Students flock to social justice course to learn about social movements and activism
More than 70 students from diverse majors – including chemistry pre-med, communications, graphic design, history, philosophy, political science, psychology, sociology-criminology, and strategic leadership and management, among others – came together in a new course this semester to learn about social justice.
"The course is actually a microcosm of what's happening in society. People want to understand what's happening and why. And they want to figure out what their role might be," said Holly Ningard, Ph.D., assistant professor of instruction in sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, who teaches SOC/ANTH 2700: Social Justice.
Ningard says that her goal in designing the course is to show students how to examine what social, legal and cultural systems and institutions currently do—and if they might want them to change to produce different outcomes. Her students might be observers or actors in today's social justice movements, but they definitely want to understand how the wheels turn in various systems, and what levers might change directions for today's society and culture.
“For example, consider our educational system. What do they want from it? Do they want fair and equal access? More choice? More funding? If the systems are doing what you want them to do, then that’s great. But often our institutions are not doing these things that we think that they should be doing. That’s where social justice movements come into play,” Ningard said.
To this end, Ningard built the course around “When We Fight, We Win: Twenty-First-Century Social Movements and the Activists That Are Transforming Our World,” by Greg Jobin-Leeds and the AgitArte Collective.
“It’s an inspiring book,” she says. The book features essays written by leaders of some of the most successful movements of the past decade, from the legalization of same-sex marriage to the Black Lives Matter movement. “These activists, artists and organizers talk about what makes transformative social change possible. For each case study, we talk about what these movements have achieved, and then we discuss how these battles are ongoing; they aren’t over.”
Matching career goals with social issues
Ningard says that the book does a good job of “showing people doing the work. In our classes, we’re often good at pointing out the problems, but not so good at presenting concrete strategies for responding to these programs. 'When We Fight, We Win,' shows that activism is more than just protest. Protest offers an important visual display of resistance. But the work of social justice is folded into what so many people do – like joining local government. Students see that people are not just complaining and pointing out problems. They are actually doing the work of transformative justice,” she said.
“Students are thinking in deep ways about how the course topics apply to their majors. They are interested in so many different careers. Some of them want to go to law school, and some of them want to go into policing. But most of them are trying to figure out how to pursue a career that relates to social justice,” Ningard added. As an interdisciplinary course bridging social science fields, SOC/ANTH 2700 "enables students to understand and respond to social disparities and structural inequalities associated with race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, citizenship, religion, and other categories... in local, national, and global arenas."
First-year business student Jhasmin Glass said, "No matter your major, this course will leave you better off. We live in a deeply globalized and interdependent world. This course will help you to understand the concepts that shape the social climate around you and raise your awareness of the power structures that control our society."
“The theme of the class is that when you talk about social justice as a process, it’s not linear or binary,” says Ningard. “It’s a continual process of assessment and reassessment. What do you want your systems and institutions to do? Who is being left out? And how do you bring people to the table – or build another separate table? ... the idea that there are multiple ways of achieving transformative social justice.”
Next steps in studying today's social movements
Long before politics and activism took over the headlines and social feeds, the Sociology and Anthropology Department has been conducting research and teaching courses about ideologies, practices, and institutions that organize human societies. Both sociology and anthropology study human behavior, social interaction, and social organization. Although sociologists and anthropologists adopt different perspectives and methodologies, both are concerned with how societies are organized and why people act as they do.
Sociology and anthropology both offer tools for analyzing causes and manifestations of injustice, both domestically and globally, and help students understand how people organize and educate one another to make the world a better place. These disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches address human rights, social and economic inequalities, social movements, racial justice organizing, feminist perspectives, law and legal advocacy, and international justice. Students learn tools of social and cultural analysis in order to better understand local and global inequalities and injustices—and then transform their analyses into consequential real-world action.
SOC/ANTH 2700 fits into the new BRICKS general education curriculum as both Foundations: Intercultural Explorations and Arches: Constructed World.
Students interested in social justice may use SOC/ANTH 2700 as a steppingstone to other sociology and anthropology courses:
- Interdisciplinary cross-listed course SOC/ANTH 2400: Breaking the Law (Foundations: Intercultural Explorations and Arches)
- Service-learning course SOC 3090C: Society of Appalachia (Bridges: Learning and Doing)
- Junior composition course ANTH/SOC 3568J: Writing for Social Justice (Foundations: Advanced Writing)
- Spring break study abroad junior composition course SOC 3561J: Writing in Food, Hunger, and Inequality with a focus on Ireland
- Spring break study abroad course ANTH 4620: Human Rights, Law and Justice with a focus on Northern Ireland