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Chapter 8

Cultivating Activist-Based Pedagogy in the Age of Generation Z

By Amanda Scott


With the presidential election of 2016 and other momentous cultural events, it seems that the public forum has ushered in a new era of advocacy. From Black Lives Matter to Me Too to Never Again, grassroots movements have become part of our debates and day-to-day conversations. At universities and colleges, in particular, students of the emerging Generation Z demographic, those succeeding Millennials, are expressing their desire to transform these conversations into action, many in response to personal experiences with bias and discrimination. In a recent report, Alex Vandermaas-Peeler et al. found that “One in four (25%) young people report having been targeted or treated unfairly themselves in the last 12 months because of their race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, immigration status, or religious beliefs” (“Diversity, Division, Discrimination…”). This apparent escalation in prejudice and discrimination mirrors levels of increased activism among this demographic. As Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace note in Generation Z Goes to College, more than 20 percent of Generation Z students they surveyed indicated that they have participated in a boycott, rally, or protest to demonstrate for a cause they care about, a figure more than double the percent of Millennials surveyed (104). Given students’ appetite for meaningful engagement in civic discourse and change, one must ask: How can administrators and faculty promote immersive, active learning, across disciplines, humanities and STEM-based? More to the point, how can we motivate this demographic to be change-agents on behalf of their institutions and, more broadly, their communities? Considering students’ frequent use of social and digital media and their budding interest in advocacy, instructors should strive to integrate these patterns into their pedagogical approaches, namely through multimodal and participatory learning.

Beyond its ability to encourage thoughtful engagement with current events, socially transformative pedagogy paves the way for more empathetic and equitable learning experiences—ones that reflect the growing diversity of our campuses and communities. Accordingly, a 2015 Pew report found that multiracial Americans are “growing at a rate three times as fast as the population as a whole” (5). Similarly, those “identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) increased to 4.5% in 2017, up from 4.1% in 2016 and 3.5% in 2012,” (Newport, “In U.S., Estimate of LGBT Population…”). Given this multicultural, non-binary trajectory, we must re-envision how we engage traditionally marginalized students in spaces of learning. We must diversify our pedagogical approaches so that they parallel students’ varied learning styles, cultural traditions, and preferred modes of expression. To that end, this chapter presents several frameworks—generation theory, new media theory, and social justice pedagogy—and activities to better understand the relationship between rhetoric and praxis so that we may cultivate a new activist paradigm. 

Literature Review

Generation Z & Learning

To cultivate more socially-focused pedagogy, we must understand what makes the Generation Z demographic unique from its predecessors. Unlike Generation Z, Millennials “were raised during the boom times and relative peace of the 1990s, only to see their sunny world dashed by the Sept. 11 attacks and two economic crashes, in 2000 and 2008,” and many see Generation Z’s seemingly pragmatic nature as a reaction to the unrest their Millennial counterparts experienced (Williams, “Move Over, Millennials…”). Conversely, “Born from 1995 through 2010, Generation Z has been profoundly shaped by the advancement of technology, issues of violence, a volatile economy, and social justice movements” (Seemiller and Grace 22). As a result, Generation Z students are more likely to be engaged with the most pressing cultural, political, and economic issues of our time through digital media. With rapid technological advancements and the rise of social media in the last decade, it is clear that Generation Z engages in public discourse differently, a critical feature of their learning preferences as well.

Unlike Millennials, Generation Z is more individualistic and practical in its approach to education and professional prospects. Vandermaas-Peeler et al. found that “six in ten young people say jobs and unemployment (60%), terrorism (60%), and the cost of higher education (57%) are critical issues to them” (“Diversity, Division, Discrimination…). As a result, Generation Z students crave opportunities to apply the skills they learn in thoughtful, real-world scenarios. Seemiller and Grace confirm this yearning, citing that “community engagement opportunities that make a lasting impact on an underlying societal problem appeal more to Generation Z students than do short-term volunteer experiences that address the symptoms of that problem” (23). Essentially, this preservation of autonomy reflects a more egalitarian approach to education—what Paulo Freire calls ‘problem-posing education,’ a system wherein “the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers” (80). In this configuration, instructors and students apply an epistemological lens through which to critique and cultivate dialogue around course topics, effectively disrupting traditional power dynamics between teacher and student. Such an arrangement mirrors similar pedagogical approaches including social justice pedagogy, participation action research, and Inside-Out, frameworks which stress community engagement, collaboration, and creative expression.

New Media & Social Justice Pedagogy

Generation Z’s collective ethos around social issues has been shaped by the continued evolution of new media. From laptops to tablets to smartwatches and smartphones, these devices occupy the epicenter of modern communication. Indeed, Pew recently found that 77% of Americans own a smartphone, with those aged 18-29 reporting this figure at 94% (Pew Research Center, “Mobile Fact Sheet”). As we adapt to a digitally-dependent culture, we must consider, as Jacquelyn Kibbey suggests, how “visual literacy, media literacy, and technology literacy all converge to potentially influence citizens about social justice issues” (56). Based on their specific rhetorical characteristics, print, audio, and audio-visual mediums change the context and meaning of a particular narrative, event, or social movement. As individuals find their lives and news increasingly documented and distributed through video and similar channels, it is no surprise, then, that this medium offers students an avenue through which to explore fundamental rhetorical concepts vital to advocacy work—purpose, audience, context—and more critically analyze public discourse. 

