This semester we will tackle the question of social change — namely, by popping the hood of a few social change “vehicles” (i.e. organized efforts pursuing some positive social and/or environmental impact) and troubleshooting their different methods, models, strategies, ways of operating, and sets of assumptions in relation to social change and how it is believed to work. In collaboration with our community partners, each embodying a different “theory of change” — in our case, local organizations embroiled in the politics of Vermont’s energy and climate goals — we will explore how practitioners of social change conceive of social change: what it is, what it looks like, how it happens, what their role is in it, and how to do it.
WHAT ARE THEORIES OF CHANGE?
Typically, a “theory of change” (TOC) outlines key beliefs, assumptions, and hypotheses about how social change is thought to occur. These are often depicted through narrative and causal chain diagrams portraying, step-by-step, how a given group envisions and intends to enact change. To say that opinions differ on such matters would be a comic understatement. As such, we will engage a range of intellectual traditions, political orientations, and strategic outlooks regarding social change through in-class discussion, targeted course readings, and two short assignments.
TOCs are not only practical tools for strategic planning. They can also serve as valuable entry points for understanding pivotal tensions at the heart of the environmental movement: longstanding debates between reformers and revolutionaries, insiders and outsiders, progressives and radicals, pragmatists and idealists. By foregrounding underlying beliefs about social change — essentially, making us ‘show our political work’ — the process of TOC formulation forces us to have conversations about, and thereby directly confront and reckon with, fundamental questions about the nature of power, social struggle, and where we stand in relation to the established political-economic order. By design, TOCs render these questions uniquely and unavoidably explicit. Viewed in this way, TOCs offer revealing glimpses into how environmentalists are wrestling with the political meaning of the current moment and what can, and should, be done about it.
We do not need to tell you by this point in your studies that these questions are not merely an interesting intellectual exercise. Given the severity and time-sensitive nature of the climate crisis, getting our “theories of change” right, their characterizations of what we are now confronting, and their claims about how we are supposed to get from Point A to Point B, have never had higher stakes. Moreover, don’t let the word “theory” give you the wrong impression. This kind of work is inherently messy and personally involving — it is as much an art as it is a science. A major goal for this class is to give you some exposure to this reality as you learn how your partners contend with the everyday dilemmas, power structures, entrenched inertias, dynamic relationships, idiosyncratic personalities, emotional rigours, rambunctiousness, and occasional windows of opportunity that all combine in different ways to define the terrain of social change-driven work.
Working together with your partners — with humility, with respect, and with all the knowledge, skills, experience, analytical intuitions, creativity, compassion and courage you can muster, and which you have spent so many days and nights cultivating through your studies at Middlebury — you will endeavour to think through, carefully and systematically, how we are to thread the needle at this critical juncture before the wind picks up. So, tell us: how exactly are we going to get from “here” to “there”?
THE SENIOR SEMINAR
In this course, students will work in small groups with one of a variety of partners and organizations to complete a semester-long, community-engaged project. Project themes vary by term and typically focus on local and regional environmental issues that have broader application. Projects rely on students’ creativity, interdisciplinary perspectives, skills, and knowledge developed through their previous work. The project is guided by a faculty member and carried out with a high degree of independence by students. Students will prepare for and direct their project through readings and discussion, independent research, collaboration with project partners, and consultation with external experts. The course may also include workshops focused on developing key skills (e.g. interviewing, public speaking, video editing). The project culminates in a public presentation of students’ final products.
Fall 2018, Middlebury College (ENVS 401)
In Fall 2018, I will be taking the helm of this capstone course for Environmental Studies at Middlebury and will be structuring it loosely around themes explored through my ongoing research into “Theories of Change.” The permanent homepage for ENVS 401 can be found here.