Inspired to act: course focuses on activists including Pauli Murray

Sociology professor Karen V. Hansen introduces students to the lives of those who have pushed society to change, including late Brandeis professor Pauli Murray.

Pauli Murray Courtesy of the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections Department

Civil rights activist, feminist, lawyer, priest, poet and Brandeis professor, Pauli Murray. A new generation of students is being inspired by Murray through the course "Writing Activists' Lives: Biography, Gender, and Society."

In “Writing Activists' Lives: Biography, Gender, and Society," students are discovering the lives of famous and little-known advocates for social change. The class highlights the biographies of these public figures, including one very familiar to Brandeis - late professor of American studies, Pauli Murray.

Researching and writing a biography gives students a new set of skills for understanding individuals and the sociological contexts in which they live. When the sociology department addressed the need for a new biography-focused course, Karen V. Hansen, the Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Sociology, knew the class should focus on the lives of activists.

“Activists are an interesting way to step into a different time period,” said Hansen. “Our students are interested in social change and these figures spark their curiosity.”

The course brings students closer to the real lives these activists led. By focusing on one person at a time, students learn the significance of understanding the totality of an individual's life story. Students realize that even acclaimed activists are real, imperfect humans operating inside a larger context.

While the course focuses on the work and research behind writing biographies, it also inspires students to become their own activists for change. “It’s the humanity of these folks that make it important to learn,” said Hansen. “We aren’t making them out to be heroes. We are understanding humans as they set out to change the world.”

Headshot of professor Karen Hansen
Photo/Mike Lovett

Karen V. Hansen, Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Sociology

Hansen strategically selected a variety of activists, ranging from important figures from United States history to people working in the present day. From the story of unsung heroes of the movement for womanhood suffrage to Pauli Murray, the class gets to unravel the private lives behind the public perspective.

To connect the course to the roots of activism at Brandeis, Hansen knew she needed to begin with the civil rights activist, feminist, lawyer, priest, and poet Pauli Murray.

“Pauli Murray seemed like a natural fit for this class,” said Hansen. “She had such a sense of herself. She was always making changes ahead of her time and stirring the pot.”

The course began with watching clips from “My Name is Pauli Murray,” the recent documentary on her life. The class then read her autobiography, “Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage” and Rosalind Rosenberg’s biography “Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray” to contrast the three approaches to capturing Murray’s life and work.

“Not a single student in the class knew who Pauli Murray was when we began the class,” said Hansen. “They are fascinated by her story and amazed that she was doing this work right on campus.”

For Camila Martinez ‘22, the class is an inspiration to engage in acts of social justice as she progresses through her future career. As a senior majoring in politics and economics, Martinez plans to pursue a career in finance upon graduation with hopes of attending law school. Hansen’s class gives her reassurance that she can still make change in the world in all phases of her life.

“As I see my free time diminishing, I know I won’t have as much time to dedicate to outward social activist moments” said Martinez. “This class has helped me realize that I can think outside the box and make social change in my own way.”

Wherever her career may take her, Martinez knows her passion for social justice and thought-provoking courses at Brandeis have given her the tools needed to live a life as an activist. “We are the next generation,” she said. “We get to define what an activist is.”

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences

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