Indeed, in “Multimodal Composition and Social Justice: Videos as a Tool of Advocacy in Social Work Pedagogy,” Tetloff et al. claim that “by choosing what to include and how to frame the information they encounter, students are able to illustrate how all information, especially the kind propagated by mainstream U.S. media, is rooted in perspectives that are ideologically biased” (25). Social justice education scholars Ruksana Osman and David J. Hornsby echo this sentiment, championing “focus group discussions, talking and listening, argument and speculation, research seminars, community projects, re-enactments, collages, dialogue, narrative, life histories and other forms of self-expression such as music and dance” as performative and participatory methods for critical meaning-making (5). As traditional mediums embrace hybridity and fragmentation, we must consider their distinctive qualities, so that we may design curricula with these factors in mind.

Aside from any technological implications, activist-oriented pedagogy has the potential to more thoughtfully engage traditionally disadvantaged learners. This means, as Freire claims, working to cultivate pedagogical experiences “with, not for, the oppressed” as we collectively support them “in [their] incessant struggle to regain their humanity” (48). As Henry Giroux reminds us, “Schools are political sites involved in the construction and control of discourse, meaning, and subjectivities” (46). He argues that to develop fair educational structures, we must acknowledge the contradictory nature of learning environments, spaces which often develop and deliver objective-based curricula to student populations with disparate experiences and privileges. Ultimately, Giroux claims that “By presenting schools as institutions designed to benefit all students, the dominant culture, its knowledge and social practices, misrepresent the nature or effects of social and cultural processes weighted against the interest of students from subordinate cultures” (66). Thus, it is in instructors’ best interests to cultivate not only a pedagogy that is generationally relevant, but one that is inclusive and just.

Activist-Based Pedagogy in the Classroom

This section provides sample activities for creating dialogical spaces that embolden activist-thinking. Many of these assignments are best suited for seminar-based courses in the humanities, which often design coursework with critical frameworks in mind, but can also be adapted to suit the needs of STEM courses, especially as topics pertain to reflection on course outcomes and/or discussing traditionally marginalized groups or ideas within these disciplines. New media offers a unique lens through which to challenge traditional binaries of form and content through fragmentation and intertextuality and to achieve such outcomes, we must:

  1. Embrace audio-visual learning.
  2. Provide multimodal project opportunities that fuse passions with professional development. 
  3. Create opportunities for student work to be shared and synthesized.

Activity #1: Personal Advocacy Video

This project encourages students to choose a cause they are passionate about to explore in a short video. This cause should be something students are truly interested in. Some general issues students could consider include causes related to politics, economics, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, particular cultural groups or traditions, a policy, and others. Encourage students to respond to and incorporate the following questions and elements:

  • Introduce the cause and why people should care about it.
    • What are the central issues?
    • Who are the various stakeholders related to the issue?
  • Present some possible solutions.
    • Include interviews with relevant stakeholders.
    • Include pertinent facts and evidence for various claims.
    • Include a variety of shots and images to portray key points.

Activity #2: Creative Reflection Project

As a reflective exercise, ask students to capture how they have progressed throughout the course using a creative method. To accomplish this, students might write a short story, play, poem, or news editorial; create a video, blog, website, or social media page; or compose a set of illustrations or zine. Have students share their works, taking care to create dialogue around what they’ve created, not only in terms of content, but the chosen medium as well.

Activity #3: Reflective Timeline

This exercise offers a longitudinal means for understanding the logistical nature of social issues and movements, their key stakeholders and decision makers, and how these issues manifest rhetorically through social media and other digital channels. Within a month, semester, or year, for instance, instructors and their students might work together to track the evolution of a single or few pertinent issues critical to public discourse. Instructors are encouraged to create a blog for artifacts—articles, memes, social media threads, videos—students might post to allow interaction and response between peers as they examine the rhetorical implications of each example.

Activity #4: Class Podcast

Instructors might also choose to collaborate with their students to create collective podcast projects based on various social justice topics, similar to NPR’s Code Switch series. Ideally, instructors would work with their students to create episode topics and divide students into groups for focusing on these topics. Deconstructing a particular issue through a series of episodes, in particular, would allow students the chance to understand the many, often complex, facets of socially relevant issues.


As these examples demonstrate, creating opportunities for students to explore their personal histories, identities, and viewpoints can be a productive exercise in cultural stewardship. In particular, activities like these can help frame particular academic disciplines within their respective historical social paradigms, contexts that have historically benefited some students over others. In an era when partisanship appears to dominate compromise and understanding, creating communal spaces for civil debate is essential, especially in the classroom. According to Osman and Hornsby, “Whatever the pedagogic stance selected, sharing and reciprocity and mutual constitution are the underpinnings [of equitable learning experiences] rather than domination and authority” (5). We must learn to adapt our pedagogical methods so that Generation Z may become change agents and true citizens of the world. Only then will we be able to work toward institutional equity—in the classroom, home, and most importantly, the public sphere.

About the Author

Amanda E. Scott

Amanda E. Scott

Amanda E. Scott is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at Texas State University where she also serves as an Assistant Executive Editor for Porter House Review and manages the Lindsey Literary Series Digital Archive. Her research explores relationships between documentation design, representations of racial identity, and social inequities, and has appeared in Technical Communication Quarterly.