Che didn't need a degree in revolution...

January 26, 2007

The UK's first masters in activism aims to help its students foster social change, but can such skills be taught? Matt Salusbury finds out

Can universities teach people to be activists or is the institutionalisation of activism a contradiction in terms? Academics at Leeds University are about to find out. Its School of Geography is launching the UK's first masters in activism and social change in September.

Its teaching methods include "action planning sessions" and "spokescouncils", where students debate and implement proposals. It offers "action research with social movement and campaign groups through placements" and modules covering campaigning skills, using the media and direct action.

An MA in activism raises questions for activists working in academia. One course module includes a "critical questioning approach to the role of universities and research methodologies in reproducing power relations", and the course team members state that they "found it difficult to be scholar activists advocating radical social change outside the university and our workplace, without doing so from within".

The teaching team draws inspiration from "a wide context of activism", including mobilisations around Seattle, Gleneagles and other G8 summits and - "for their dedication" - from Che Guevara, along with Tony Benn and other "honest, isolated Labour Left MPs".

Geography is the "natural home" of an MA in activism, says Paul Chatterton, geography lecturer and course director of the Leeds MA, who has lived and worked with the Zapatistas and the Argentinean piqueteros movement. He adds: "Geography's always been the home of a very strong radical tradition, going back to the anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin, who was a geographer"

- as are activists, David Harvey and Doreen Massey. There is a long tradition of "critical" human geography and "public geographies". At Leeds, many geography staff members have backgrounds in social science or economics - it's a field for interdisciplinary thinking. Leeds has one of the UK's biggest geography departments offering both a BA and a BSc.

But what is "activism"? The course literature defines it as "a process of taking intentional action to bring about social change". A key focus of the course is its "emphasis on resistance and alternatives, or critique and proposal", says Chatterton, who stresses its core values of "plurality, direct democracy and solidarity". "We're not dogmatically fixed to one particular notion of activism," he adds. He sees it as an ethic rather than a blueprint.

Despite a recent upsurge in interest in the study of anarchism, MA programmes are under pressure "to conform to the dictates of the market", says Stuart Hodkinson, a research fellow who is a tutor on the MA. He fears that courses are increasingly in danger of becoming just "another conveyor belt into wage slavery".

"We think there's a big demand from students for such courses," Hodkinson says. "You talk to any of the people in the so-called anti-capitalist movement, a lot of them are doing MAs or PhDs that they're not really that happy with, but they feel there is no alternative." Chatterton believes the new MA "connects with the founding principles of what a university is like".

His colleague on the MA activism team, senior lecturer Paul Waley, hopes that a taught course in activism can reinvigorate staff occupied with some "very mundane tasks" and adds that "the department and faculty are extremely supportive and excited about the course".

Who will take the MA activism course? "You can't typify them," Chatterton says. Some of the prospective intake are 40 to 50-year-olds with a strong campaigning background. Some are straight out of an undergraduate degree, but there's a strong element of "people in their mid-twenties who've been out of university in unfulfilling jobs, who want to reignite their passion"

for change.

Kevin Stone, who is in his third year of the Leeds BA geography course, is a prospective candidate. He describes it as a "dream masters" combining theory and practice, the only course he would be prepared to get into debt over. "I came to do geography to save the world. I never got a chance to save the world, and there's so much to study." He finds it "weird" that such a course has not been around before. "Most geography masters courses are about GIS" (number-crunching geographical information systems) he says.

Stone is a community media activist and is considering going into teaching.

What about job prospects? Stone is optimistic. "A masters is a masters. You learn research skills and you're putting them into use," he says.

Anti-capitalist academics feel that they are forced to accept an increasingly market-oriented workplace. The team behind the activism MA had to make a market case for the course, based on competitive pricing and on its fit with existing strategies. Bringing in guest lecturers from social movements meets the Economic and Social Research Council's drive towards knowledge transfer - greater connection between non-academic experts and universities.

The team behind the masters in activism "had a long conversation with the marketing manager, who gave us a lot of recognition that we were experts.

We sold it to the university very honestly on the basis that we'll get the students in," Chatterton says.

Adrian Bailey, the head of school, had more worries about the small mountain of paperwork the new course would involve than about raised eyebrows over its content or its marketing slogan: "There are alternatives to global capitalism and empire." The MA in activism within the human geography cluster fitted the departmental strategic vision. Bailey is enthusiastic about the activism course and recognises that when people "have good ideas, get out of the way and let them get on with it".

The activism masters team also has to compete with related courses at other universities. Staff on the MA in activism and social change at New College of California are talking with Leeds about working together. In the UK, Strathclyde University has an MSc in human ecology, Sussex University runs an MA in participation, power and social change, and the London School of Economics offers an MSc in global politics. These do not emphasise engagement with social movements and have a narrower ecological focus.

Hodkinson hopes the Leeds masters will encourage others to start similar courses and other initiatives that will transcend the competitive creation of schools, centres and journals and the need to produce measured outputs to give departments status.

While many academics seem excited by the MA in activism, there is a mixed reaction from activists in the already quite paranoid direct action "scene".

Some people who describe themselves as both academics and activists are wary of academia's tendency towards "recuperation" - turning the radical into a sterile object of study. Others warn against sympathetic academics who go to the odd demo and project themselves as part of the movement, then build their careers on the back of studying activists. Waley says geography journals are reflecting - often critically - on the role of activists in academia.

"We're not studying activists," Hodkinson says. "It's about thinking, reflecting and coming up with alternatives. What can we learn from the history of social movements, and how can that inform modern responses?" He hopes that the masters in activism will "bring academics and activists together. It would be great to get people who actually do it on board".

Details: www.activismsocialchange. The course textbook, DIY: A Handbook for Changing the World , edited by the Trapese Collective, Paul Chatterton, Alice Cutler and Kim Bryan, is published by Pluto Press in May.

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