By Kim Dugan
If “value-free sociology” was YOUR Facebook status (and we were “friends”) sorry to say I would not “like” it. So too it goes for the so called value-free teaching of social movements. I view it is as impractical, if not impossible. The guiding question then is: To what extent do we faculty advocate for a position or for change? Three things I find guide my pedagogical approach to teaching of social movements: 1) to have and maintain an awareness about which/whose values I am actually promoting, 2) clearly articulating and being transparent about those values, and 3) reaching students where they are/asset-based student learning.
Value free sociology is a basic philosophical/theoretical/methodological discussion. This rant of mine most likely belongs in that discussion. However, I think it needs to be clarified here as well. Historically, social movement instructors have been known to be those with political leanings toward the left. We tend to advocate for the people—the masses, the underserved, and the disenfranchised (not necessarily in that order). Despite images of the liberal professor in movies and other media, students seem to see us as mainly objective instruments of education. We are supposed to hand material to them devoid of political content. Attempts at critique may be considered politically charged and biased. My experience has shown that most students do not readily see the status quo (often represented in history books or media) as political. Part of my aim is to expose the political nature of the status quo.
I choose readings that not only fit with my interests and area/s of expertise but also are timely or otherwise hold theoretical and/or methodological importance. Just as Nancy Davis mentioned in her thoughtful and practical piece, we have to have boundaries to keep our courses manageable. In my summer section of Collective Behavior and Social Movements I had just over 3 weeks to deal fully with social movements. I used Tina Fetner’s How the Religious Right Shaped Lesbian and Gay Activism (2008, University of Minnesota Press). This book is valuable in a few key ways. First, it deals with a contemporary issue situated in an historical context. Second, this book reveals the dynamic nature of opposing movement interface, and third, the media is granted considerable attention. Does the use of this book reveal my support for LGBT equality? I was aware and actively selected a book that fit with my politics, my academic interests and my expertise. I wanted active learning about movement content as well as theory of opposing movement interface. The more central value here and that which I express directly is that I value informed and thoughtful engagement, not routinized spewing of “sides.” This book also provides more than a glimpse into the political nature of the status quo.
Awareness is but one part of the equation. I also aim to be transparent and direct about my biases, where possible. The key for me is in exposing the details of actors and agendas and I seek viable explanations of tactics, strategies, identity, and action (and so forth). I try to model and I ask that they also pay attention to the things that they assume are natural and ask them to (re)examine their own positions from a more informed position. We explore both sides of the opposing movement conflict between the Christian right and the LGBT movement. While I want “my” movements to succeed, my aim for student learning is to simply invite knowledge, evaluate their own assumptions, and pursue action where possible. I share with them that I think honest and rational civic engagement is a responsibility, a right, and a privilege that they should take seriously. Civic engagement is not value-free.
Finally, I aim to have students connect from where they are with the material. At Eastern Connecticut State University much of the dialogue around pedagogy involves asset-based learning and active engagement of students in the learning process. I work to apply these ideals in my social movements’ course. For my course it means that I find a way to have students pursue a social movement of interest to them and work on segments of it as the semester moves forward. As we pursue particular theories or methodologies I ask that they apply the same questions to the movements they are researching. I also ask them to bring in their own experience as useful in understanding theory and I also share relevant personal experience when appropriate. Perhaps the best way to explain how I apply asset-based learning in my class is by providing an example or two from my recent class. This summer I had a non-traditional student (retired military) who does contract work for the U.S. Military and has /continues to work in some of the hottest (for lack of a better word) sites in the Arab world. Time and again this student shared his experience and observations about Arab Spring, a topic most of the students knew nothing about. When it came to his written work, I allowed him as much as possible to use his experience coupled with the written material to more fully articulate the positions, strategies, and success of the movement. He was able to simultaneously hold his values as patriotic American soldier and a man empathetic to one who would be struggling to feed his own family (allying himself with the man who catalyzed the Arab Spring). It is my view that allowing students to approach the material as it relates to their lives is the key to their caring about, investing in and thus learning social movement theory. When we allow for variations in the curriculum because of our students, we have great potential to meet them where they are. My students are hard- working and very busy people (many work full time). They expect objective truth from the faculty. I am not there to “bullshit” them. I am there to tell them what is going on and where they can plug in, if they so choose. The value is in knowledge and application and positive change (sounds lofty, right?). It is my hope to convey that they can make a difference.