From an extractive to a relational approach: Craig Fortier shares tips for instructors in all disciplines assigning projects directed towards the study of marginalized groups or social movement organizations.
For over a decade, I checked the email for No One Is Illegal-Toronto, the migrant justice activist group with whom I organized. Almost daily, we would receive messages from students (mostly university, but sometimes high school or college) asking to conduct an interview. Or perhaps for basic information about the organization that could be found on our website. Or even a master’s or PhD student who wanted to “study” our movement for their dissertation. In fact, many of our individual organizers who were publicly recognizable figures received personal emails of the same nature—some at a rate two or three times that of the group email account!
At first, we would try to conduct as many interviews as possible. Our logic was: The more people who know about this issue, the more people who will join our movements and mobilize. But it quickly became clear that many of the students (and, if we are being honest, most of the professors who were telling students to come speak with us) were seeing the activity as a learning exercise for themselves and not as a means of connecting and building tangible (and reciprocal) relationships with social movements.
They also didn’t seem to understand the nature or the structure of community-based organizing. And, it wasn’t just No One Is Illegal. Talk to any active social movement group (from Black Lives Matter to the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty) and they will tell you the same thing: They are inundated with requests from students and teachers for information. At the time I was organizing, No One Is Illegal made the decision to develop a clear and proactive policy around research. The experience of developing that internal policy shaped and guided my own academic work and assignments as I entered the academy.
I’m now an assistant professor of Social Development Studies at Renison University College and I teach courses that are directly related to the study of social movements. It’s now my turn to try to put the principles developed in organizing spaces into practice in the academy—to ensure that we aren’t burning out campus organizers like the Indigenous Students Association, RAISE, UW Base, WPIRG, the UW Women’s Centre, etc. who are mobilizing to bring about the world we wish to see. This is the world that I teach about in my classes, but it is a world that is only actualized through on-the-ground mobilizing.
Where you come in
While this post is specifically about my experience teaching courses on social movements, I think that there are a lot of lessons that can be taken from them for professors assigning projects directed towards the study of marginalized groups, whether it is a mining engineering assignment that takes into account Indigenous peoples as stakeholders, a biology course on the health determinants in a migrant community health centre, an accounting course studying the social and environmental impacts of a particular innovation in business or any other discipline where you are relying partly on information from marginalized communities.Continue reading “Assigning students research on social movements and marginalized groups”