Tag Archives: teaching social movements

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.

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Do the Right Thing

Last night in our Post-Ferguson Film Series we screened Do the Right Thing (1989) by director Spike Lee. Having not seen it since I was an undergrad in a sociology course, it struck me how incredibly relevant the film remains today. Even 26 years later, it is still a great resource for teaching about race and protest tactics.

do the right thing

The film begins slowly, following various different characters on a hot summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The film documents the numerous subtle and explicit forms of inequality and racial tensions in this neighborhood. As the day goes on, and the heat increases, tensions build over a series of seemingly small, but symbolically laden, events between members of different racial groups. The film ends with an altercation between several black youth and Sal, the Italian owner of a pizzeria. This leads to the arrest and murder of one of the young black men in the altercation, Radio Raheem, by a police officer. In response to the unnecessary tragic death, the pizzeria’s delivery boy, Mookie (portrayed by Spike Lee) who is friends with Raheem, throws a garbage can through the window of the pizzeria. This leads to the complete destruction of the pizzeria and a riot in the neighborhood.

Do the Right Thing depicts, and holds in complexity, the many layers and forms of racial tension and inequality in American society, raising questions of how one can “do the right thing” in a society with such vast, entrenched, and diverse forms of inequality and injustice. It is a brilliant film, showing how a sense of hurt and injustice from a series of slights, degradations, and inequalities can slowly compound under difficult conditions (such as the symbolic summer heat), and combust in violent collective action. Continue reading

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A great social movement assignment – I promise!

I gave this assignment in my Social Movements seminar (30 students) last fall.   The assignment is an adaptation of the norm-breaking assignments that you often see in psychology or intro sociology. The overall goal of the assignment is for students to realize that social changes isn’t just about demonstrating or protesting but also everyday micro-level resistance.

Here is my money-back guarantee:

1)  your students will love this assignment

2)  you will love reading their papers (really)

Some examples of the experiences my students wrote about:

1. Going to a bar with full make-up and then the following weekend going without

2. Not trying to hide one’s weight under baggy clothing at the gym Continue reading


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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. Continue reading


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Collective Action in Fiction: Dive into Dystopian World of Wool

Howley, Hugh. Wool (Silo Saga). Broad Reach Publishing

Howley, Hugh. Wool (Silo Saga). Broad Reach Publishing

By Deana A. Rohlinger

I love reading fiction. I read it while I am eating my lunch, standing in line at the grocery store, and late at night when I really should be sleeping – whatever it takes to cram a little fiction into my day. Until recently, I was reluctant to admit what kind of fiction keeps me up until 1am – dystopia fiction. I cannot seem to read enough about what happens to society when, for one reason or another, everything begins to (or already has) fallen apart.

There are lots of books that I have gleefully consumed in the wee morning hours – Mira Grant’s tales of free press and politics in the wake of the zombie-apocalypse, Veronica Roth’s coming-of-age stories in a crumbling utopian society, and Margaret Atwood’s  terrifying description of the ultimate feminist backlash. What made me feel better about my preferences in fiction? Reading The Hunger Games trilogy and, more specifically, my decision to integrate the series into my undergraduate course on Collective Action and Social Movements. It wasn’t until I started brainstorming assignments for the class that I realized the appeal of dystopia fiction – these are compelling stories about power, repression, and (sometimes violent) social change. Continue reading


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Word Clouds as a Tool for Social Movement Research and Teaching

You’ve seen them everywhere: Word Clouds. In case you haven’t yet tried creating one here is the website: http://www.wordle.net/.

Social Movement scholars are in many ways just at the beginning of textual analysis. Word clouds could provide us with a simple new way to study not only the texts that movements put out but also the the media coverage that movements receive. They provide an extremely quick means of identifying the most frequently used keywords. This in turn might provide a helpful baseline for further analyses of texts.

The example below shows a word cloud of a media release from a well-known social movement organization.

What social movement organization created this media release?


Just for fun I have also created a word cloud using the content of the CVs of two scholars affiliated with Mobilizing Ideas.  I have taken their names out but see if you can guess who they are.

What social movement scholar’s CV was used to create this word cloud?


What social movement scholar’s CV was used to create this word cloud?


Answers are below……


  1. PETA  http://www.peta.org/media/news-releases/new-study-shows-growing-opposition-animal-tests/
  2. Jennifer Earl
  3. Rory McVeigh

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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?


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Simeon Booker on Choosing Tactics

Simeon Booker, the "dean of Washington's black press corps."

Simeon Booker, the “dean of Washington’s black press corps.”

If you’re teaching an undergraduate class about the Civil Rights Movement and want to provide a bite-sized example of a movement leader choosing between “insider” and “outsider” tactics, here’s a nice one. NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates interviews Simeon Booker, the first African-American reporter at The Washington Post and (multiple) award-winning writer for Jet and Ebony magazines, about his recently published memoir Shocking the Conscience. In particular, the NPR piece focuses on an event Booker describes in detail: a party, hosted by JFK at the White House in 1963, to which many of America’s black movers-and-shakers were invited. While the party was notable for the many black politicians, civil rights leaders, entertainers, journalists, and other figures who attended, it was also notable for who declined the invitation–the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. By that point, King had worked for years, unsuccessfully, to get Kennedy to send civil rights legislation to Congress. With the lunch counter sit-in tactic rapidly spreading, King made the choice to forgo another attempt at “insider” influence and instead focused his attentions on developing the next set of direct action tactics. Continue reading


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