By Rachel Bogan

The same ritual marks the month prior to every semester: the syllabus reboot. If I’ve taught the class before, this often means ‘easy-ish’ work: updating course info, refreshing readings, and modifying an assignment or two. This August, as I was beginning to revise my Intro to Sociology syllabus, the protests at UVA happened. Their occurrence got me thinking about how my students and I relate not only to the events in Charlottesville, but to all the social unrest happening around us. Events that, on a daily basis, challenge our identities, our sense of security, and how we locate ourselves in our social worlds.

Although the semester was approaching, I decided to make some major changes to my course. (I like challenges, I guess!) This is not the first time I’ve engaged with current events in my classroom. Last Fall, for instance, my class spent a week examining the role of white privilege in the US and I showed MTV’s documentary, White People.  But this time my work felt different, more intentional. Rather than simply inserting some supplemental texts, I focused on constructing a space for students to critically engage with issues such as white supremacy, the Muslim ban, cases of sexual assault and harassment against women, and the end of DACA.

Little did I know, I was on my way to constructing what I now call the activist classroom.  As I chronicle this semester-long journey, I think it’s helpful to first share my vision of what an activist classroom is and does. I’ll admit, I’m hesitant to do that—mostly because I don’t consider myself an expert on activism. But here goes.

An activist classroom includes…

…empowering my students to use their voices

…mentoring my students to become sociological practitioners

…helping my students understand the many forms of activism

…asking students to think about a wide-range of issues

…making space for multiple voices during discussions (on-line and in-person)

…giving students agency to examine issues that are important to them

…amending the syllabus to incorporate students’ interests

…teaching students how to assess these issues

and more…

This desire to create an activist classroom didn’t just manifest during the month of August. In fact, it stems from a conversation I had when I interviewed for my current teaching position. During the interview, a department member used one word to describe my potential students: apolitical. As I got to know them, I realized this description didn’t mirror my experiences with my students. Sure, my post-presidential election classes didn’t elicit the level of discontent I expected. But on a daily basis, my students demonstrate they care about what’s happening in their social worlds, and how these events are impacting their everyday lives.

My first task was to modify my course content. Logistically this made the most sense as I needed a syllabus to share with students on the first day of class. Rethinking the course content meant a few things, most notably, strategically pairing documentary films with readings on similar topics and creating film worksheets to stimulate in-class discussion. This follows the work of Sociologist Jessie Daniels and others who use films in in their classrooms. Jessie started this open list of documentaries that folks can teach with and encourages others to contribute to the ever-growing list. Not only am I curating the list of films I show, like Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America, I’m learning how to add readings that complement the screenings and help students make sense of the films’ key sociological issues. For example, we screened Ava DuVernay’s film, 13th, and students read two chapters of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow.

In addition to modifying my course content, I rethought my methods of instruction. I developed a sociological-photo scavenger hunt where, in response to prompts, groups of students took pictures of sociological ‘things’ on-campus, uploaded them to a Dropbox link, and presented their finding to our class. Students stretched their sociological imaginations and got real-life experience ‘doing’ sociology—all the while learning how to become sociological practitioners. Everyone had a chance to speak, and while most groups elected one person to share their findings, many students who don’t typically participate in class spoke for their groups. This assignment helped students become comfortable ‘doing’ sociology outside the classroom, something I ask them to do for their final projects. You can view the photo assignment here.

In the following posts, I’ll share more about how I’ve retooled higher-stakes assignments, as well as my assessments, and reflect on whether I’m achieving my goal of creating an activist classroom.

Rachel Bogan is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the Graduate Center and a contributing writer for Visible Pedagogy.