I am a proud alumna of Smith College, one of the oldest women’s colleges in the United States. I am committed to the liberal arts tradition of pursuing education in both breadth and depth and am eager to learn new things.
So, when Smith announced that it was offering its first ever MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), entitled Psychology of Political Activism: Women Changing the World, I jumped at the chance to sign up, ultimately joining over 5,000 participants from 140 countries.
The seven-week course, taught by Professor Lauren Duncan, was scheduled to begin March 21. In the weeks prior, I had carefully planned for the three to five hours a week that the course was projected to take.
Within the first twenty-four hours that the course was available online, my mother-in-law died after suffering a heart attack.
I wasn’t sure whether or not I would still be able to do all the course activities as I had planned. In one of our first assignments, we had to state our learning goals. I honestly said that I didn’t know how well I would be able to keep up, but that I intended to try.
Back in the day, I was a very good student – and hyper-conscientous. Those instincts reasserted themselves and, even though I was exhausted and overwhelmed, I kept up with the coursework, which often took longer than five hours for me to complete, until the last week. We were to write a five to ten page paper and critique another student’s paper – and I just did not have the time/brain power/concentration to do it. It was some comfort that, because I had completed all the other work, I had enough points to pass the course, had I actually been taking it for credit, which I wasn’t…
Despite my less than optimal participation, I was very pleased to have taken this course and learned a lot from it. I have admired many activists and it was interesting to gain insights into their personal makeup and motivations. Given that I have been involved in activism myself in several different areas, including feminism, social justice, and environmentalism, I was also able to see some of what I learned alive in me.
The course used the lives of eight activists to help teach various theories of the psychology underlying group identity and activism. Our first step was to choose one of the eight women to study in depth by reading her oral history transcript from the Smith College Archives. Our choice divided us into study groups facilitated by Professor Duncan’s on-campus student assistants.
I chose Katsi Cook, who is a member of the Mohawk nation and an activist for feminism and indigenous rights, combining in her work as a midwife/educator utilizing medical knowledge in a culturally appropriate practice, and for environmental justice. Since my New England childhood, where we lived in an area that had once been home to the Mohawk nation, I have been interested in the indigenous peoples of North America, so I loved reading about Katsi’s experiences as a Mohawk, particularly the storytelling aspect. I was also drawn to Katsi as I have a long-standing interest in women’s health issues and in environmental issues.
Even though we each chose one activist to study in depth, we learned about all the others, who were active in racial issues, gender issues, and civil rights, through their timelines and other course references. Each week, we also learned about Smith alum and feminist icon Gloria Steinem. There was even a special discussion board for Gloria Steinem’s segment of the course, which gave us a forum for addressing our own experiences with activism.
After an introductory week in which we chose the activist to study in depth and read her oral history, we used the next five weeks to study a relevant psychological theory, beginning with earlier work and progressing through to more recent developments in the field. We read scholarly articles and viewed Professor Duncan’s lectures on them, along with relevant applications to our group of activists.
I found the earlier weeks, which involved older theories, to be insufficient to explain Katsi Cook’s or Gloria Steinem’s or my own experiences, although I certainly gained some insights. One of the most important for me was learning about Politicized Racial and Feminist Identity Theory. There is a stage in this theory called immersion in politicized racial identity and embeddedness in feminist identity in which the individual ties themselves so closely to their racial or gender group that they exclude those who don’t belong to their group. In this phase, attitudes toward people outside the group can be very rigid and negative. For the vast majority of people, this phase leads to an emersion/emanation phase, in which the individual develops a more open and nuanced way of relating to people from other identity groups.
Learning about this theory made sense of a situation that bothers me. Many people have a negative connotation of feminism because they think that feminists hate men and feel superior to them, a viewpoint that may be held by women feminists in the embeddedness phase but that is not held by most feminists. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding has led many feminists of all ages and genders to be reluctant to use the word feminist to describe themselves. I appreciate and participate in the current efforts to reclaim the accurate use of the words feminism and feminist, but it can be difficult to educate people. It was helpful for me to be able to apply insights from this theory to this current problem.
In the later weeks of the course, we learned more about some more recent developments in psychological theory. One of the most helpful for me in describing what I saw in Katsi Cook’s life and my own was the concept of intersectionality. The theory takes into account that we each have multiple identities which interact and determine our thoughts and actions. For example, I am a woman, a Catholic, a person with roots in the rural Northeast United States, a parent, a college graduate, and an Irish-Italian-American. Those aspects of my identity, along with others, impact my thoughts, actions, and reactions. Causes in which I am active, such as the movement toward women’s ordination in the Catholic church and the climate justice movement, relate in various ways to several aspects of my identity, not just one.
Another concept that struck me in particular in the later weeks was that of generativity. In examining what personality traits and life experiences lead to activism, we examined the impetus to change things for the better for current and future generations and to pass on knowledge and wisdom. All of the activists we studied showed this trait and it is something that I am acutely aware of in my own life. So much of the work of activism is about making change possible for the future, even when you know you are unlikely to see the final results of your work. Elizabeth Cady Stanton did not live to see women gain the federal right to vote in the United States, but her activism helped to make it possible. Many civil rights activists died before seeing Barack Obama elected president, but their witness was vital in moving the country forward. I myself am aware of the generativity aspect of my own activism. I may not see women ordained in the Catholic church but perhaps my daughters will. I won’t know how much impact my work against fossil fuels and for renewable energy and efficiency will have on the extent of global warming, but I feel obligated to future generations to try.
I truly appreciated this course and all I learned from it. The second offering of this course will begin on September 12, just a few days from now. If you are interested you can register here: https://www.edx.org/course/psychology-political-activism-women-smithx-psy374x-0. Professor Duncan has wisely added an audit option for the course, so people can choose to view the course materials and participate in the discussion boards without having to worry about papers, quizzes, and grades.
When things settle down here, I may be on the lookout for another MOOC. There is always so much more to learn.