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The Carletonian

New seminar offers students activism experience

<ofessor Devashree Gupta described her Comparative Social Movements class as a bridge between theory and real-world practice. Aside from the readings and papers that come with any class, students of this 300-level political science seminar have also been assigned the unusual task of instigating their own social movement.

The class has been divided into groups of three and each group has collectively decided on an issue to target. To name just a few, the topics include genocide in Darfur, homeless LGBT youth, and immigration problems. Just as each groups’ focus is different, so are their objectives and approach to launching a movement.

“Social movements aren’t always about protest,” said Allan Zhang ’10, a member of the Darfur group. “Our main goal is to raise awareness and we’re working towards organizing a phone-a-thon for 9th week,” said Zhang. To that end, they’re utilizing means such as Facebook and campus mailboxes to spread their message. The group organizing around immigration has chosen a different approach, and has been planning a forum. With the aim of starting a discussion about how students can get involved, they have arranged to bring speakers, such as a human rights advocate and members of Interfaith Social Action, to campus.

When asked why she structured the class this way, Gupta responded, “Social movements are definitely about taking part and participating. It just seems natural to participate and to get out of the classroom.”

In doing so, it allows the students an opportunity to apply the theories they’ve discussed during class into their own lives. For instance, “students need to think about how they’re going to craft their message,” said Gupta. “They need to decide how best to draw attention and get people emotionally invested in the cause.” Another student, Dan Matthews ‘10, agreed on the importance of framing a message appropriately. “It’s really tough to gauge how the public, or in this case, the student body, will react to our take on the issue. If a certain viewpoint doesn’t sit well with them, mobilization will be difficult.”

They have also done substantial reading on movement ecology and discussed how the physical space in which a movement takes place impacts the choice of tactics. As part of the class, they went on a field trip to study the route of a protest march. Back on the Carleton campus, the students will have to consider how physical spaces will affect the events they have planned. “They must ask themselves how features of areas such as the Great Space can best be utilized,” said Gupta.

The project also provides an opportunity for students to collaborate with other organizations affiliated with their cause. Gupta said, “I wanted to encourage students to meet with community partners who are already involved with the issue, this includes groups on campus, in Northfield, or even national groups.”

Gupta and her students agree that this undertaking comes with many challenges. “This activity is extremely time consuming,” Gupta said. Not only are the students themselves very busy, once they start coordinating with community partners, organizing logistics with people not on a Carleton-student schedule adds another level of difficulty.

However, the socially engaged students find this hands-on experience extremely worthwhile. “It has really helped me relate to the literature we’ve read,” said one student. Another student said, “I think the very nature of social movements means that there needs to be some communicating and organizing involved to really get it.”

In a sense, the seminar is reminiscent of Professor Paul Wellstone’s classes. A professor in the political science department at Carleton 20 years ago, he was committed to many progressive causes and emphasized getting his students out of the classroom and involved in the community. “This class, while not close to those he taught, is about honoring those ideas,” said Gupta. “I want my students to leave the class not just with abstract theories but with real-world experience as well.”

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