How It Works
The approach to teaching social action we are advocating for is an experiential learning model where students develop and launch policy-change campaigns of their choosing as part of a course. The student campaigns seek to change a policy (i.e., a rule, law, regulation, norm, or practice of an institution) on campus or in the community.
In this social action model, students choose the campaigns to work on, and they can be from a conservative, liberal, or no ideological perspective. The campaigns must be non-violent and cannot break the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The key is that students learn to do democracy, which is a goal of higher education.
There are several key components of the social action model. First, students do social action rather than just learn about it. In a traditional course, students read about theories of social change, analyze social problems, read about campaigns, develop an abstract understanding of concepts, all with the professor being the “sage on the stage”.
In the experiential social action model, students read about theories of social change and apply it to real world campaigns, as well as define a social problem and develop concrete, quantifiable solutions (i.e., demands). In the process of choosing and leading campaigns students are transformed through a direct experience of democracy, all with the professor being a “guide on the side” where they are de-centered and co-creators of knowledge.
A key feature of this social action model is the topic and flow of the course. The motto of this model is “On Your Mark, Go!, Get Set.” In order to launch their campaigns by mid-semester, students go through the issue development process (identifying demands and targets) in the opening days of the class. By choosing their campaigns by the 4th or 5th class (sometimes continuing a campaign from a prior semester), students have enough time to learn about all of the necessary aspects of social change, and then they launch their campaign by the ninth week, and still have almost half a semester to do several actions, as well as to cover the academic course material.
With this model, a typical class involves the following: (a) a student doing a 1-2 minute organizational rap (i.e., who, what, why, where, and when of a campaign), (b) a mini-lecture by the professor of the reading or a zoom call with an alumni of the course, and (c) group work on their campaigns. These activities are designed to de-center the faculty, empower students to believe that social action is possible, and to give students the opportunity to be active participants in their education.
What is unique in this model is that students launch campaigns, or become the student wing of existing community-based campaigns. As part of working on the campaigns, students build power, discuss strategy and tactics, and conduct a series of campaign activities and actions. Class ends with a campaign evaluation, and the possibility of a campaign being picked up by a future social action class, if the campaign was not won.
Importantly, this model requires that teachers devote about one-half of the in-class teaching time and course assignments directly to the social action campaigns (e.g., to explore issue development, building power, tactics, and campaign implementation). In addition, faculty and staff can take existing courses, or create new courses, from a wide variety of disciplines and infuse social action into them. We have found that faculty from a diverse range of academic disciplines are attracted to this model.
While the above description of the model has 12 boxes to discuss in the semester, the minimum number to do to be considered part of this social action model is four: (1) issue development (i.e., developing demands and a target), (2) building power, (3) tactics, and (4) campaign launch & implementation. If the students do these four, we have found that it allows for social action to take place, i.e., where students work on campaigns to enact a policy change on campus or in the community by making demands of a target (i.e., decision-maker).