Quandaries in teaching about social movements

By Pamela Oliver

I don’t feel that I’ve ever mastered the teaching of the undergraduate social movements course. I initially begged off on this blog assignment for this reason, but was told that giving voice to my problems would encourage others to reflect on the issues. I started writing this while traveling on August 1 and then read the first five wonderful contributions to this series. I am blown away with admiration at the very different but rich and thoughtful approaches they offered to the course. I know I cannot provide a better positive model. So instead I will discuss some of my frustrations and failures with the course. If this has value, it will be because the tendency for us all to be silent about our mediocre or bad teaching experiences both intimidates struggling instructors, making them feel isolated and alone in their misery, and makes it difficult to improve, since we are often too busy covering up our inadequacies to get the information or help or perspective we need to improve.

It’s not that I am incapable of teaching well. I have developed two undergraduate courses that “work” well, research methods and a course I call “Ethnic Movements in the US” which basically uses social movement theory to undergird a comparison of the history and current politics of racial-ethnic movements in the US. Reflecting on why those courses “work” and my social movements course does not, I realized that in each successful case I have settled on a single core objective that grounds and centers the course. For research methods, the core principle is that students learn research by doing it, and the course is organized around data collection exercises. For ethnic movements, the core principle is to give students empirical information and conceptual tools for understanding race relations and racial politics in the US.

My “ethnic movements” class has a strong social movement component, so it seems relevant to elaborate here on that course. I developed it in the late 1980s in response for the call for courses to meet the newly-instituted ethnic studies requirement. That requirement, in turn, was the result of a series of “racial incidents” on college campuses around the US and, of course, political mobilization in response to those incidents. Later the course also got certified to meet a college writing requirement, which I went along with because I was already doing most of what that requirement entailed, anyway. My core idea in developing the course was to use social movement theory, which is heavily grounded in the experience of the Black Civil Rights movement, as a framework for comparing the African American, Mexican American, American Indian, and Asian American movements and politics in the US. In proposing the course, I said I wanted students to have enough background to understand whatever the next eruption of racial/ethnic political conflict would be. Following the advice of a colleague at the time to center the course on books rather than articles, assigned reading is monographs that provide significant historical material and a point of view from within each of these movements. I also show a film for each movement/group and invite guest speakers when I can get them.

The central lesson of the historical materials is that people facing conquest or oppression have diverse responses and fight back in various ways, but you can fight really hard and still lose. Groups that lose don’t just give up, they keep looking for new possibilities for improving their position in the face of changing circumstances. We are living in the world that has been created by these past struggles and that’s the world we live in, whether we like it or not. We cannot change history, but we can choose how to respond to history and shape the future.

We also talk a lot about current conflicts and issues. Students’ major writing assignments are analyses of controversial US policy issues with an ethnic/racial dimension. They are required to locate sources that genuinely advocate different points of view and analyze them using concepts loosely drawn from social movement theory: interests, values, factual claims, strategic use of language (framing), and power and resources. They are not allowed to advocate one side or the other: they are required to present each side’s point of view on its own terms and to understand the bases of each side’s views and points of disagreement. I tell the students that it is obvious I have a point of view and of course thoughtful people will have a point of view about these issues, but it is valuable to understand what the other side actually thinks, not just our cartoon caricature of them. Although I cobbled together this list of “concepts” for analysis and they have some messiness around the edges and could doubtless be improved, they are really quite helpful for working one’s way through the various bases for disagreement about social policies. It gives us a way to get out of the box of thinking that everyone has to agree or somebody is right and somebody is wrong and into distinguishing between factual claims (which logically are right or wrong) and conflicts over interests or values. It lets us notice the relative power of the advocates on different sides. And it calls attention to the ways in which all actors are using language strategically to persuade others of their point of view.

The course has grown large and I now lecture to a large room of people; discussions and writing instruction happen in small sections with TAs. I get written responses from every student after every lecture and I read and comment on every single one after every class, generally just saying “ok” but taking the time to respond if there is a question or comment that warrants it. This puts me in dialog with the students even in the impersonality of the large lecture. Students often share information or experiences with me that I incorporate into subsequent lectures. Last semester I fell into the routine of beginning each class by reviewing common questions or concerns from the previous class—many students said this became their favorite part of the class, as they are found out what other people in the class thought. The papers are graded rigorously for both writing and analysis, but there are no tests on the lecture material. Class attendance is required and counts toward the grade; the daily comments proxy attendance as well as engagement. I tell students that attendance is required BECAUSE there are no tests: the lectures are ends in themselves. I tell them that my goal is to create an arena in which they will do their own thinking about complex issues, not just parrot back to me what I want to hear on an exam.

