The original posts for Mobilizing Ideas on pedagogy in social movements were insightful and thorough. I recognized many of my own pedagogical struggles in their posts, especially the problems of satisfying activist students while also engaging students who are unfamiliar with and usually perplexed by the activism of others. As a follow up to those great posts, I thought it might be useful to write about my experience in constructing a writing intensive course on movements, including what worked and what didn’t work in engaging both kinds of students.
In the fall of 2011, I took a one year position teaching in the writing program at Wellesley College, a small, all-women’s institution in Massachusetts. The writing program brings in professors from various departments (plus a few adjuncts, like me) and asks them to teach writing skills through a focus on their substantive specialties. Having recently finished a dissertation on schisms in the American feminist movement, I was asked to teach incoming freshman about women’s movements in the United States.
I was daunted by the entire endeavor. I had assisted in several social movement courses as a graduate student, but I had never constructed a movements course on my own. Wellesley was also a markedly different environment than any other college in which I had been involved (hint: private and elite) and I wasn’t sure what to expect from the students. I was also more excited about this class than any other I had taught. It was a seminar format with the enrollment capped at twelve – an ideal way for students to engage and struggle with the complicated issues in women’s movements. For many of these freshmen, it was the first time they had ever considered feminism or its discontents. Others had been deeply involved in both social movements and institutional politics, and had deeply set ideas about women’s movements. The course structure provided a platform for students at both ends of the spectrum to talk and write to each other about their differences, as well as allowing time for independent meetings to work through the course material and their writing.
Given a relatively short semester to work with, I decided to focus on women’s movements since the 1950s, and each week was organized around a different perspective. More specifically, we covered liberal feminism, radical feminism, cultural feminism, lesbian feminism, working class feminism, Black feminism, Latina feminism, “young women’s” feminism, and the activism of conservative women. The students read mostly original works from activists in the forms of essays, manifestos, memoirs, and propaganda. I also peppered in some academic work and movement histories. The page counts of the reading assignments were relatively light—often fewer than 20 pages a week. This low volume of reading necessarily meant difficult choices in what students would read, and I had to leave a lot of important work out of the syllabus. But this also gave them more time to reflect on connections to readings from prior weeks, and to think and write about what the activists were saying to each other, as well as to a broader audience. Students were not always happy about reading original work; activist writing is personally and politically provocative, and utterly different than things they were used to discussing in a classroom. They also struggled with the texts because they had fewer guide posts to help figure out what battle the activists were fighting and why. Sometimes the activists’ writing was directed to men, sometimes to each other, and sometimes to abstract institutions, like law and patriarchy. We spent half of our class time putting these pieces into context and thinking about what the world looked like for the women who had written them.
The other half of our class time was necessarily devoted to writing, including mundane in-class exercises on peer-editing and grammar exercises. More substantially, the students were expected to write three medium length papers and one longer research paper. In the fall semester, I chose not to provide paper prompts because I did not want to constrain the students by my choices; they should, I thought, write on the movement ideas that were most interesting to them. This turned out to be a mistake; many of them panicked at having so little direction on unfamiliar topics. The second time I taught the course, I provided guiding prompts that indicated how to focus the paper. It gave them a place to start organizing their papers and gave them clues for thinking through the unity and diversity within and between women’s movements. Even with the prompts, we focused on how to find a unique angle and put their own voice into writing assignments.
In their first paper, I asked them to write about how prior experiences in other movements might have shaped activists’ perspectives of feminism. In their second paper, they were asked to write about how different strands of feminism understood what it meant to be a woman, and thus what feminists should want in reforming (or revolutionizing) society. The third paper, in which they were asked to analyze Wellesley College according to one of the perspectives covered in the class, produced the most interesting and innovative papers. Modeled on their in-class readings, the students wrote feminist or conservative critiques of Wellesley College, and they focused on a wide variety of subjects of their own choosing, including the feminist promises and problems of single-sex institutions, the role of sports in a women’s college, racial divisions among students, and the treatment by female students of the lone male student enrolled at Wellesley. The assignment allowed them to take activists’ ideas and concepts and play with them in their own world by writing from those feminist identities. The students reimagined their college through the eyes of activists, and this gave them a different, fuller understanding of the course material, and a new view of their institution. It was risky writing for them; they were drawing attention to difficult topics and making controversial claims about their shared institution. But it also gave them insight how difficult activist writing can be. The third paper was such a success several of the students chose to expand this piece into their longer research assignment, and they were able to seek out additional feminist and conservative texts to supplement the course readings.
In each assignment, students were asked to think through competing visions of women’s roles in society. This is precisely what makes writing courses wonderful opportunities to teach students about social movements. Longer writing assignments require students to think through conflicting movement ideas more methodically than they otherwise might in casual class discussion. They also require students to make bold statements about critical issues and to back these statements up coherently and systematically. Even more optimistically, students can find it personally empowering to write about how the world could and should be, and writing courses about social movements are an ideal platform for this, given that social movements themselves are about changing the world, even if in small ways. These are benefits that both activist and non-activist students alike can glean from writing intensively about social movements.