A UGA education professor encourages teachers to allow discussions of social justice to be instituted and fueled by the students’ own inquiries into today’s complex challenges. 

Danger of turning classroom lectern into social justice pulpit

Frequent blog contributor Peter Smagorinsky, a University of Georgia professor education, considers a complex and relevant topic  today -- how to teach social justice in the classroom.

His recommendation -- let discussions be led by students after their own exploration into the issues and challenges.

By Peter Smagorinsky

This essay is about teaching and learning, not about political persuasions. Politics are involved. But they are secondary to the question of how to teach a politically sensitive topic with people who may not agree with one another, or with the person teaching it.

This reflection was prompted by a conversation I had at a recent family gathering with a student at a public university in Virginia. Drew and I have different political leanings, mine more liberal and his more conservative. I’m a white university teacher; he’s a white university student.

I found his perspective worth thinking about. Drew feels his professors, in their mission to promote social justice, use their positions of authority to belittle people like him and his family. The instructors themselves are white, but presumably have elevated themselves out of complicity with the guilt and complicity in injustice they find inherent in people like Drew.

Yet their use of the lectern as a pulpit has had an adverse effect. Rather than inculcating young people with their social justice ideology, their authoritarian approach has instead produced a strong emotional reaction. This response has led Drew and many of his classmates to embrace their conservative values more strongly than ever, doubling down on their home-bred beliefs.

Drew said the faculty were never interested in knowing him personally, listening to his perspective, or cultivating a relationship with him or his classmates that might promote mutual understanding or respect. He was never given an opportunity to speak in class. His professors appeared not to care what he thought or had experienced in life. His task was to sit and listen.

I don’t consider Drew to be a snowflakecornflake, or just plain flake. He’s a thoughtful, intelligent young man with a likely future somewhere in the field of neurology. He’s an engaged, successful student. But he dislikes his classes because he believes his professors treat him in disapproving, accusatory, condescending ways based on assumptions grounded in stereotype.

Drew’s story sounded familiar to me, because I’ve heard it before. Conservative students can feel disrespected and alienated in college classrooms in which the professor is critical, and often disdainful, of the kinds of homes they come from.

It’s similarly true that students from historically underrepresented groups often feel diminished and disrespected when their teachers disregard their histories, perspectives, experiences, and contributions. This feeling follows from their exclusion from the curriculum and other ways of rendering them invisible and insignificant. It is exacerbated by their experiences throughout their schooling in which they are treated as threats to the proper social order.

To reiterate: This essay is about teaching and learning, not about whose politics are right, which sorts of students experience the most discrimination, or which political persuasions produce the most political activism from the front of the classroom.

Dr. Peter Smagorinsky of the University of Georgia

It’s not just a liberal issue. There are conservative faculty whose classes would appear to involve little room for opposition. Georgia Gwinnett College history professor Fang Zhou, for instance, condescendingly refers to people like me as “libtards” and to immigrants as “ghetto thugs,” even though many of them are from rural regions. He participated actively in Gov. Brian Kemp’s election campaign, in which the candidate promised to abduct undocumented immigrants and haul them in his truck back to where they came from.

Zhou, while stating that his classes invite disagreement, reports that “My students are ‘woke’ and are overwhelmingly against illegal immigration after taking my class.” The term “woke” actually originated in the Black Lives Matter movement and refers to a person’s awakening to see society’s inequities and injustices, but that’s another matter. Zhou’s definition of being woke appears to refer to students who agree with him, a criticism that could just as easily apply to many liberal professors who believe that their lectures are producing converts to their ideology.

Zhou also boasts, “I speak truth to power,” an odd claim for someone aligned with the state and national power structures. It’s especially curious given that the context for speaking his truth is his college classroom, where students know he will grade their work, rendering them a powerless audience for his pronouncements.

But one thing at a time. Conservative ideologues are not my primary concern here. I’m writing this essay with liberal teachers in mind, in hopes that they think about how they teach as much as what they teach, and how students receive and respond to that method. If there is a relation between how people learn, and how ideas and information become available to them in a classroom, then there’s a good chance that students may hunker down and become even more loyal to the beliefs they entered with when they feel attacked and silenced.

Teaching to promote a more equitable society is central to my own soul as an educator. I’m addressing the challenge of raising these issues with students in ways that help them form their own views. My conversation with Drew, in light of what I have heard elsewhere, suggests that they are indeed forming their own views. Those views, however, are often the opposite of what their professors assume will follow from their lectures.

Lecturing has never been my strength or interest. I’ve learned and taught mostly through guided inductive methods. One approach I’ve used at UGA in a course about social issues affecting education structures the campus meetings on a book club model. Drawing from an ever-expanding list of books, the students choose their own texts and topics, choose the people they want to talk about them with, and lead their classmates in discussions on what they find most interesting and important from their reading and the related research they do.

Whatever happens as a result of yielding authority to them is of their own making. If they develop a political or social view, it’s because their work has produced it. If an idea takes the floor in discussion, it follows from student-to-student interaction. If they emerge from the class with a new perspective, it’s a perspective they are responsible for forming.

The discussions are driven by the students’ own inquiries into complex challenges. If there is a consistent outcome, it’s that they complicate their understandings of matters that they will inevitably face as teachers.

Jordi Bohannon, an English teacher at Apalachee High School in Winder, has adapted the book club concept to her ninth-grade class. Students discuss Young Adult Literature, a genre that engages readers with the complex and controversial issues that face 21st century teenagers.

She still teaches the required canonical literature in the curriculum. She’s not replacing the classics with contemporary novels of lesser quality. She’s alternating between required and choice-centered reading to the benefit of both, in the hopes that reading books that engage them will in turn help their readiness for older works from the literary canon.

In her YAL book club segment this year, she identified novels that were both school-appropriate and included themes related to social issues relevant to young people’s identity formation. She helped students organize into groups centered on common interests and matched them with appropriate novels. She then dedicated class time to open-ended book club discussions over which the students had total control.

As she monitored the classroom, she heard students lead themselves in discussions of complex issues that face 21st century teenagers. Because the understandings came from their own points of view, the students felt ownership over the ideas and the class. This sharing of authority did not weaken her role as teacher or compromise her attention to equity and justice. Rather, it helped the students feel respected and appreciated in ways often unavailable in school and allowed them to draw their own conclusions about the issues raised in the stories.

Jordi concluded in the thesis describing her students’ response to this approach to teaching about social issues: “Teaching literature is a way to teach empathy, and teaching empathy is a way to teach literature. My students were able to become more avid readers and more critical thinkers the more they were exposed to different stories, different experiences, and different ways of seeing the world. I will continue to . . . include opportunities for YA literature and incorporate controversial topics into my classroom as long as it is clear to me that my students are growing, as people and as readers, as a result. They are now equipped with the tools they need to make a difference.”

The difference they make is of their own choice, a choice informed by authentic engagement with one another’s lives and idea. Faculty in schools and universities who have a mission to produce a more socially just world might consider what students think and do in response to how they conduct their classes.

Authoritarian teachers on a social justice mission appear to alienate students like Drew, who end up even more entrenched in the convictions that the teacher is trying to change to make the world a better place. When the classroom itself is viewed as authoritarian and hostile, it’s hard to persuade a student that social justice is being served and is worth striving toward.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.