Closeup of students' bodies in a classroom taking notes and learning about intersectionality

5 Foundational Practices for Teaching Social Justice in the Classroom

Social justice, intersectionality, and diversity are necessary and important topics to introduce in classrooms, but when you’re underprepared, lessons can become difficult, triggering, and destructive.

Learning about social justice prepares students to understand and challenge power and oppression in the world. It also helps young people to recognize the full humanity of marginalized people, especially when they don’t share their oppressions.

Ideally, social justice, intersectionality, and diversity are not topics to be tacked on at the end of a curriculum. Rather, they should be part of the ethos of every subject so that what students learn is truly reflective of the real world.

In this succinct video below, education scholar Kevin Kumashiro discusses how teaching social justice involves the combination of four approaches: (1) education for the other, (2) education about the other, (3) education that is critical about othering and privileging, and (4) education that changes students and society.

To help you develop effective learning experiences when teaching social justice, I’ve outlined these five practices below to lay the groundwork for your subject. These strategies enable you to set clear expectations for students and build a solid foundation of knowledge, sensitivity, and trust needed to have generative discussions about social justice.

If you’ve already established a principled learning space with your students and you’re looking for activities on intersectionality theory to run in class, I’ve got you covered with a customizable lesson plan along with my very own lecture slides that you can download and use in your subject.

1. Inform Your Administrator

Political topics can create a lot of controversy. Most universities proudly commit to the principles of intellectual freedom, where scholarly work is expected to have the “unimpeded freedom to teach, to study, and to research without any external control”. Yet in practice, many universities are nervous about attracting unwanted media and public attention, especially if they fear it may damage their reputations.

Even if you believe your institution is principled and supportive, it’s never a bad idea to inform your department chair or campus administrator that your subject may include sensitive content. Your advance notice will help prepare them in case there’s any resistance or backlash to your subject content that results in complaints, petitions, or media smear campaigns.

For example, queer theorist David M. Halperin caused a huge stir when right-wing media outlets found out that he had been teaching a subject provocatively titled ‘How To Be Gay’ at the University of Michigan since 2000. Fortunately, his university stood by him through the ordeal, but not all educators are so lucky.

Group of six diverse students sitting on the edge of the pavement chatting and laughing with each other, showing the value of teaching social justice
Photograph from Rawpixel

2. ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ Syllabus Statements

Including a personalized statement in your syllabus or subject outline can set the tone for your subject as a principled space (more on principled spaces in step three). It communicates to students that you value diversity and inclusion and expect them to also treat one another with respect.

Some things you may want to consider including in your diversity and inclusion statements:

  • Acknowledgment of the Traditional Owners of the land on which your university is located.
  • Reflection on your discipline’s norms, conventions, and assumptions. For example, I teach management so I acknowledge the capitalistic ideology underlying Business School curricula as well as how slavery informed management knowledge and practice.
  • Reflection on your curriculum reading list. Is it dominated by (cisgender, straight, able-bodied, middle-class, white) men? How might students who don’t share these intersecting privileges respond to canonical texts in your discipline?
  • What forms of diversity including, but not limited to, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, age, socioeconomic status, and disability do you recognize in the classroom? How does inclusion of difference benefit learning?
  • How might students be able to inform you of their preferred pronouns and preferred names (including correct pronunciations)?
  • What are your expectations for your students and yourself with respect to maintaining an inclusive classroom?
  • What genuine, meaningful, and safe opportunities are there for student feedback? If you make a mistake, how can students voice their concerns and what can they expect from you to redress it?
  • What campus resources may be relevant and valuable for your students to know?

Statement on Wellbeing and Care

Dr. Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve circulated her wellness and health statement for students via Twitter in September 2019. It’s a powerful stand against the neoliberal idealization of overwork. She has generously provided the full statement for other educators to use in their own subjects.

I share this adapted version in all my subjects:

As your lecturer, I value your health and wellbeing. In order to succeed in my subject, you must work hard and balance the work with rest, exercise, and attention to your mental and physical health.

I plan to challenge you. There will be rigorous reading, weekly writing assignments, and concepts that will challenge your thinking. By the end of this subject, I hope you will feel proud of your growth and learning. However, this work cannot be at the expense of your wellbeing.

Working until exhaustion is not a badge of honor; it shows that you are out of balance.

As such, I plan to model wellbeing as a value in the subject. There will be reminders about finding productive and healthy ways to find silence, relax, breathe, meditate, and seek peace.

In that silence, we often find our greatest inspiration and the space to think new, creative thoughts.

More practically, I will allow you to skip one multiple-choice quiz and reflective exercise when you need it the most. No questions asked.

Finally, I will encourage you to have fun, celebrate, enjoy the small moments of university life that are often your greatest memories. I will try to bring that joy to you even when the stress of the teaching session starts to loom. Audre Lorde once said, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”.

Please see your wellness has an act of power and perseverance. The core of your success. Hold each other accountable. Hold me accountable.

Adapted from Dr. Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, Brown University

3. Holding Space

A woman watches a video lecture at her desk that sets the expectations for the classroom when teaching social justice
Setting expectations in the first lecture

When I meet my students face-to-face in the first week of semester, I establish the rules of engagement and set firm expectations with my students about my subject. The first lecture allows me to show that I’m serious about my syllabus statements while also elaborating on how exactly those values will be translated into teaching practice.

I always record the content as a video and upload it to our learning content system where students can replay and review as many times as they need. Students who join the subject late are then also able to catch up and orient themselves to the principles of social justice I advocate in my subjects.

Principled Space, Not Safe Space

Among the many policies and procedures I outline, I tell students that we have a collective responsibility to establish a principled space in our classroom. This is a “ground-clearing practice that sets a leveled foundation upon which to build our work and relations” in the classroom.