This course is very popular, partly because it meets two requirements, but many students call it the best course they’ve had at the university. In reflecting on why this course “works” and my movements course does not, I see the key. I’ve made up my mind what the central mission of the course is: it is education for citizenship. I’m teaching “racism 101” through a social movements lens. There is a clear moral/ethical center. The course is premised on the idea that people should learn what other people think and should respect each other as human beings with different histories and experiences, even while maintaining principled disagreement with them. It is premised on lifting up the experiences of people who have been marginalized. And it is premised on seeing oppressed people as subjects of history responding to difficult circumstances, not just as the objects of victimization. At the same time, I stress the heterogeneity and humanity of the dominant group, the fact that there were always Whites who opposed whatever bad things the US government was doing to non-White people, and that people find themselves in structural positions that are not of their own making and have to figure out how to deal with them. I’ve invented a saying: If your ancestors cut down all the trees, it isn’t your fault, but you don’t live in a forest. I enjoy teaching the course, I am emotionally connected to it, and the students respond to that. I have accepted that there are some things I cannot do. I have accepted that the students in the course are predominantly non-majors trying to knock off requirements. I don’t give as much theory as I would otherwise like, and the social science majors often feel frustrated by its lack. I have accepted that there is often a disconnect between what is happening in sections and what I’m doing in lecture. I’ve accepted that some students will zone out and resist no matter what I do and use the lack of tests as a basis for claiming that I am wasting their time.

So why doesn’t the social movements course “work”? Reflecting on the difference, it is obviously because I have not made up my mind what I’m trying to do in the course. A huge problem is pitching the level of the course. The course is numbered at a level that can attract graduate students as well as undergrad majors, but it lacks prerequisites and can have almost any upper division student enroll. The graduate students who take the class are generally non-sociologists. Every semester it seems like there is a different mix of students, and a class that works really well one semester will fail miserably the next. The material I’m personally most at home with is general theoretical principles about mobilization processes and the course I’d most like to teach is a survey of social movement theory to people who already have an interest in the topic. Students who come to the class with activist backgrounds who want to learn more about the theoretical underpinnings of activism often enjoy the class, and I feel I do a reasonably good job of dialoging with such students about how theory might inform practice. But this approach does not provide much empirical grounding in the history of social movements for students who are coming cold to the material. The trouble is that a focus on mobilization presupposes that people want to mobilize, and provides no information about the underlying social bases of movements or grievances or cultures of protest.

Every time I have taught the course, the mix of students has been different. Just when I made up my mind that a theoretical survey was inappropriate for the actual students enrolling in the course and pitched it in a more social-problems direction, a large contingent of sociology graduate students enrolled. But there are curricular reasons why this course generally does not have a lot of sociology grads. One semester I organized the course around the Jeff Goodwin & James M. Jasper’s  undergraduate-level reader The Social Movements Reader: Cases and Concepts. It turns out that there was a publisher problem and the book never showed up that semester, so I substituted “best fit” articles instead. I did find that their way of organizing the field was well-suited to how undergraduates would think about the field. I decided as I went what each class would be about, emailed lecture outlines to the students about noon for a 2pm class, and the students loved it. A strong contingent of activist students provided a pool of engaged questions and commentary that promoted discussions that all the students enjoyed. The course went really well. The next time I taught the course I used the same basic materials and game plan, except this time I actually used the Goodwin/Jasper reader along with David S. Meyer’s text The Politics of Protest, Social Movements in America. This group of students had a totally different dynamic. There were few activists, a bunch of sociology majors (most of whom were named Megan or Kristen—I could never keep track of who was who), and a contingent of non-sociology graduate students. The course never took off. I personally didn’t like the shorter version of the extracted articles in the reader; I’ve learned that I like having the methods sections etc. in the originals. Many students were vocally offended by my assignments, tests and grading. Discussions kept wandering away from social movements or the assigned reading into the long-winded political or social opinions of a few vocal students.

I’ve also had difficulty developing assignments that are consistently meaningful for the students. I often have people turn in notes on their reading instead of testing them, but then I realized that writing the notes was itself quite burdensome for them to write, as well as for me to read. Shifting to tests instead worked fine one term, but then offended people the next term. “Analyze a social movement you are interested in” works well for a motivated student who is interested in a social movement, but not so well for others. It has sometimes worked out ok to give students a list of books that are case studies of movements and ask them to do a theoretically-informed review of the work, although most typically they just “use” whatever theory the author uses.

I think the most important theoretical lessons to teach to people are that mobilization is difficult, it does not happen automatically, and that the outcomes of a social movement are not under the control of the movement, but are a product of the dynamic strategic action between movement activists and their opponents and others in the environment. I wrote that sentence, and then I realized that that lesson is important for activists and social movement scholars to learn, but it presupposes the prior important lesson that collective action matters. It presupposes that there are important social issues that cannot be fixed individually but might be improved collectively. I need to remember that in planning my teaching.

I’ve realized that what I’ve said is the most important theoretical lesson about social movement outcomes also applies to teaching. It is not just about what you do. It is also about who the students are and what they do. I think I have struggled so much with teaching social movements because it has never developed a consistent student constituency with a predictable central tendency in their goals and interests. I’m reasonably well-prepared to teach a course that is dominated by activists or self-motivated advanced students, but not to teach a room full of people who don’t even know why they are in the course. But that isn’t consistently who shows up. Instead, every time I teach the course feels like the first time, with constant surprises about what will or will not connect with them.

