By Jennifer Earl
As social movement scholars, we recognize the ways in which the information environment social movements face is much different than it was 20 years ago. Some of this has to do with the rise of digital and social media, some of it has to do with the rise of 24/7 cable news and other significant changes in journalism, and a non-negligible portion has to do with the very active role that people play in selecting what information they will be exposed to, attend to, believe, and act upon. Our classrooms are no different—students are active learners who are deciding what assignments they will complete and how deeply they will engage the material. If you teach in a more conservative state, as I do, you routinely teach students who question the value of social science research and/or are motivated to not believe social science research that conflicts with their pre-existing beliefs or political commitments. Progressive students can also approach material with preconceived ideas about what research is likely to find and misunderstand the surprises and nuance.
But, two problems I have found to be most acute in teaching involve helping my students understand the fullness of alternative experiences and perspectives and helping students whose own lives are reflected in that material feel supported by that material. In my opinion, both issues grow more serious each year. For instance, it is one thing for students to understand research findings on the prevalence of a social problem and/or the causes and consequences of various social phenomena. It is wholly another for those students to be able to understand how those processes are embedded in the everyday experiences, world views, and reactions of people experiencing them. And, for those students whose own experiences are reflected in specific pieces of social science research, there can be an alienating antiseptic quality to that work that doesn’t necessarily help the student feel supported by the material.
For a long time, I dealt with all of these challenges through videos, especially documentaries, but over time, this has ceased to be “enough.” A few years ago, drawing on research from communication that suggests that people are less resistant to new information that challenges their views when they are encountering those ideas in an entertainment context, I started assigning fiction as one element in several of my classes. That has grown into a major assignment in most of my undergraduate classes in which students pick from a slate of fiction and nonfiction books and then write a summary of the book and connect it to course material (I am happy to share this assignment with anyone who emails me to get it, including the list of books I allow students to choose from).
One book that has consistently been a hit with students, and from their essays has really transformed their thinking in deep ways about racism in policing, protest, and riots has been The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I originally read this book through a non-academic fiction book club. The book tells the story of a Black high school student, Starr, who is driving home from a party with a friend, Khalil, when they are pulled over and Khalil is shot by the officer. The rest of the book engages a wide range of topics, from how the police handle the investigation into the shooting, to the impacts of trauma on Starr, to the reactions to the shooting by Starr’s neighbors versus her upscale and largely white prep school classmates. There are a number of great summaries of the book out there if people want to read more about it before committing to reading it, but I recommend diving in because the book is a great read. Since this is a social movements blog, I will note that there are a number of protests and a riot, which follows the failure of a grand jury to indict the officer.
The book focuses on Starr’s perspective, encouraging the reader to take on Starr’s perspective or at least better understand it. At my book club, which is a community book club in which I am the only faculty member (for now!), the book sparked a sharp interrogation of riots, among other topics. This was enough to get me to try it out in classes, including a general education social problems class and two upper-division classes (one on law and society and one on collective behavior and social movements). The results have been impressive. In class after class, it has been clear that the book speaks to, and has an impact on, a wide variety of readers. Whether a student whose background hasn’t provoked in them deep anger over unrelenting injustice or a student trying to cope with that anger and see examples of other people coping, my students have written tremendous essays reporting on the book and connecting it to a wide array of course material.
No book is perfect and certainly there are critics of this book, despite the many awards it has won. There is also a movie, which is not as stirring as the book and probably doesn’t help accomplish my pedagogical goals in the same ways. But, even with the risk that students try to watch the movie instead of read the book or read the book and dislike parts of it (or all of it), I have had good fortune with this book doing exactly what I hope all readings will do—its characters and themes have supported my students’ critical thinking about their own and others experiences and how social forces are reflected in those experiences. Indeed, I would venture a prediction that if everyone read this book, media coverage and public understandings of displays of community grief and anger would become much more complex and students who have experienced similar traumas would be able to see another character navigating that trauma in vivid detail.
Whether you consider this kind of assignment in your courses or not, I recommend you give this book a read. It is serious but in an approachable way, just what one needs over the summer.