says Jolluck, "Without a doubt, the one complaint that the students voiced was that the quarter was too short. And it's true." In response, Jolluck has started teaching a workshop in the fall designed for students who have taken the course, participated in the service learning component, and want to continue.

To bring down the frenetic pace of the course a little bit, the teaching team has reduced the case load.  By cutting out one of the cases, they have been able dedicate more sessions to each case study.  With extra time, "We can really push the students to develop their learning objectives, to refine questions, and to produce substantive answers," says Jolluck.

Jolluck adds, "The fear factor and the intimidation that the case studies may present to the students at the very beginning really diminishes by spending more time with them."

This year the teaching team also incorporated a module about local human trafficking at the students' request.

The course remains lecture-heavy, with as many as two 75-minute lectures each week, and the instructors want to make those lectures as interactive as possible.  Keeping the students active and thinking is crucial, because much of the material being presented is controversial.  

For starters, at least three out of the four instructors are involved in every lecture, so the students get to hear different voices and perspectives.

Student in the Human Trafficking class speaking. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford CTL.They've also designed some provocative assignments to keep dialogue open, not just between instructors and students, but also among the students themselves. Three examples include:

  • Facilitating a discussion on how trafficking is portrayed in movies or newspapers.

  • Asking students for a personal response to the trauma, which can sometimes produce what's called "second-hand trauma" or "passion fatigue."

  • Embedding polls into the PowerPoint to get students to take a position right in the middle of the lecture. For example, Sonnenberg may ask students to choose between three different potential ways of intervening in a situation. Students then vote with their computers and see the live results on the main screen at the front. Students and instructors can then have an interesting discussion about the differing viewpoints in the class.

Ideas for the Future:

The interdisciplinary success of this class has been inspiring, says Sonnenberg. "I think it's great for Stanford to take that risk, and I hope that more classes can use this interdisciplinary approach. Because, otherwise, I'm stuck in my law school silo forever," he jokes.

The teaching team is now considering partnering with even more faculty at Stanford to include their course in a new Helix. A Helix is a cluster of 3-5 courses integrated through an interdisciplinary topic or theme.  

"What may happen in the future is we'll take the service learning portion out of the lecture course and make it a separate course that could extend over two quarters," explains Jolluck.  Students who want to do service learning could do so at the same time as taking the course, just as part of a separate course. The students in the helix, then, might do it for two quarters.

Whatever happens, HISTORY 5C now has a very strong foundation at Stanford.

See Also:

  • This course was designed with the support of the Faculty College. Learn more about how you could work with a team of instructors to create your own course.
  • Syllabus for HISTORY 5C
  • This course uses to make their lectures more interactive by incorporating live polling.
  • A Stanford Alumni Association story on the same class: "Community as Classroom"

And these Teaching Commons resources:


I created a video of Dr. Suzanne Lippert explaining the Case Based Learning Methodology she uses in Humbio178T/History5C (this course was cross-listed in Human Biology this Winter and also in 2014.) Feel free to embed this in the Inquiry-driven learning part of this Teaching Talk, with a credit to me in the caption.