Hit and Miss: Making Connections in the Social Movements Classroom

By David Cunningham

“Why don’t we connect with this material as much as we do with theories in some of our other classes?”  I pondered this question – offered up by one of the best students from the inaugural semester of my undergraduate Social Movements course – for a good long while.  I knew he had a point, having sensed throughout the semester the very gulf he articulated.  The problem was exacerbated by both of our expectations, which seemed skewed by a sort of “social movement exceptionalism” – a feeling that this kind of class should more deeply affect students than, say, their intro or research methods courses typically do.

At Brandeis University, where I teach, such expectations do not entirely reflect my own biases, as the school’s founding emphasis on social justice and strong activist history means that each year a number of politically-engaged students express high hopes that a course on movements might provide a place for their principles, aspirations, and ad hoc political experience to coalesce.  While this experience might not hold on many other campuses – a colleague recently noted that, at his large state university, social movements is a topic as foreign to most of his students as 16th century literature – to my mind the high expectations alter rather than reduce the challenges associated with the course.  Looking out at the students in my Brandeis classroom, one wonders how to connect both with young but seasoned activists looking for insights to aid their work, and others oriented to the subject less as a biographical signpost and more as a detached intellectual curiosity.

So, what to do?  I quickly realized that, for me, the strategy that worked fairly well in graduate seminars – a straightforward tour of the literature, focused on the usual analytic dimensions (political opportunities, resources, framing processes, collective identities, etc.) – didn’t easily bridge the gulf that had frustrated my student.  Embedding those theoretical considerations in rich case materials certainly helped, but I also sought ways to organize core concepts so that they resonated more directly with the sorts of choices faced by participants in collective action.  While my efforts to tinker to this effect have been mixed, here are four approaches that have worked well enough for me to repeat:

1. Turn traditional paradigmatic models inside-out to focus on micro dilemmas as lenses to rachet outward to broader processes.  Considering how, say, policing tactics alter the trajectory of protest actions through frame-by-frame analyses of events like this posted on YouTube; or how biographical trajectories shaped participation patterns among Freedom Summer volunteers (McAdam 1988) and El Salvadoran women guerilla fighters (Viterna 2006) relates closely to the sorts of decisions and trade-offs that students often find important and non-intuitive.  Those discussions, in turn, lend themselves to considering broader factors that govern the opportunities and constraints that shape patterns of contention.  While in part echoing analytic critiques of structural biases in the research literature, an emphasis on dilemmas centered on biography, strategy, and local action can also resonate as an introduction to the dynamics of collective action.

2. Examine diverse cases, in particular those spanning the political spectrum.  To my surprise, students’ ability to connect with key themes ranging from identity work to the policing of protest at times has appeared to vary inversely with their perceived distance from the movement case at hand.  Students seemed fascinated, for instance, by the concealed underside of white supremacy, and books like Pete Simi and Robert Futrell’s American Swastikaand Kathleen Blee’s Inside Organized Racismhelped them to understand the formal and informal policing of “heterodox” spaces and how boundary work can allow activists to maintain commitment in the face of such strong regulation.  Once that clicked, extending the ideas to cases closer to home – and grappling with the everyday dilemmas that many activists face as they balance their political work with jobs, family, friendships, and so on – became much easier.

3. Find ways to demonstrate not only the power of social movements in the political process, but also the power of social science research to address some of the questions and dilemmas that activists confront in their work.  With 125 students in my course last year, I set up periodic “lab” sessions, focused on producing quick collective empirical assessments.  For example, to consider the interrelationship between protest and policing, we organized a systematic first-take analysis of the widely-discussed Nate Silver graph that suggested that aggressive policing drove increased media coverage of the Occupy movement.  Making use of LexisNexis and a bit of advance planning to divide newspapers and dates among students, during a single 50-minute class period we managed to code a representative sample of several hundred articles from major papers across the country.  We found, among other things, that the sequencing and content of media accounts confirmed that policing spurred reporting, increasing rates of local Occupy coverage even in areas where the sites being covered were not subject to significant police repression.  This overall increased coverage, in turn, encouraged a fuller consideration of the movement’s spread, though these diffusion-themed articles followed from – rather than drove – the attention reporters paid to initial police actions.  While I would of course want to redo the analysis before offering this claim as a systematic finding, such preliminary conclusions were both provocative and evocative – helping to crystallize more abstract takes on these topics while also illustrating basic ideas about how social scientists might ask and answer questions of broad utility to movements.

4. Extend this social science research orientation to directly engage with the communities from which movements emerge.  While incorporating direct participation in contentious campaigns into courses necessitates a sometimes-fraught balancing act (see, e.g., Croteau 2005; Starr 2008), partnering with grassroots initiatives to systematically examine the bases for their grievances can connect students to community members, build the capacity of local organizations, and develop student research skills.  This approach lends itself especially well to introducing interactive perspectives that examine authorities as well as political challengers.  Last summer, for instance, students from Brandeis and Jackson State Universities partnered with the Mississippi Truth Project, a statewide restorative justice effort, as part of an eight-week “Civil Rights and Racial Justice in Mississippi” academic program.  Students worked in four communities across the state, gathering police, court, city council, and school board records to document and analyze the internal deliberations and actions of officials who sought to suppress civil rights action throughout the 1960s.  While many associated civil rights actions, such as a 1961 school walkout in McComb, had been documented, this effort shed new light on various authorities’ reactions to such challenges, and how their repressive responses in turn shaped the tactical approaches of black students and their allies.  Such insights, in turn, aided the Truth Project’s efforts to build dialogue around the “collusion of public officials and conspiracies of silence that for the past 60 years have divided Mississippians.”  While the community-based data-gathering focus of such a program can be logistically and financially intensive, local projects can make ready use of publicly-accessible records, in partnership with community justice initiatives.

While I make no claim that these approaches are uniquely-suited to the study of political contention, I felt motivated to try each of them in response to the rather unique expectations tied to undergraduate courses focused on social movements.  All remain works in progress, and I welcome thoughts on how to improve, adapt, apply, add to, or otherwise rethink any of them.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Pedagogy of Social Movements

One response to “Hit and Miss: Making Connections in the Social Movements Classroom

  1. Shay

    What dilemma do you think activists face while trying to work within the system, while publicizing their ideas through the mainstream media?


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