Big Ideas, Challenges, and Practical Insights

By Nancy Davis

Teaching social movements has been one of the most meaningful projects of my life as a sociologist.  Below are some of the big ideas that I have tried to emphasize in my teaching, some of the challenges, and some attempts at addressing them.


Understanding that change from the bottom does occur

Perhaps the foremost idea that undergirds my course—the idea that I hope my students will retain long after they leave the university—is that significant change is possible, not just from above by political and economic elites, but frombelow by ordinary men and women who often lack numerical majorities, conventional resources, or access to institutional channels of power. Mainstream media seldom tell this story, and sometimes as sociologists, we concentrate so much on the power of social structure and social location that the reality of change from below is lost. It is key to remind students of all the ways, large and small, that their world is different from the world of their parents and grandparents because of the work of activists. For example, I tell a story from the 1980s when a student of mine courageously announced in class that she was a lesbian and the student sitting next to her (he was quite friendly with her) replied: “Oh you are not!” End of discussion. Today, our university president is openly gay, the student who won this year’s student-selected outstanding senior award is also and so was our commencement speaker.

Realizing that such change doesn’t just happen

Another big idea of my course is the idea that societies don’t “naturally” become more equal, more cognizant of the rights of disadvantaged groups, or ecologically aware.  Change requires commitment, courage, hard (often boring) work, strategizing, mobilizing resources, re-shaping consciousness, taking risks, forming alliances, being willing to change directions and having the audacity to disrupt accepted understandings and practices.  My course focuses on the micro- and macro- dimensions to these issues and what can be learned from the successes and mistakes of the movements we study.

Recognizing that it’s a mistake to wait for superheroes and mass approval

A third big idea of my course is that one doesn’t need to wait for a charismatic leader of the Martin Luther King type or for a majority to be on board in order to effect change.  I like to bring in local examples—and every campus or community has these—of individuals who dared to act:  on my campus, two psychology professors who integrated the all-male faculty swim hour in the 1970s by jumping into the pool, suited, with their unclothed male colleagues after numerous petitions on the matter had failed. Or, the women students in the 1960s, tired of curfews for women and other restrictions, who voted for their dorm to secede from the university—a symbolic move to be sure, but one that got the university to end its in loco parentis approach.  More recently, a student who turned her first-year seminar project on chicken farms into a successful campaign to serve only eggs from cage-free chickens on campus. Another student mobilized to eliminate plastic water bottles on campus, even though initially it wasn’t an issue on most students’ minds.   It’s worth the effort if one is new to a university or unaware of past and recent activism to talk with people who know this history.

Appreciating the contributions of both radicals and moderates

A final idea undergirding my course is that movement moderates who work within the system often get more credit for movement successes than they deserve (especially when sometimes they co-opt or destroy a movement (e.g.,  AFL-CIO leaders in the post-WWII period).  The contributions of radicals who dared to challenge sacred cows and to disrupt their society’s functioning go unacknowledged or condemned. I point out to my students that much of what seems natural, normal, decent or right today was condemned as radical and outrageous when more militant activists first pressed for it. The implication, of course, is that those who seem radical or outrageous today may not be seen as such by succeeding generations.  When teaching about anti-racist activism, I use Peniel Joseph’s book Waiting for the Midnight Hour, rather than focusing solely on the Southern civil rights movement, precisely because students know much more about the latter struggle and its accomplishments while they largely unaware of the important role Black Power activists played.


“I don’t have any power, politics suck, and so does the job market”

An increasing problem in teaching social movements from the perspective that they matter—that they’ve changed the shape of our and other societies, and that activism from below needs to continue—stems from the sense of inefficacy, disinterest in orsuspicion about politics that many students feel, and fears that activist involvement will jeopardize already slim job chances. The risks of activism need to be acknowledged—certainly many activists paid a heavy price, but equally important is the power and joy experienced from being part of a larger struggle, even if mistakes were made along the way and not everything dreamed of was achieved.  Personal narratives, grounded in a larger historical context, that allow activists to speak for themselves are a powerful way relay the affective dimensions of activism—the fears, uncertainties, anger, courage, triumphs, disappointments, and sense of a life well-lived. Documentary films (see my syllabus, available on request, for some examples) and personal appearances by current activists make movements come alive, and because the people involved are often quite ordinary, may generate a sense in a student that s/he too can make a difference.  I find that students “get” larger social movement concepts and theory better when they are blended with the color of personal narratives. In this regard, I also bring in personal stories of my own activism on the local level, sometimes successful, other times not.

