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Social justice classes at MSU: What do they focus on?

October 27, 2023
Photo by Zachary Balcoff | The State News

With hundreds of classes offered at Michigan State University, it can be hard to choose exactly which ones to take, especially regarding electives, throughout your time here.

From classical studies to italian, or retailing to urban planning, it can be overwhelming.

When it comes to social justice courses, there are many covering social issues in the United States and around the globe, but do they do a good job of focusing on prevalent topics? How deeply can students delve into social concepts?

Below is a compilation of various classes that are not exactly titled “social justice,” but still cover social issues that are important for students to know about. If you have extra classes to take in your time remaining at MSU, keep reading to see which ones interest you.

SOC 481: Social Movements and Collective Identities

SOC 481 is a sociology class taught by many professors, including Professor Stephen Gasteyer.

Gasteyer said SOC 481 is an upper-level applied class exploring “social movements, the theories of social movements, the literature on social movements, how they happened, who joins” and other important factors that contribute to society.

Gasteyer said he enjoys teaching the class and often feels like he is learning more and more every year through the research papers students submit. 

“The students are asked to not only read about and discuss (movements), but also... I require every student in the class to do ten hours of volunteer work with a social movement organization of their choosing,” Gasteyer said. “And then based on that, they write three papers that reflect on the literature that we cover and the excerpts on the major areas of social movements studies, and then the students are asked to use that as a springboard to talk about the social movements they're (researching).”

The three required research papers consist of answering basic questions about a social movement group, such as who joins the movement, who remains in the action, what the key issues and strategies are, and how it makes a difference. 

At the end of the semester, Gasteyer said, students present their final paper and he invites the representatives of each social movement organization to speak with the class.

Gasteyer said the idea is for students to form relationships with the organizations they contact. Through their research, he said, they're able to figure out why and how organizations form and fall apart and evaluate the power of social movements.

In the past, Gasteyer said, students have chosen to work with groups like the Sierra Club, as well as organizations involving gender rights, mental health, voting, prison reform and economic justice. 

“The point of this course is to help students see that movement, strategies, tactics, and theories are applied to the right as well as the left,” Gasteyer said. “A social movement can be everything from voting rights to cultural awareness and acceptance, and can be about making a change in the campus community, local community or nationally.”

GSAH 310: Conflict and Justice in a Global Setting

Although this course is titled “Conflict and Justice in a Global Setting,” Professor Scott Boehm said the class usually changes its unofficial name and material each semester.

This semester, the course Bohem teaches is called “Environment and Climate Justice in Cinema” and focuses on a global studies program.

“We’re looking at a variety of case studies and examples of both environmental justice and climate justice or injustice and how and where they overlap because they often do,” Boehm said. “We’re specifically looking at how filmmakers in this course have been addressing these issues and what the art of cinema brings to these issues, how can we better understand them, what can we learn from them and how can we see the problems differently through culture.”

Boehm said students are introduced to new ways of perceiving and seeing issues around the world through the perspective of people directly affected by those issues.

Some examples of issues they have looked at include the Flint water crisis, droughts and global warming in Africa and Hurricane Katrina. Boehm said the class tries to cover all seven continents and how these issues play out in different contexts.

What makes the class even more fun, Boehm said, is the project students get to do during the semester. They get into four or five groups and make short films or documentaries based on an issue of environmental or climate justice.

Students then identify an issue related to these areas in Michigan, reach out to an organization that works to combat the problem and finally make a short film about it.

At the end of the semester, Boehm said, there is a showcase where the groups present their film in front of the class. 

“What I want them to get out of the course is, obviously, a better understanding of issues of environmental and climate injustice,” Boehm said. “I want to empower students... and provide them with the basic skill set that might also spark interest for other possible future career paths.”

SOC 215: Race and Ethnicity

Professor Clifford Broman teaches this sociology course which looks at racial and ethnic problems in different societies across the world, mainly focusing on the United States.

Broman takes a comparative historical approach and perspective on race and ethnicity in history and its prevalence today.

Throughout the semester, speakers from various organizations will come and educate students. Usually, these groups highlight the struggles of minority and marginalized communities, a huge portion of what students talk about in class, Boehm said.

“What we do a lot in the class is talk about the conflict between the dominant and subordinate groups,” Broman said. “We focus on the majority group and their values, opinions, behaviors and beliefs, as well as minority groups and their behaviors, beliefs, and how a conflict between the two of them has shaped American society with regard to race and ethnicity.”

ANP 321: Anthropology of Social Movements

Interdisciplinary studies senior Abby Dutkiewicz said ANP 321 focuses on social movements, how they form and tactics they use to further their agendas.

While there are readings every week, Dutkiewicz said, it’s not only from textbooks; readings usually focus on intersectionality and marginalized communities. 

“It’s a lot thinking about our own relationship with social justice and social movements,” Dutkiewicz said. “A lot of the work we do is very reflective and makes us connect course material to our everyday lives.”

One unique aspect of the course that Dr. Eric Montgomery, who Dutkiewicz has for this class, uses throughout the semester is an art journal. Students pick an image or something that makes them think of social justice and then journal about it.

Dutkiewicz said this is a way for Professor Montgomery to actually learn from the students, who can write down their thoughts and opinions about a certain topic, free from judgment. 

The class also offers many opportunities for students to engage with social issues around the world, but mainly in Michigan. If students want to promote a specific organization, Dutkiewicz said, Professor Montgomery encourages them to bring it up during class time.

“There’s always these opportunities for us, because if we go to these opportunities outside of class, we can then use that experience in our assignments and answering questions,” Dutkiewicz said. “It’s very much encouraged that we go to these events, so he’s always encouraging us and bringing them to our attention."

Although this list did not include all of the classes and courses at MSU focusing on social justice, hopefully, it provided you a little insight on what material these courses can include and how it pertains to marginalized groups.

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