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November 29, 2004
Oxford sophomore seminar explores social activism
BY Eric Rangus
Valerie Singer likes her students close. In her anthropology seminar, “Social Movements: Theory and Practice (ANT 385R),” the Oxford assistant professor has the students crowd into a half-circle just a few feet away from her, which makes their discussion that much more intimate. Of course, any class with just four students is bound to be cozy.
“Because the class is so small, some of the students have spoken about really personal experiences in the classroom that somehow have been linked to whatever we are addressing, so that’s been exciting,” Singer said.
Class discussion is a major portion of the experience, and while the students’ overall understanding of activism was limited coming in, the makeup of Singer’s class has made that participation easy.
“I want them to understand what propels someone from knowing that there is a problem to deciding that they are going to do something about that problem,” Singer said.
Learning how to solve those problems appears to be developing naturally. Earlier in the semester the class discussed making a film about racism and community before determining they didn’t have the time or resources to do it. Still, that sort of action is a byproduct of the class material rather than a goal.
Singer’s class explores questions such as, how do social movements originate? How and why do individuals become activists? What forces challenge or sustain movements? How do activists choose their organizational style and tactics?
“I’m not trying to turn them into activists,” Singer said. “But I want them to think about the process of activism. Social movements—even if they are not necessarily organized movements—have had a huge impact on history in many ways, and those ways often get erased or forgotten by history.”
Singer does so by introducing her students to top sources. One of the four books on the class’ reading list, School of the Americas, Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas, was published just weeks before the class began. Guest speaker Mike Pasquale had spent six months in prison because of his activism. And on Nov. 14 Singer took the whole class to Columbus so they could see first hand a large, peaceful protest at Fort Benning’s School of the Americas.
“That brought to life everything we have talked about all semester,” Singer said. “It gave them a clear image of what a protest is like. It was very solemn. I think they were expecting a lot of shouting.”
This is Singer’s first semester at Oxford. Last year she was a visiting assistant professor at New York’s Hartwick College. Previously she had taught as an adjunct professor at Syracuse University (where she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees) and the State University of New York at Utica.
Singer said she has been “in and out” of various peace and environmental activist groups since she was an undergraduate at the University of Delaware. While participating in those groups’ activities she became interested in cultural anthropology and how value systems are created.
Her dissertation research explored a small, rural environmental group in Brazil, and her interests in Central and South America come across strongly in class. For instance, not only does Singer explore the School of the Americas in depth, but she also devotes significant time to the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST). The largest social movement in Latin America, MST is a grassroots effort that enables Brazilian peasants to take over unused land and make it prosperous again through agriculture.
That sounds easy enough, but land conflicts are common in Brazil. In the past 10 years more than 1,000 people have been killed as a result of land conflicts.
“Social Movements” fulfills Oxford’s sophomore writing requirement, therefore Singer emphasizes papers. Students complete eight response papers as well as a term paper on a topic of their own choosing. While a majority of the course material covers progressive movements, student research has gone in different directions. One student is writing her term paper on the Promise Keepers, a prominent social group that focuses on traditionally conservative values.
“One of my students told me this class routinely depresses him because we are learning about people’s lives and the tragedies within them,” Singer said. “We ended up talking about that in class. We said it was interesting in the way that a lot of the material is depressing, but from the activist’s perspective, that anger or frustration or sadness inspires them in their activism.”