When Bradford Verter, Emerson historian-in-residence, stared at the syllabus he created for this fall’s social movements in the United States course, he said he felt there needed to be a change. He took the syllabus, ripped it into pieces, and redesigned the entire course, using an experimental teaching approach.
He called the moment a “crisis of conscience.”
According to Verter, his new course focuses on more modern social movements happening in today’s society, like Occupy Boston. Verter brings these movements into the classroom by having guests from local organizations involved in social change speak to the class.
“Social movements are not some ancient phenomenon,” said Verter. “They are going on right now and they are just as relevant as they have ever been.”
As part of this redesign, Marshall Ganz, who worked for Cesar Chavez, lectured on the movement for farmer’s rights. Noam Chomsky, a philosopher, linguist and activist, is also scheduled to give a lecture on Nov. 6, according to Verter.
The speakers are just two of a list of 13 people who will be guest lecturing in Verter’s class. Verter said these speakers are part of his new approach to teaching the course.
He said his original design, which focused on movements ranging from the American Revolution to Civil Rights, was filled with readings and essays rather than projects and discussions, which Verter said he prefers. This is his first time teaching the course at Emerson, but he taught variations of the class at Williams College, Bennington College, and Boston University.
“It was the type of class Emerson students hate,” he said. “I scrapped the papers, I scrapped the tests.”
Instead, Verter said students now work in teams, which each participate in a certain movement in the Boston area.
Rachel Simon, a student in the class, said she enjoys the speakers and group work.
“It’s a good way to learn about it firsthand, rather than reading chapter after chapter in a textbook,” said the freshman writing, literature, and publishing major.
Verter said it feels different to not be the only one teaching in his class.
“Teachers are used to speaking a lot; I surrender that control. I hand the podium over,” Verter said.
The goal of having lecturers, he said, is not to give a presentation, but rather to have a conversation with the class. Verter said he often begins class by introducing the topic, followed by a Q-and-A session with the students.
Verter said that currently, guest lecturers come to every class. However, during the first few weeks, students read theoretical pieces about protests, lobbying, civil disobedience, and media, which they now use to direct their questions.
He said he chooses the guest speakers based on their proximity and relevance. They do not necessarily have to be the heads of the social movements they’re involved with.
“For me, real, lasting, substantial change comes from the bottom,” Verter said. “That’s true if it’s intellectual change or economic change or political change. It always has to come from the grassroots.”
Verter said the speakers lecture for free, but he currently is working on ways to raise money to pay each one a small amount. He said he recently received a grant from the Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies Department and Emerson Peace and Social Justice.
Current social changes happening in Boston were also an inspiration for Verter. He said in the original course, he only had one week to teach students about contemporary movements. When he was thinking about how to incorporate more modern topics, he said he realized he needed to redesign the course entirely.
“Suddenly, it all collapsed on me,” Verter said. “There’s Occupy, and it would be fun to have a section on contemporary anarchism.”
Abbey Interrante, a freshman writing, literature, and publishing major, said the class material helps her connect to current events.
“I feel like I am actually learning,” Interrante said. “It’s interesting to see people older than us or the same age as us fighting for something they believe in.”
Verter said he does not know the future of the class, but he believes Emerson is the best host for this type of format.
“A course like this can be staged at other schools,” he said, “but I can’t imagine it being as successful as I see it at Emerson.”
He said this class shifts normal history perspectives from the elite to the everyday people.
“Scholarly work focuses on leaders, but most [people] aren’t leaders,” Verter said. “You don’t have to be leaders to contribute to a movement. Everyone contributes something unique.”