Conversations: How has student activism changed at the University?

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By Haley Goldberg, Magazine Editor
Published September 3, 2013

Associate Prof. Stephen Ward who teaches courses in urban studies, community development and African-American studies and Communication Studies Prof. Scott Campbell met at The Michigan Daily newsroom to discuss this question. Below are selected excerpts from their conversation.

Prof. Scott Campbell: One of the things I’ve noticed with students over the last couple of years is it seems like they’re feeling an increasing amount of pressure to be involved in various social causes and volunteer organizations and things for the sake of getting that scholarship, or even getting that job or that internship, in bolstering their resume and getting their leg up. It just seems like they’re feeling a lot more pressure to do that then they used to.

Prof. Stephen Ward: Almost like, for lack of a better term, the professionalization of activism or really, engagement. That’s a word that’s used a lot now and covers a wide range… Really what do we mean by student activism? What counts as activism? What constitutes activism?

SW: So we can sort of talk about what we’ve seen there and we can also talk about student activism, having been in another time period.
I think a lot of activist energy has been transformed into what we call engagement in many ways, so social service, activities, service learning activities, so you referenced it in terms of students feeling the pressure to do these things for their resume, right? So that’s for their personal, which is very different from the sense of social responsibility that we might think of previous generations like the ‘60s generation.

SC: Right. When I was offered my position here,… I had kind of the preconceived notions of what the culture is like at the University of Michigan from kind of a stereotypical point of view.

SW: Such as, what would that mean?

SC: Historically, I think of Michigan as a very progressive place with protests, you know? Vietnam-era protests, Civil Rights protests. And I got here, and I felt like the activism that I saw was highly engaged, but, to use a word that you dropped, professionalized in a way. People in the B-school bolstering resumes…

SW: Right, right.

SC: … and that kind of thing. And it felt like they were a little bit more personally ambitious in their goals than collectively trying to change the world.

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SC: It does feel to me, and again I wasn’t here a generation or two ago, but it does feel to me that student activism is happening perhaps a bit more in concert with institutional efforts.

SW: Oh absolutely.

SC: … rather than oppositional. So I would say that probably at least seems to be one of the major differences in terms of the visible forms of activism.

SW: Absolutely. I mean, we’re here in the Daily offices and around the room they have past front pages and a couple of them deal with student activism, one of them is a student climb up of this very building protesting how the University was dealing with Student Publications. Others are from the ‘60s dealing with things off campus as well as challenging the University. A couple of them are about affirmative action, so at the time you and I have been here, it seems to me two of the main spaces of student activism which were more generally active in terms of challenging the University and things across society were affirmative action about a decade ago, and more recently tuition equality, which is going to be in the news today.

SC: Right.

SW: So I see those as students engaging with issues that are related to them here on campus — happening here on campus but having broader social implications. So the protests are prodding at the University to do something for affirmative action same as the policy which now has been changed with tuition equality for students who are so-called undocumented … So, tuition equality, my understanding, is that all the students, many of the students, who are involved in that struggle are not themselves students who would benefit, and they see that as an issue. In the affirmative action case it was less so, but, still, many white students were involved in affirmative action, so that’s not a particularly important point, but that’s what I think about how activism takes place.

SC: I think also, kind of getting back to something I was originally saying, that the perhaps the opportunities to be engaged are expanded through new media, and also the levels of engagement are expanded, so the range of engagement, you know, from deeply playing a leadership role deep in a movement to simply liking something or forwarding the link to raise awareness and then you’re done.

SW: Yeah. Signing online participation.

SC: Right, yeah. And some people call that “slacktivism.” And I think that, you know, I still see this as kind of an added layer of being involved instead of replacing other forms of involvement. But I think that the range is expanded this way. So we know about more things, we can be aware of more things, we can pass on awareness of more things. And I think it’s really good on the one hand: It gives people more opportunities to find things that they care about, to raise awareness and to be engaged. On the other hand, you know, you can make the argument that it sort of waters down your commitments a little bit. Instead of pursuing these one or two things, you’re sort of all over the board.

SW: So is that the same as the slacktivism argument? Or is slacktivism something different?

SC: It might be some more slacktivism. The slacktivism argument is that instead of getting out of your chair, it’s easy to sit there and make a key stroke and feel like you did something when, really, it may or may not add up to anything at all tangible. But I think that even when someone is just making a few keystrokes, if they feel like they did something, if they feel like they expressed that voice, that feeling alone is important because it makes somebody feel engaged. Even if it doesn’t tangibly add up to anything, if you feel like you have a voice and that you matter and that you’re engaged, research shows you’re more likely to actually get out of your chair and do stuff. So that counts.

SW: So it sounds like you’re challenging, at least in part, the slacktivism argument.

SC: I am.

SW: You’re saying there’s another way to see it. I completely agree, that sense of “I am doing something” is important for oneself and for the potential of future activism. And I don’t think we should ever let a question of, “Is this one act actually doing anything?” be the only way to judge activism. Plenty of acts which we see as genuine activism—protests acts—could be said to not have in that moment or in that direct sense achieved the goal, but I don’t really think they shouldn’t be relevant or insignificant. They are part of a broader set of acts and the broader politics and the struggle.

SC: And the expression of a voice.

SW: Exactly. And the fact that, you know, for marches things are a lot more visible. Part of why people participate is what you said about those keystrokes, is feeling that I’m connected to other people — I’m engaged, I’m part of this effort to do something, I care. And that’s just, I think, you’re framing of that, technology allows for different levels, is really important.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated Prof. Stephen Ward's title at the University. He is an associate professor, not an assistant professor.