At a recent International Studies Association conference, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel entitled ‘Social Justice as Experiential Learning: Activism and Advocacy in the Classroom’. Although the panel was quite small due to a range of unforeseen circumstances, we benefited from an incredibly engaged audience (and a fairly large one for an end-of-day Friday slot!). Productive conversations were had about the strengths, limitations, and cautionary tales related to exploring advocacy and activism in academic settings. I’d like to thank my co-panelists on the day (Dr. Aggie Hirst, currently at King’s College London and Dr. Chris Rossdale, currently at the LSE and soon to start at Bristol University) as well as the dozen or so actively engaged audience members for their input (some of which is included below). They all really pushed me to think through some of my own assumptions and fears about teaching and activism. Of course, any mistakes or controversies in what I say below are my own, as I reflect on the session weeks later…
A broad range of learning strategies that in some way integrated activism or advocacy into courses were explored. Some were deliberate and were a central feature of a course. For example, in some cases students were required to engage in advocacy/activism as part of their course work as a form of experiential learning on courses related to Human Rights. In other instances, the class activities were more informal, simply asking students to reflect on things they have participated in/witnessed in their own lives related to activism, social justice etc in order to understand processes, cases or ideas that emerge in class. For example, some of my co-panelists reflected on how students might be asked to discuss current strike action being undertaken at their university, or reflect on a time where they themselves pushed back against patriarchy (or watched others do so) as a way of really trying to understand the processes/power relations related to labor or gender relations.
Of particular importance were discussions around the reality that there are incredibly diverse political viewpoints within our student cohorts, and the need to respect/not-alienate students whose political opinions and beliefs about ‘activism’ may differ from our own and in some cases from the majority of other students. These issues seemed even more pertinent now than they have been in previous years of teaching with increasing polarization in society and on campuses. This led to rich discussions surrounding the use of the terms ‘social justice’, ‘advocacy’ and ‘activism’ themselves, which can sometimes be misconstrued and/or misused in both academic and political settings.
The panel and audience explored alternative languages and frames which could be used to describe the types of things we are interested in having our students reflect on that are broader, less politically or ideologically charged, and thus potentially less alienating to students who neither see themselves, nor wish to be labelled as activists or engaged in social justice. These alternatives terms included having students reflect on things they might do in their own lives to ‘encourage or work towards policy change’, how they are ‘active in the world’, or even just the reality of their ‘being in the world as members of society or a given community’. These alternative phrasings have the benefit of allowing students to reflect on their own role in politics (whether big or small, deliberate or not) without faculty or their peers forcing a particular label on them or their experiences. It also ensures that students who don’t believe their actions to be part of the ‘social justice world’ but still see their energies/opinions going to support political or social change in some way to find a place within discussions, course readings, and assignments and can similarly benefit from experiential learning.
Questions from the audience were raised in terms of how to assess student learning in these circumstances. Several ideas were put forward. I, myself, mentioned an auto-ethnographic assignment I have given to some of my students in the past. There was interest in this, but alas, not enough time to go into extensive detail, and I promised to blog about it. So, here we are.
Background & Benefits of Student Driven Auto-ethnographic reflection in a Peace Studies Context
First, I should preface this with the fact that in the course that I used this assignment, one of the weeks of the course examines a range of ‘critical methods’ where students complete a reading on auto-ethnography. In a small seminar format, we discuss/explored the reading in more detail. Ethnography is of course a specific method that is also sometimes mis-used (abused?) in our disciplines. It is different from simply ‘observing’ and so care must be taken to also ensure students understand the difference between ethnographic methods/qualitative work generally and Ethnography. Still, through this assignment, I hope to give students a sense of what auto-ethnography entails, its strengths and limitations and its utility in understanding their own position/actions in the world.
I’d also like to highlight what the students (and I, myself) got out of this assignment. Student gains have been surmised from informal discussions and also the content of their auto-ethnographic reflections, but I am generalizing to protect their privacy. First, from the student point of view it really allowed them (often for the first time in their studies) to ground their own experiences, in a formal written manner, in relation to course materials and concepts. For some of these students, this assignment was a profoundly personal experience, cathartic even, insofar as it was the first time they had been given concrete scholarly tools to reflect on their own experiences of violence, their own activism/resistance, work-abroad, volunteerism and so on. Not only did this help them learn the course material in a different/deeper/more profound manner, the personal impacts it had in some cases was notable (what one might call ‘the hidden curriculum’). I have also found that auto-ethnographic reflections allow students to be more analytically-critical of course concepts than they might feel able to in a more informal class discussion. As the written assignments are relatively private (only I see them) they feel safer to deconstruct and challenge ideas and literature based on their own lived experiences in the relative safety of this assignment.
From my point of view, I also have learned a great deal by allowing students to reflect on their own experiences. It has helped me understand my (generally) younger students better. I like to think I’m still a ‘junior’ or early career scholar, but I am told that now that I’m 10 years post PhD I maybe need to reign that in. The issues, hopes and fears of my undergrads is often very far removed from my own and very different from what I remember being important as an undergrad. It has improved my sense of empathy, but also provided insight into issues and cases that are more relevant to them that I can include in future courses.