The principled space was originally developed by artist and activist, Hanalei Ramos. The principled space recognizes that it’s not ever truly possible to guarantee a ‘safe space’ and thus in its place, we can at least commit to adhering to a set of agreed principles.

In my classrooms, I establish the principles that we’ll be aware of our privileges, treat others’ experiences with respect, and be kind to others and ourselves. I explicitly state that we will not allow interests that are violent, oppressive, or deny the integrity of others.

If your subject is like mine where students commonly share personal experiences, another principle you might find useful could be that you’ll respect and honor the testimonies from students. So in other words, when students share experiences of marginalization or harassment, you agree that as a class, you won’t question the veracity of the students’ account or engage in victim-blaming.

Confidentiality is another principle that can be helpful to articulate in subjects where students are expected to share stories. However, while I state this principle, I concede with students that it’s difficult to enforce. As such, I remind all students of their right to withhold or disguise sensitive accounts. For example, they don’t need to disclose the name of their company if they’re sharing a negative work experience or they can pretend their experience happened to a friend.

Please visit our BARC resource for a more detailed list of principles.

Two students in a library learning about social justice together over a shared laptop.
Photograph by Danon Gabriel The

Setting Expectations

At the first lecture, I also set the expectation to students that they should be prepared to learn, be challenged, and grow. That means they should be ready to encounter new ideas and have difficult discussions about them.

The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

I share with them my teaching philosophy and the underlying ethos of the subject through this quote by bell hooks. I talk to students about my passion for critical pedagogy and why I think centering social justice in the classroom matters to help them make a positive impact on the world.

When I deliver a lecture that includes bold discussions of patriarchy, cisnormativity, heteronormativity, white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism, or ableism, I include a warning at the start of the lecture.

I remind them that the purpose of the lecture is to develop critical consciousness about social issues. Especially for undergraduate college students who may not be used to having these kinds of political discussions at home, I acknowledge that the lecture could be very uncomfortable.

I invite them to embrace any feelings of anxiety, discomfort, guilt, and anger that may surface as signs of learning and growth, rather than believe it means the topic is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’.

4. Radical Vulnerability

As the lecturer, some students will see you as an indisputable expert.

However, this can quickly become untenable if they expect perfection from you and you likewise demand perfection from yourself.

It’s far more realistic, healthy, and comfortable for both your students and yourself if you establish up front that you’re on your own journey of learning. Admit what you don’t know and be honest when you get things wrong.

Be mindful that your mistakes will always be harder for your students to call out because of the power dynamics between teacher and student. Any structures you’ve put in place and communicated through your syllabus and orientation lecture should be made available.

For example, your students may be empowered to voice their concerns through means to submit anonymous feedback about your subject during the semester or entrust a classmate to pass on their concerns directly to you anonymously.

I think it’s incredibly inspiring for students to see their teachers make mistakes, learn from them, and try again. It reminds them that learning is an ongoing, life-long process. Perhaps it also shows them that they’re allowed to fumble too and can be expected to be given the same grace they’ve given you.

A woman sits with her knees pulled up to her chest, gazing reflectively at the camera, her face decorated with diamantes, representing the need to be vulnerable and humble when teaching social justice.
Photograph by Retha Ferguson

5. Decenter Yourself

When I think back to my experiences as a student, the best teachers who brought social justice, intersectionality, and diversity into the classroom decentered themselves and their egos in the process.

Many of us could probably recall a lecturer who was a little too in love with playing the role of ‘sage on the stage’. Mine was a psychology lecturer who would spend half the lecture regaling us about his arguments with politically conservative friends. Every story concluded with his moral righteousness and heroic intellectualism. We quickly caught on that he was less interested in teaching social justice and more interested in convincing a captive audience that he was a progressive warrior.

Teaching social justice is often a way for us to show up more authentically in the classroom. Although it may be incredibly personally rewarding, social justice education is not about us.

On a more practical level, we also need to check our own privilege and exercise our best judgment where it may be more appropriate to call in reinforcements to lead certain topics. This is not an excuse to demand free labor from marginalized folx, but rather, an opportunity to listen and learn from those who have the most right to speak about particular intersections of power and oppression.

There is growing recognition and appreciation that social justice, intersectionality, and diversity are vital values for teaching across a wide range of levels and disciplines.

This post has outlined five ways you can build a strong foundation with your students that cultivates the knowledge, sensitivity, and trust needed to have generative discussions about social justice.

We talked about the importance of setting the right tone for your subject by writing a clear, bold statement on diversity and inclusion in your syllabus or subject outline. In class, it’s important to make space for those principles and set expectations for what you expect from your students and what they can expect from you.

Through this process, it’s valuable to hold onto some humility. Be honest with your students that you’re not perfect and you can and will make mistakes, but communicate your commitment to addressing your failures. This vulnerability will help prevent you from putting too much pressure on yourself to be a faultless social justice warrior.

With humility in mind, it’s also useful to remember that in the end, teaching is not about you, but your students’ transformation and growth. Build community and collaboration with others and know when to step aside to allow the best learning to develop.

Learn More

If you would like to introduce intersectionality theory to your students, I’ve developed a foundational lesson plan including pre-class readings and reflections, lecture content, and in-class group activities. On top of that, you can download my slides and adapt them to use in your classes.

To hear more about academics’ struggles with intellectual freedom, You Need To Shut Up is a fantastic podcast that had a short 8-episode season in 2018. Hosted by Jacqui Hoepner, who had her own experience with silencing, the podcast showcases interviews with other academics who have been censored, attacked, or constrained for their research in some way.

Featured image by Sincerely Media

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