Graduate teaching assistant Shane Dillingham sits on a table in front of his class in Taliaferro Hall as his students discuss the state of slavery in mid-19th century America. In blue jeans, an untucked button-up shirt and gray cardigan, he looks like any teaching assistant leading a discussion group.
You’d never guess that Maryland State Police had labeled him a terrorist.
Dillingham is one of 53 people in the state who discovered that, between 2005 and 2006, police secretly spied on them for participating in anti-death penalty and anti-war activities and placed their names on terrorist watch lists, all without any evidence of criminal misdeeds.
But instead of letting the revelation put a damper on his life, Dillingham did what any good teacher would do.
“My immediate reaction,” he said, “was, ‘How can I use this as a hook for my students?'”
In four discussion sections of HIST 156: History of the United States to 1865, Dillingham has used himself as a case study to show American history is not just an outdated collection of facts, but a living debate about the balance between power and liberty, which his students said helped them see history’s meaning in their daily lives.
Dillingham, a 27-year-old doctoral student, was at first reluctant to discuss the case with his students, fearing that it might discourage them from political activity.
“I didn’t want my freshmen to say, ‘OK, I’ll go home and mind my own business,'” he said. “But it’s the secrecy that’s the problem, right?”
So, instead, he took the opportunity to engage students in the course material and make them aware of the contemporary debate over liberty. The course professor, Ira Berlin, gave Dillingham his full support.
“We’ve talked a lot about the changing meaning of freedom,” Berlin said. “And, as it turns out, Shane is object lesson No. 1.”
During a lecture about the debate over power distribution in the broiling American Revolution, Dillingham showed his students a news story about the police surveillance program and a letter from the state informing him that he’d been a subject of investigation.
Some students gasped. Some suggested he shave his beard off. Others urged him to get a lawyer and sue the state.
“Everyone was interested,” said freshman letters and sciences major Mitchell Barker. “They were like, ‘Wow, our teacher’s a terrorist.'”
However, students said the initial shock soon gave way to discussion about how the same issues that inspired protections in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights are challenged to this day.
“It related to the class because we learn about the freedoms we have and the freedoms we don’t have,” Barker said. “[The Constitution] came from people standing up and speaking for their rights. That’s all he was doing.”
Sophomore environmental science and policy major Andrew Flentje said Dillingham’s case led students to criticize the current government, and this dialogue opened debate about questions historical players raised in the past.
“That was one of the best classes, because all we did was talk,” Flentje said. “It kind of got everyone fired up and kept the discussion going.”
An independent review of the spying program found that police had overreached the limits of their power while watching over protest activities, including one university-sanctioned event at the Nyumburu Cultural Center.
Police have since agreed to purge activists’ names from state and federal databases.
As for how the ordeal has fed into his classroom, Dillingham said he hopes his students will think more critically about the exchange of freedom for safety now that they know someone who has been affected.
“It if has served that purpose,” he said, “I think it’s been valuable.”