Further, on a scholarly level, I’m of course well versed in the facts and dynamics around political opinions and group which are removed from my own interests and beliefs. However, not infrequently, a student will write something auto-ethnographic about their experiences or political efforts with which I have no personal experiences with (only professional). And here, deep learning also occurs for me as I gain momentary insight into lived subjective experiences regarding a certain topic, as opposed to the more ‘objective’ journal article/book/policy documents from which I would otherwise assemble my knowledge. I feel that some of these moments make me a better ‘peace scholar’ as it forces me to reflect on my own work and understandings of difference, negotiation, resistance, hybridity, agonism, and on and on. In other words, allowing students to be producers of knowledge in the form of auto-ethnographic reflections has made my teaching environments more reciprocal.
Things to consider and cautionary notes
I think it also worth noting that if you hope to use this assignment—that there being a relationship of trust and reciprocity between you and your students is essential. For the benefits above to accrue for either side (student or instructor), there needs to be a mutual understanding regarding the ability to be open and to have one’s privacy and vulnerability respected. At the same time students have to understand what is expected of them—that you are still required to hold them to a scholarly standard and that they may need to accept some criticism of the scholarly aspects of what is otherwise a very personal piece. To help achieve this, I ‘modelled’ the auto-ethnographic approach by telling very personal stories regarding my doctoral research in Kosovo with my students, which I think was essential in helping them understand what auto-ethnography might look like. Whilst talking about my research experiences, I linked it to debates from the reading and seminar discussion on critical methods.
The vulnerability I showed in this exercise also, I believe, allowed student to trust me more in terms of sharing their own stories. This assignment also came at the end of term. I’m not sure this assignment would work in a larger class setting or in any setting where I was unable to develop a good/trusting relationship with the class. I feel very fortunate to have created an environment in which (some) students feel comfortable exploring a wide range of ideas and beliefs with me in their assignments, and from these students I have learned a great deal about the more personal narratives of political beliefs and organizations of which I have limited personal and only professional knowledge. I recognize that perhaps not all students feel this same sense of security of course, and can endeavor to do more.
Two further cautionary notes in relation to this assignments. First, I am a firm believe that this type of assignment should be optional— for a variety of reasons, I believe students should, not be forced to explore their own lived experiences from outside of the classroom in writing with an instructor. In my courses, the auto-ethnographic reflection assignment has always been an option (in place of something more traditional like a term paper or case study portfolio). This relates to the second cautionary note regarding the emotional or psychological impact of this assignment type. I encourage all students who plan to undertake this assignment to meet with me ahead of time so I can discuss this assignment with them and consider what (if any) supports they might need during and after the assignment is completed.
Marking this assignment also requires special care, not only in terms of it meeting the required ‘academic’ rubric—but also in terms of us as instructors providing feedback that is both academically rigorous whilst at the same time is supportive and empathetic to the students’ experiences. My feedback on this type of assignment often requires more time as I have to not only explore the academic merits of the piece with the student (as a scholar), but also respond (as a human) to some of the quite personal reflections that do tend to come up in this assignment type. It is not a type of feedback that can be rushed, nor is it formulaic as it can tend to be with other assignment types. One should consider this in their assigning of similar assignments—the impact on our work load, both in terms of time and emotional labor is considerable.
What I give to students
Option ‘X’ Auto-Ethnography
For this assignment students will write a 3000 word piece which uses their own personal experiences as ‘data’ for exploring a course theme/topic. Students may write about their own experiences living in community impacted by conflict, their own experiences in trying to build peace as an aid worker/volunteer/citizen or their own experience as a member of a resistance group/community. If there is another personal experience that you believe relates to the course themes, please discuss this with Jen before beginning this assignment.
The assignment should not simply be a 3000 word description of your experiences. You should consult the literature on auto-ethnography and read through a couple of examples of auto-ethnography to get a sense of what is expected of you. You will need to connect your experiences to the course in some way (and thus some of the wider peace studies literature). Do your experiences provide illustrative examples of the peace studies literature? Do your experiences challenge or require us to ‘re-think’ some of the peace studies literature? Do your experiences suggest that new ways of thinking/categorizations/conceptualizations are required to help us understand what ‘peace is’ and ‘how we build it?’. These are some of the questions you may want to think through as you consider how you will link your ‘data’ to the course. This should also be a structured piece of work with an introduction, conclusion, and references.
If your narrative includes descriptions of other individuals, please be sure to anonymize these people in the text. If you share any personal details of people who it would be difficult to anonymize (perhaps a family member), please be sure to get their permission to include them in the text.
 Reitan, RH (2015) ‘Paradoxical Peace: A Scholar-activist’s Auto-ethnography on Religious Pacifism and Anti-capitalism’ Globalizations, 12(1): 25-42.