University News

Seminar aims to trace history behind Occupy

By
News Editor
Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Occupy movement returned to College Hill Monday afternoon, but neither protesters nor banners were in sight. Instead, about 20 students could be found in Wilson 101 discussing the social and economic grievances that sparked the movement last September.

This semester, Derek Seidman AM’05 PhD’10 , visiting assistant professor of history, is teaching HIST1977O: “The Occupy Movement in Historical Context,” a seminar that will examine the Occupy movement’s place in the international community and American history and trace its roots as far back as the New Deal of the 1930s.

In light of the social, economic and political developments of the past year — from the Arab Spring to the economic crises in southern Europe to Occupy Wall Street itself, all of which contributed to Time magazine deeming “the protester” the person of the year — Seidman called this a crucial moment in history, as the economic and political tensions that have built up over decades are taking visible form. It is unclear if and how the concerns will be addressed and the problems dealt with, he told The Herald.

“What’s a liberal arts education for if not for trying to tackle the burning issues of your day?” he added. 

Occupy Wall Street and the movements it has spawned in cities across the globe are notable because they reflect a widespread dissatisfaction among the public, Seidman told The Herald. But due to its sheer size and spread, the Occupy movement as a whole is “very messy.” It has no singular set of demands, and the strategies Occupiers adopt in tackling issues vary by location. The seminar will provide students an opportunity to take a “sober look” at the movement from an academic perspective, he said, letting them “unpack it and analyze it.”

The course will not only explore history but also draw from sociology, political economy and political and moral philosophy to foster a debate on “what kind of world we should live in,” Seidman said during the seminar’s first meeting Monday. Students will examine the tactics of 20th century social movements in the United States, including the labor and civil rights movements and that of wealthy businessmen against the New Deal. The seminar will also focus on more recent developments such as the recession of 2008, searching for answers behind the growing debt, foreclosures and inequality in the U.S. Seidman and students will place the Occupy movement within this historical framework and then dive in further to explore its debates internally.

Seidman’s expertise lies in the history of social and political movements. He is also currently teaching HIST1754: “Democracy and Inequality in the United States Since the New Deal,” and as a doctoral student at Brown, he wrote his dissertation on the history of active-duty protest during the war in Vietnam.

Ovidia Stanoi ’15, who is enrolled in the class, said that after meeting a homeless man with “very intellectual thoughts” as Occupy Providence was starting up last year, she became interested in learning more about the movement. Stanoi, who hails from Romania, an ex-communist country, told The Herald protests in her country had previously been rare. But with the spread of the movement across Europe, Occupy protests hit the country during winter break. “What led to the changes?” she asked. 

Jessica Papalia ’13 is also interested in viewing the Occupy movement in an academic setting. Papalia attended Occupy Providence’s general assemblies and demonstrations and participated in workshops with students from local colleges to discuss the ways in which they could contribute. 

But she said she is looking forward to examining aspects of the movement she had questioned in an academic and historical context. 

Seidman’s class is not the only one to focus on the Occupy movement. The Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University is also offering a course on Occupy Wall Street this semester, and Adam Sacks AM’09 will teach a course this summer for the University’s Pre-College Program that will chart the history of counterculture in the nation from the 1950s to the present day.