Activist Rhetoric

Course Description

How do activists effectively strategize for social change? Inspired by #blacklivesmatter and the iconic protest gesture of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” this class will focus on the ways that activist rhetoric enacts new languages, logics, and actions for social change.

We will begin with a consideration of how activists address practical problems in a variety of contexts, from protest movements to direct action, political lobbying to philanthrocapitalism. We will visit Stanford Special Collections to find inspiration in the Huey P. Newton Collection (the archive of the Black Panther Party). To inform these experiences, we will read and analyze texts by the Combahee River Collective, Angela Davis, and Judith Butler, and engage with guest activists in our classroom. Through collaborative and creative coursework, students will gain experience in intersectional thinking, community organizing, and collective action by conducting teach-ins, writing their own social justice manifestos, and planning a campus-wide action.

Approaching the classroom as an incubator for bigger ideas, students will build off of skills developed in PWR 1 and PWR 2, fine-tuning research and rhetorical skills to speak to larger publics about issues that matter. In the end, what might we learn about difference, power, and vulnerability—and effective ways of making change—if we actualize ourselves as activists within our shared academic context?

Annotated List of Major Assignments

  • Activist Manifesto
    For this initial assignment, you will research two authors whose politically-engaged writing moves you. In a short piece of writing, video, or performance (a creative form of your choice), you will experiment with these activist affinities in order to write your own creative political statement. You may choose to work through the poetry of our guest author-activist Loma, or you may look to poets like Audre Lorde, Jackie Wang, or Warsan Shire, the poet featured in Beyoncé’s film Lemonade. We will share our creative work in an event open to the public.
  • Collaborative Teach-in
    You will work with a partner to plan, propose, and deliver a teach-in on an activist topic of you choice. Teach-ins require a written proposal, outline of teach-in presentation, and supplementary take-aways for those attending.
  • Activist Zine
    In 750-1000 words, you will employ activist rhetorical strategies to inform readers about a social justice issue. The class will determine the theme of the zine as well as its format (online, print, or other). Themes for our Activist Catalog might include “The History of Street Protests in America,” “Social Justice 101,” or “Activist Issues on Campus.”
  • Campus Event: Organizing, Action, and Reflection
    The class will culminate in a collectively-organized public event. Work for this final assignment includes organizing, locating resources, planning, acquiring necessary permits and funds, and creating content through wise rhetorical choices. The campus-wide action that we produce will benefit the campus community in specific ways, as will be outlined in a Public Statement we will co-write in Google docs. After the campus-wide action, you will write a 750-word reflection that synthesizes this experience with course readings and personal growth.