Learning about collective struggles opens students up to different ways of being human, and that’s exciting.

Mehmet Dosemeci

Mehmet Döşemeci spends a lot of time thinking about the social struggles and movements of the last three centuries. Caribbean piracy, slave ship mutinies, factory strikes, student uprisings, Occupy Wall Street and Standing Rock might seem disparate, says the history professor, but they share a connection: each is an attempt to find freedom by disrupting an “economy of movement” that emerged over 300 years ago.

“When activists spike trees to prevent logging companies from cutting them down, that’s very similar to factory sabotage in the 19th century,” he notes. Using such examples, Döşemeci poses the larger question of why groups that think of themselves as movements are often trying to stop something. Studying these kinds of links across the history of disruption unearths a whole host of struggles that aimed not to move society forward, but to interrupt its incessant need to produce, circulate and uproot — struggles that found freedom not in motion but through its interruption.

Raised in Turkey, the UK and the US by leftist parents, Döşemeci was drawn to ideas of history, politics and economics from a young age. Teaching courses such as European intellectual history and the history of revolution in a liberal arts context allows him to fully engage students in discussion-based learning, he says.

“It’s an atmosphere where learning comes through argument,” Döşemeci explains. “When students read material and know they have to be prepared to verbalize and defend their ideas in class the next day, that prompts a high degree of critical thinking. When they develop rapport and feel comfortable arguing, and when they spend more time discussing with each other than I do lecturing, I know I’ve succeeded in making the past come alive for them.”

Students in his classes often realize two things, he says. First, they begin to understand the importance of questioning the knowledge they’ve been taught to cherish, much of which was developed for the interest of a very small minority of people. Second, they begin to question a common tendency to perceive disruptive social movements as illegitimate or even criminal.

“But then they research the past and learn that disruptive politics were central to attaining — and maintaining — many of the things that they cherish today, including work-free weekends, the vote, civil rights, gender equality and sexual freedom,” he says. “Learning about these collective struggles opens students up to different ways of being human, and that’s exciting.”

Posted September 2018