Bringing Activism Into the College Classroom at Loyola University Maryland

By Rita Buettner, Director of University Communications, Loyola University Maryland

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When Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Ph.D. set out to create a course on #BlackLivesMatter, she wanted to create an experience that would link the use of social media to post-racial social activism.

“As a black female college professor who is situated at a predominantly white institution, I am challenged to think about the ways in which my personal politics, my activism and my identity shape my teaching,” said Whitehead, an associate professor of communication at Loyola University Maryland.

“It’s hard to separate who I am outside of the University from who I try to be within. It is squarely within this duality, as an ‘outsider insider,’ where I find myself creating courses and intentionally holding space where my students can confront the topics of the world within the safety of the classroom.”

In Fall 2016, Whitehead designed a special section on #BlackLivesMatter in her U.S. Film and Television course. The next semester, she created an interdisciplinary communication seminar called #BlackLivesMatter: Social Media/Social Justice. She structured the course to help students define and discuss aspects of social justice; describe and deconstruct the impact of social media on the individual and society; list and explain the functions of the various forms of mass media and how they are used to support and organize activism; critically examine the long and short-term effects of the Black Lives Matter social movement; and explore, write and share their own stories.

“I believe that my classroom must be a place where students are taught how to engage with the hard topics and how to be involved in the messy work of helping to change our world,” Whitehead explained. “As an activist scholar and public intellectual, my teaching, research and service crosses many boundaries reaching deep into the fields of communication, history, education, cultural studies (specifically race, class and gender issues), women’s studies and black history. I work hard to design courses that fit into the parameters that I have set as a researcher, clearly understanding that it is far easier to create a dynamic and challenging course than it is to get students to sign up and immerse themselves in the experience.”

Whitehead created the class at a time when there were ongoing discussions and debate about Black Lives Matter, especially in Baltimore, a city that has seen its share of racial tensions in recent years, illustrated most vividly during the unrest in spring 2015. Students at Loyola were craving opportunities for conversations about these issues: “Every seat was filled,” said Whitehead, who offered the course again in spring 2019.

The Seminar is designed to try to foster a platform where students can openly talk about and wrestle with the issues of police brutality, racism and white supremacy. Whitehead said, “I wanted to integrate activism into their assignments, so in addition to writing weekly reflections on the reading material, students had to find and participate in at least three off-campus activist activities, from participating in a march to attending a community meeting.”

The Seminar explores the use of communication technology to influence and participate in national conversations about race and racism; the foregrounding of history and the ways in which it has shaped and influenced social movements (from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter); the use of social media to democratize protest and political, social and economic engagement; the ways that new communication platforms support the growing populist nature of decentralized protest movements in the United States; and the rise of the U.S. prison industrial complex and the education industrial complex, particularly as they pertain to communities and public schools in America’s inner cities.

Setting the stage for a successful semester begins on the first day of class. As students get settled into their seats, Whitehead shares her statement on Black Lives Matter. She asks them to reflect on her piece, respond in writing, and then turn to the person next to them to share what they wrote. After that initial sharing, the students tack their essays to the classroom wall. Then they each take down another person’s essay to read it aloud—without identifying the author—so they can discuss them as a group.

“The activity gives the students a bit of anonymity, but it also helps to set a tone for our discussions. In setting the ground rules, I ask everyone to be honest with themselves and with one another; to be respectful of differences and give people the space they need to grow; and to honor the space by agreeing to actively share, participate and hold one another accountable,” she said. “It is a lot to ask for on the first day of class, but Black Lives Matter—as a rallying cry and course description—is hard. It is emotional, and it is designed to challenge how you see yourself. So, the clearer that I am about the rules of engagement, the easier it is to create community.”

One former student shared with Whitehead a reflection after taking the seminar:

“In order to solve the injustice in the United States regarding people of color, changes have to be made in the court, on the street, and in the hearts and minds of individuals,” she wrote. “Words can cut. Words can tear down, make one tear up, break hearts, destroy souls. However, words can also heal. Words can cause a smile, laughter, happiness. Words bring people together. Words have the power to make someone like me—a white, privileged, female student—be able to imagine what it might be like to be a black man caught in the flashing blue lights of a police cruiser."