Experiential Learning for Democratic Engagement

For the past two years I have been teaching a couple of undergraduate seminars on the subject of social movements and the media at York University in Toronto (where I also recently defended my dissertation on the subject of global justice activism, time, and technology). Earlier this month, at the “Teaching in Focus” conference organized annually by York’s Teaching Commons, I delivered a presentation about the experiental learning-based final assignment I have built into my syllabi for these courses. My presentation was well received, so I thought that for my first blog entry I would share with fellow social movement scholars and educators the essentials of running this assignment.

I will presume that the benefits of engaging students in experiential learning, especially when it comes to social movements as the subject of study, need not be rehearsed here. Instead, I will focus on the logistics. In brief, the students are given three options: a collective organizing exercise (the recommended option); individual “learning by doing” exercise; and a research paper option. I always strongly discourage the last option when first introducing this assignment during the first class: I stress that in the past offerings of the course, the students ultimately really appreciated being encouraged to choose the experiential learning option (which has indeed been the case). I also like to point out that this is probably going to be their sole opportunity to take on a different kind of assignment, compared to most if not all their other courses… I usually manage to convince the vast majority. I then task them with thinking about one or two social justice causes they (might) care about, for the purpose of creating small organizing groups that will seek to create change (raise awareness, mostly) around that issue. I give them a couple of weeks to think about it — it’s also good to wait until the add-drop period ends so I know who is staying in the course and will remain a group member.

The next stage — facilitating the creation of the organizing groups — tends to be a little bit tricky. The groups are ideally composed of no fewer than four and no more than six students, but sometimes many of them want to work on the same issue (last term, it was Black Lives Matter), which raises the need to create more than one group on that issue, and by extension, the need to figure out how to avoid a replication of effort and competition for the attention of their target audience. If there are only three students wanting to work together, I have found that they can pull it off if they are really dedicated…I adjust my expectations of their final activity accordingly.

To determine the causes/issues that students are interested in working on, I simply go around the room and ask them to name one or two, and I write those down as categories on the blackboard (or in a word processor on a computer connected to a projector). As we go around the room, new categories emerge, and students can either add new ones or sign up for an existing one. Next I go over the numbers and establish the size and number of groups — the students inevitably engage in some back and forth at this point, jumping among groups as they figure out what they want to do, and who they want to work with. My goal is to have a solid list by the end of class, which is then posted on the online learning management system.

Students who are already involved in social movements (so far, they have been very few) can do the individual “learning by doing” assignment, involving reflection on their experiences — so long as they are actively engaged in organizing during the course of the term.

Some two weeks later, each organizing group has to submit a (single) proposal, outlining their chosen social justice cause or issue, planned tactics/activity, objectives, media strategy, and organizing timeline (the handful of students who select one of the other options have to submit individual, appropriately adjusted proposals).

In the weeks to follow, I try to give the students a bit of class time to meet as organizing groups, taking the opportunity to do informal “check-ins” and ascertain their need for further guidance. I also incorporate short skill-shares into my lectures: how to organize a media event, how to develop talking points, how to write a press release… I base these on activist manuals as well as my own experiences as a social activist (I radicalized in the early 2000s as part of the global justice movement in Canada).

The assignment grade is independent of the ultimate success of their social movement activity (as measured by turnout or mainstream media coverage); instead it is based on the reflection papers they are asked to write as individuals, the best of which demonstrate mastery of course concepts by applying them to make sense of their experiences. There is also a smaller, private, peer evaluation component to compensate for the unequal distribution of labour that often occurs in small group work.

Moreover, during the final class, all the groups and all those who completed the individual assignments, are expected to present their work to the rest of the class. Everyone has to speak for three minutes, regardless of which option they had selected. The group members present as a unit, covering what they did, what went well, what they would have done differently — I encourage them to share photos and/or videos from their “actions.” It is one of the funnest classes of the term, as everyone gets to see what the rest had been working on and how it worked out. Inevitably, the students are super enthused and inspired as a result of their collective organizing experience. My evaluations from these courses are a testament to this, and the reason why I wanted to share this assignment here — it gets rave reviews from the students. Although their faces are full of skepticism and apprehension when I first inform them about what’s involved, they always end up loving it, and seem to particularly enjoy the sense of collective identity and solidarity that develops within the groups.  A few mentioned they were happy I had talked them into it and that it made them more engaged citizens. So while additional challenges can arise that I did not cover here, these are decidedly outweighed by the tremendous benefits of this final assignment and I think you should consider using it (feel free to contact me for details). Chances are you and your students will love it as much as I and mine have!

PS. I want to acknowledge Dr. Marcos Ancelovici and Dr. Lesley Wood for providing the foundation of this assignment.

1 Comment

Filed under Daily Disruption

One response to “Experiential Learning for Democratic Engagement

  1. Great post and helpful ideas, I will follow up via email.


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