“Things were really awful back then”

Another challenge for me in teaching about social movements is that students may acknowledge the need for protest, including extra-legal forms of it, in the past—African Americans couldn’t vote, women were denied access to education and jobs, workers who lost jobs had no unemployment compensation, etc.—but feel that today those injustices or problems have largely been redressed or institutional access for addressing them is available and hence the need for social movements no longer exists (this view varies considerably by students’ race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.).  To address this, I emphasize that people in a time period often do not see injustices that later generations are appalled by.  In the civil rights era, prominent figures would acknowledge that owning another human being was an injustice, but racially-segregating facilities didn’t merit such concern.  I always end any movement that my class studies with a discussion on what remains to be done, what has not yet been accomplished, and what their generation could be involved with.  While much of my course is historical, I ask my students to write their research paper on a current form of activism.  I frequently send my class accounts of activism occurring at the moment, which has the added benefit of leading them to send me reports of contemporary activism and to read blogs and web sites they might otherwise not. Finally, I make room at the start of each class for students to announce and talk about on-going activist events on campus. Last semester, the campus group Feminista planned to create a campus map in which those sexual assaulted could name the location of their assault. This led to objections, particularly from fraternities and was the occasion for a lively discussion in class about this tactic.

“We should all be nice to each other”

While campuses vary, universities today are largely the province of the upper-middle class. The prevailing culture is one pushing students to be polite. Anger, especially in women, or caring too much or being too vocal about an issue is often policed by peers.  One thing I try to do is to help my students see what motivated anger in the activists they study and the ways in which it can be a positive emotion.  Alice Echols’ book Daring to be Bad on radical feminists illustrates this. I emphasize, e.g., how some radical feminists would speak only to women reporters, a move that ultimately pressured newspapers to hire women to cover more than weddings and fashion. We have so many students today aiming for careers in the media who need to know this history and how the exclusionary practices of the profession was ended.


Lightening a weighty topic

Thereis certainly much that is overwhelming about trying to change a society from below. Students can get discouraged.  I try to incorporate some humor throughout the course. Sometimes it’s self-deprecating, e.g., showing students a campus newspaper article with comments I made against a wet t-shirt contest that were printed next to a very large- breasted, beer-drenched contest participant, prompting some readers to question why I participated in a contest I so disproved of. Other times it’s witty retorts by activists. At the end of the semester, I have an evening at my house that celebrates the culture of the movements we have studied. It includes music, poetry, humor, and other cultural forms; students often contribute their own favorite examples.

What to do when there’s not a shared historical memory

Although it’s more a problem for faculty my age (in my 60s) than younger instructors, it is often difficult to remember that students didn’t have the same formative experiences, didn’t live through the same political events, and didn’t witness or participate in the same changes as we did. To remind myself of that, I begin each major movement that we study by asking students to jot down their first impressions of the movement and the questions they have about it.  And I encourage them to tell me how things look from their historical vantage point. At the end of a unit, we discuss if and how their impressions of the movement have changed, what was most important to understand about it, and whether there are lessons for contemporary activists.

Drawing boundaries

This is a problem we all face in teaching.  I want to include an array of movements, but not at the cost of superficiality.  My course, with the exception of sections on contemporary anti-corporate globalization movements and environmental struggles, is largely focused on the U.S. and takes a broad historical sweep of the last 100 years or so. And with the exception of discussing the anti-gay Oregon Citizens’ Alliance, my course focuses largely on secular activism. This is perhaps ironic in that my recently-released book with Rob Robinson, Claiming Society for God, is a comparative study of religious movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. A part of me knows that religious movements around the world are increasingly the face that activism takes and that movement courses should address this.  My strategy for drawing logical boundaries for course content does not include these movements.  Making those kinds of choices is tough, but drawing some boundaries is important for keeping the course manageable.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Pedagogy of Social Movements

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