The lesson is that you have to consider your students, not just your own tastes in planning a class. If you teach at a small school, your students are probably relatively homogeneous and you can come to know what to expect. If you teach a large lecture at a large school, sampling theory tells us that you’ll get a relatively predictable mix of students with gradual drift over time rather than marked changes from term to term. But if you teach a relatively small class at a large heterogeneous school, and especially if you teach a class that can draw from majors and non-majors and grads and undergrads, sampling theory predicts wild fluctuations from term to term. So now I think I’ve analyzed the problem. If I’m ever to succeed with this course in this environment, I either have to pick a target constituency and repetitively teach the course to that constituency so that, over time, the word gets out and the appropriate pool of people take the course, or I have to adopt a teaching plan that can adapt and flex every semester in light of who is there. Or some of each. I think you’ll find parallels for this in theorizing about strategy choices by social movement leaders.

My courses (such as they are) are posted on my web site: www.ssc.wisc.edu/~oliver  (or just Google Pamela Oliver sociology)

I’ve already learned a lot from the contributions so far and look forward to reading other people’s ideas in this forum.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Pedagogy of Social Movements

5 responses to “Quandaries in teaching about social movements

  1. Jeff A. Larson

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Pam. It’s nice to hear you working through these problems in a public forum where people like me can easily relate.

    I’ve found my greatest success when I push students to find (at least) one issue they’re passionate about. Early on I’ll say something like, “Maybe it’s something you strongly agree with, strongly disagree with, or have been personally affected by. We all have ideas about how to make the world a better place. The question is, how would you like to see it improved?” I think this kind of save-the-world frame resonates among young adults coming of age, just out of the nest, and trying to find their place in the world. To get them thinking, I begin by introducing them to the incredible variety of issues out there for which a movement has emerged (this also gives them a quick idea of what we mean by a “social movement”). I talk about my own passions and activist experience in order to humanize the process of choosing an issue. Then I ask them to choose one. In doing so, students seem to develop a sense of ownership and come to identity with “their” movement. For the remainder of the course, as they write papers, give presentations, conduct analyses, or even participate in service learning, they then have an issue — and therefore a social movement — in which to ground their concerns.

    With that in mind, one assignment I’ve used with success asks them to produce a leaflet for their movement (optionally, a flyer or website) in which they must apply and demonstrate their understanding of framing principles (e.g., injustice, agency, identity, frame alignment). First in small groups and then as a class, we critique the framing used in leaflets from real SMOs that I bring to class (SMO websites also work). They love to be critical of these but also enjoy the opportunity to create their own leaflet and the challenge to be persuasive. When I have (some of) them briefly present these to the class, they are effectively teaching the rest of the class about “their” issue/movement.

    Perhaps social movements courses differ from others in our discipline because (unlike gender, race, family, religion, education, etc.) most students have little or no personal experience with the object of study. By helping them uncover the issues that they already feel passionate about, I find they are then better able to relate, engage, and enjoy the class.


    • Thanks for your reactions. I’d wonder about your students’ backgrounds. Do you find that some truly have too little knowledge of the world to pick an issue? (I feel like I have worked with a subset of students who are genuinely ignorant about anything outside their own fairly privileged world.) Do you require them to learn about the issue they are promoting or do you let them focus on mobilization about a superficially-defined issue?


  2. Jeff A. Larson

    Good questions. I’m at a 2nd-tier state school where students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but in general they’re middle class suburbanites who opted to stay close to home. This might be a difference between our schools. There are certainly students every semester who can’t (or won’t?) find an issue they care about, but on the whole my sense is that giving them the opportunity and the flexibility to choose their own issue/SM increases their interest and engagement in the class. The focus of my assignments is closer to the mobilization end of things rather than the issues themselves (I find they don’t need much encouragement to learn the issues). Whether or not that’s the best idea is another question.


  3. I am grateful to you for having written such a thoughtful and honest set of reflections as I finalize my syllabus for social movements this semester. I am new to teaching the course and your experiences (as well as Jeff’s comments) have inspired me to get creative with some of the assignments. Here’s to a good semester for us all!


  4. Margaret Keck

    Your post, Pamela Oliver, made my day. I came upon this symposium on pedagogy accidentally the night before teaching my undergraduate comparative politics of social movements class, which for precisely the kinds of reasons you note is not going at all well this semester. This is an easy class to teach if you have a core of activists in it – it almost doesn’t matter what you assign them to read. The grab it and start thinking strategically right there on the spot. But when you have a class full of students for whom the very idea of collective action is exotic and hard to situate either in their own lives or in the midst of what they have been reading in other classes, it takes a lot of imagination – and this time around I have not yet found the key. So – thank you. I needed to hear from someone else that my own experience was not (or not only) a result of my own ineptness.

    To add one more question to the pot – I also occasionally wonder if the gap in experience between today’s students and those of us nearing the traditional age of retirement may not be getting harder and harder to bridge. For my undergraduate students, the fact that when I started college female students had curfews and male students did not is so bizarre that I might as well be talking about a different galaxy, not just a different millennium.

    In any case, thank you – and thanks to all the others who have contributed to this blog…

    Margaret Keck
    Dept. of Political Science
    Johns Hopkins University


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