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?