Too Green, Too Idealistic, and Not Near Cynical Enough

Several months ago I was excited to accept a tenure-track assistant professor position in sociology at a small Midwestern liberal-arts university. Although I am grateful to be employed and am looking forward to becoming a real, grown-up teacher after many years of graduate school, I am a bit anxious about the 4-4 teaching load that begins in several months. Nevertheless, because my dissertation is focused on social movements I am particularly excited about teaching a course this fall entitled: Social Justice and Social Change.

In preparing the syllabus, I found myself drawing from similar courses I had taken, taught, assisted with, and a selection of a dozen other syllabi I found posted on the internet. Besides being fascinated by the various approaches used by other professors, and gleaning some excellent reading and resource suggestions, I sensed something was missing. Only one of the syllabi I encountered included a section on practical training in social movement building.

Now granted, this is a poor research sample and is probably based on some bizarre Google algorithm that would require far more quantitative training than most sociologists could muster. Indeed, many of the courses I encountered included a wealth of classic and contemporary movements to study. Several also included a final paper where students were asked to examine a particular movement that interested in them through the eyes of social change and social movement literature. Nevertheless, I was hard pressed to find any syllabus that included even a hint of material focused on how one begins to develop a movement, community organizing skills, or street-experience working with local leaders.

Part of the reason I chose sociology was to change the world, not just learn about it. I came to graduate school from relatively working-class family roots. My grandparents were skeptical of ivory-tower contemplation and, though they have long-since passed, regularly kept me on my toes through many a graduate seminar by whispering in my ear…”So what! Does any of this stuff really matter?” Many of my non-graduate school friends (aka those who live in the “real world”) echoed my grandparent’s voices by occasionally reminding me that PhD REALLY stands for “Piled Higher and Deeper.” As a result a quotation from Feagin and Vera’s Liberation Sociology text adorns my syllabi calling my students to consider that, “the ultimate measure of the value of social science knowledge is not some type of propositional theory building but whether it sharpens our understanding of society and helps to build a more just and democratic society” (2008: 36).

I confess knowing very little about what I suspect has been a vibrant conversation around this topic. And yet I was struck by how little practical training for social change I found in the syllabi I encountered. I’m wondering why this is the case. Is it because there is not nearly enough time to include such material in relatively short 10-week terms found in many universities? Is it because such material might require de-centering the classroom and organizing community internships? Is it because as scholars, we are not interested in or prepared to teach this material? Is it because we simply don’t have time to pursue both an interest in activism and scholarship? Is it because we consider skill building or the insights of street-level organizers below the level of professional academia? Is it because such radicalism is discouraged in today’s institutions purposed to produce well-trained workers as opposed to revolutionary thinkers? I suspect it may be a well-mixed sampling of all of these and more that I am unaware of.

A mentor told me some years ago that when one begins a new job, it is important to not feel embarrassed to ask what seem like foolish questions. She also quipped that it is also good to jot down some notes about what you notice when you first get started. She suggested that although I will be too green, too idealistic, and not near cynical enough, I will notice things in my first year that will become socialized out of me before too long. As I prepare for my first semester of full-time university teaching, I am noticing that, for many understandable reasons, there appears to be little practical training for students in our social justice and social movement classes. So I am curious; do others include practical training in your courses? Does it work? What do you use? Why do you use it?

Besides being curious about others’ reflections, I propose that busy scholars make one small addition to their teaching – some addition of practical social change training. For my upcoming class I will add a section on the practical considerations of social movement building, will have students read several articles written by well-seasoned activists, and have them include an analysis of practical movement considerations in their final papers.

So, please forgive my idealism and grandparents’ quiet mutterings. I’ll probably learn soon enough to think before asking foolish questions…but hopefully not.



Filed under Daily Disruption

3 responses to “Too Green, Too Idealistic, and Not Near Cynical Enough

  1. You might find the following article from outside of academia interesting. Although it is not focused on the role of academics and social movements, it does have a tangential critique that is relevant to what you have written.


    Most relevant passage:

    When the Anti-Globalization Movement saw a groundswell of activism, action and organizing, the capacities of the NPIC and Progressive Studies to contain potential revolutionary forces were put to the test.

    Hungry to learn more about the world and how to change it, fresh activists turned to the remnants of the last generation of high struggle. Only instead of finding the history in their neighbourhoods, grandparents, political organizations and prisons, they found them in books written by university-educated people, themselves overwhelmingly disengaged from struggle, published in academic journals and university-affiliated presses.

    Infused in this purportedly radical press was the ideology of anti-oppression. Explicitly claiming heritage in the 1960s and 1970s liberation movements on the one hand, anti-oppression theory on the other hand discourages direct connection with these movements. Referencing and critiquing works of past generations while not making those works directly available to new activists, academics and their allies on the one hand stood on the backs of (often still-living) organizers of decades gone, while dismissing their work as a whole as “problematic.”

    Black Power can be dismissed as anti-feminist and homophobic. Labour struggles are racist, colonialist, and patriarchal. Radical feminism is anti-trans*, anti-sex, and sometimes homophobic. Other feminisms are pro-capitalist, and white-centred. Gay liberation was dominated by white, affluent men. Components of all movements sought to integrate themselves in political power structures and Capital. In order for an idea to be worth considering, the generator of the idea must be politically pure. And since the purity has to do with strict adherence to a code of speech and conduct which was developed and is learned primarily through universities in the past twenty years, which are accessible only to a portion of workers (and in departments which are desirable to far, far fewer than even have access) the pool of people who are able to speak with any authority is quite small. Interestingly, it does not include many on-the-ground organizers, past and present, but is dominated by those who have access or desire to pursue a formal education in Progressive Studies.


  2. Hey Matthew! I read your post as a challenge to modify some online pages as resources.

    If folks send me their course outlines, syllabi, bibliographies, or online resource links on “practical social change training [or] practical considerations of social movement building” I will post them at the Social Movement Study Network website
    In addition I will link them from the Progressive Movements website

    and Power Structure Research website

    Send to: c.berlet {at} researchforprogress {dot} {org}


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