North Central News

In Writing for Social Change, students learn they can shape the world

Laura Pohl

Sep 29, 2020

After nearly 20 years, the topics in the English department’s course Writing for Social Change continue to evolve, but the goal remains steadfast:  to develop persuasive citizen-critics who can respond to and work toward positive social change. The curriculum in ENGL 250 introduces students to the writings and voices of leaders in social justice, while their own in-class writing experiences–both individual and collaborative–encourage them to find their own voices.

“I developed this course in 2002 in response to several issues, specifically the increased racial profiling following 9/11,” said Jennifer Jackson, Svend and Elizabeth Bramsen Professor in the Humanities and professor of English. Other issues inspiring her curriculum over the years have included the Iraq War and invasion of Afghanistan; police brutality against Black people; income inequality; unequal access to healthcare; food deserts in poor communities; and the increasing segregation and inequality of public schools.

The fall 2020 syllabus incorporates topics on climate change and anti-racism.  

Jackson has taught the works of dozens of writers over the years, such as James Baldwin, Jonathan Kozol, Audre Lorde, Ta Ne-hisi Coates and others, engaging students as citizens, public intellectuals, activists and change-makers. As students study the writing of social change movements of the past and present, they learn how their own writing can influence public media. The class analyzes social change writing in a variety of genres, including essays, documentaries, speeches and TED talks, a virtual format that students will use to present their final exam.  

A North Central College class meeting via video chat.

Jennifer Jackson and her Writing for Social Change class meeting online.

Already this fall, students have delved into George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language;” Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence;” and a documentary by Peter Davis called "Hearts and Minds.” Jackson asks her students to identify how these social change efforts shed light on contemporary crises such as police brutality, #BLM, voting rights, and climate change.  

Importantly, students learn from these examples how to discover their own voices. “The class discussions and my own introspection regarding my experiences with oppression have helped me to find my own words,” said Anthony Hernandez ‘21, who pictures himself as a successful immigration lawyer one day. “That is a benefit for me because I never truly challenged myself to feel, think, and write in a way that is authentically how I want to say it.”  

The semester culminates in a major research project that expands students’ progress and confidence. Alumni who’ve taken the course have gone on to become ministers, lawyers, directors of non-profits and professors with social justice voices, said Jackson.  

“This class has made me more aware of the problems we face as a society and has helped me dive deep into the issues because I feel we only get surface-level information from the media,” said Nick Cheop ’22, who is majoring in English and secondary education. “As I’ve gotten to know more about these issues, I’ve become more aware of my own biases and thoughts and I’ve pushed myself to help educate others.”  

The class also represents a long-held commitment by North Central College English faculty to embrace diversity through teaching narratives of Black writers and persons of color and to act as leaders of social change on campus. The English department helped found Anti-Hate Week in 2000 and organized writing contests to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among other activities. In June 2020, several English professors joined forces to issue a statement on behalf of the department after the murder of George Floyd. Some in the department are gathering input on whether there should be an academic minor on race. To inspire social awareness, other professors have incorporated visits to places such as Hesed House, a shelter in Aurora, Ill. 

Added Jackson: “My hope has been to help students become citizen-critics who love this country with their whole hearts, who love her enough to work for justice and sustainable social progress.”