Reflections on Teaching Social Movements

Recently, I finished teaching my first undergraduate social movements course.  It was an exciting and thought-provoking experience, both for me and for my students (I hope).  As I reflect on this experience, I wanted to share some of the ideas that my students and I discussed, and some of the things I’ve been thinking about based upon those discussions.

  •  My students were surprised to learn, contrary to the impressions they had before taking the course, that social movements don’t necessarily involve violence—and that some movements are met with an incredible degree of violent repression or backlash.  This opened the door for conversations about media portrayal of social movements, nonviolent civil disobedience, state repression, and more.
  • On a related note, I showed several films in class, but Ballot Measure 9 certainly generated the most discussion among my students.  This is an excellent account of the campaign surrounding an anti-gay ballot initiative in Oregon in the 1990s.  Ballot Measure 9 is one of many films listed on Pam Oliver’s helpful compilation of movie suggestions for social movements courses.
  • One common sentiment that I hear from students is that they believe young people don’t mobilize because they feel powerless.  We discussed possible reasons for that, and how this sense of powerless might be transformed into activism and community engagement.  It makes me curious about why they and their peers feel this way—while the sentiment of powerlessness isn’t new, I’ve been thinking about why my students feel that it’s so widespread.  I have some ideas, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.
  • My students were, unsurprisingly, very interested in the role of social media and new technologies in social movements.  We talked about its use in recent movements, like the Arab Spring, Occupy, and even the Tea Party.  I shared with them some of the excellent research that’s already been done on this topic, such as Deana Rohlinger’s work on mass media and social movements, or Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport’s book, Digitally Enabled Social Change.  I’m happy to see that my students are identifying questions that we’re still working to address, and I’m hopeful that they might one day become the scholars who do this research.

What are your thoughts about teaching undergraduate social movements courses?  What concepts are most exciting for your students, and how do you initiate engaging discussions in your class?



Filed under Daily Disruption

8 responses to “Reflections on Teaching Social Movements

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Teaching Social Movements

  2. Pingback: Reflections on Teaching Social Movements | Nonviolent Action Network

  3. Todd Nicholas Fuist

    Hey Amanda. Good post. I was planning on writing about this in the future as I’m now beginning my second time teaching social movements. I was lucky enough, in my first class, to have a lot of students that were activists themselves, so I didn’t have students who thought movements were mostly or inherently violent, thankfully.

    One thing I did (this will probably be the topic of the future post) is run a semester-long simulation. It went fairly well and the students enjoyed it (I have tweaked it a bit to run smoother after the first time, learning from my mistakes. When I post about it, I’ll include how it’s going this second time).

    The three documentaries I show are

    1) With God on Our Side (a great movie for talking about structural opportunities as it shows the history of the religious right partnering with political elites).

    2) If a Tree Falls…: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (good for talking about activist culture).

    3) Before Stonewall (useful for showing how movements emerge).

    I’ve never seen Ballot Measure 9, but I’ll check that out.

    As for your point about social media and digital communication, THAT I did encounter a lot. During the simulation, students actually had trouble about thinking about how to mobilize outside of twitter and facebook. It did lead to an interesting discussion about how social media can be a double edged sword for movements: both enabling them to reach a lot of people as well potentially fostering complacency in mobilizing strategies as people come to rely on them.


  4. Laura K. Nelson

    Interesting points.

    I have a question about teaching social movements: how do you counterbalance the often uninspiring way a lot of social movement research conveys social movements? How do you get students to understand things like “political opportunity structure” and “master frames” without taking the excitement out of discussing social movements?


  5. Todd, I’d love to hear more about your simulation. It sounds like a great activity. I look forward to your post about it! One of our faculty members shows “With God on Our Side” in his movements class when they talk about the Tea Party. I haven’t seen the other movies that you mentioned, but I’ll have to check them out.

    I also had a discussion with my students about online mobilizing, and the complacency it can bring about–people can “like” a movement on Facebook, but never do anything else to support it. Some of my students had run into this problem in their own mobilizing efforts.

    Laura, I think that finding ways for the students to interact with activists or apply theory to their own activism helps. I try to bring in guest speakers who are passionate about their work, or at least show videos that convey that passion. What are your suggestions?


    • Laura K. Nelson

      I’m only a few weeks into my class, but I’m doing similar things. I start the class every week with a discussion of current events, particularly events that might relate to my students. I also like movies, even dramas like “Iron Jawed Angels”. It’s a bit cheesy, but I think it really captures the energy/emotion of the moments around woman suffrage.


  6. Pingback: Breast Cancer Awareness Month as a Social Movement Teaching Tool | Mobilizing Ideas

  7. Pingback: Breast Cancer Awareness Month as a Social Movement Teaching Tool

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