Teaching Social Issues: Pedagogical Challenges and Opportunities

“Why are you complaining about slavery? If it was so bad, then why did Africans kidnap and sell their own people into slavery?” As an undergraduate taking social psychology, I was shocked to hear this quote from one of my white classmates. His comments were a hostile response to an African American speaker who shared personal stories of racial segregation and growing up poor in East Tennessee in the 1940’s and 1950’s. I often reflect on this classroom experience now that I teach courses focusing on prejudice, discrimination, and group inequalities. Although I wish things were different some 15 years later, teaching about social issues inevitably leads to an array of student reactions that present pedagogical challenges while simultaneously presenting collective learning opportunities.

Anyone who has ever included sensitive topics as part of a course’s curriculum has faced some of the unique challenges associated with teaching and learning about social issues. The first time I included readings addressing white privilege on my syllabus, a student accused me of being “racist against white people” on my course evaluation sheet. Teaching my first class as the instructor of record in Cincinnati became complicated by the police shooting of yet another unarmed black youth. That quarter, Cincinnati faced racial unrest, also called “riots” by some, that yielded classroom comments such as “Black people are violent savages.” As inexperienced as I was, I attempted to move the class toward discussion of what institutional and social factors might lead to the looting and violence we were experiencing in the city. Although some of the students of color and white students in the classroom offered explanations of intergroup relations and oppression, I consider my facilitation of that emotionally charged discussion a complete failure.

Last year, my Psychology of Women class viewed a film called “The Way Home,” in which women from various racial and ethnic backgrounds discuss the impact of race and racism in their lives. During our discussion of the film, a student declared that “ninety percent of Iraqis are terrorists anyway.” Much to my delight, four hands immediately shot up around the room. As I called on each student to contribute their comments, I became more and more dismayed that not one of them addressed the terrorist comment. This experience taught me that my perceptions of what should happen colored my assumptions about student responses when I saw eager faces raise their hands. After taking time to reflect on this classroom event, I used the online course space to craft several questions for discussion that brought the Middle Eastern women’s voices from the film back to the center of our discussion. Moments like these remind us that we must find effective ways to balance the need to meet our students where they are and the task of deconstructing such stereotypical beliefs. How do we avoid shutting down the conversation while maintaining a safe environment for all in the classroom?
As social issues teachers, we face what I like to call “teaching-social-issues issues.” That is, there are distinct pedagogical “issues” that come along with teaching and learning about social issues. Whether facing student resistance to reading works by lesbian authors or the broader challenge of designing a course on social policy analysis, faculty may feel isolated if colleagues in their departments do not include these topics in their courses. They may feel further marginalized if their colleagues question the legitimacy of infusing social issues into the curriculum. In addition, concerns about administrative views of such teaching practices may present unique performance review obstacles for social justice teachers. Given the lengthy list of challenges, why do we choose to teach about social issues?

Benefits and Opportunities
For nearly 75 years, SPSSI (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues) members, passionate about social issues research, have introduced this passion to students through their teaching and mentoring efforts. We teach courses focused solely on social issues and incorporate social issues into traditional courses as a reflection of our values. Introducing students to new theories about intergroup relations and social systems, for example, facilitates student consumption of and thirst for multiple perspectives. Nothing brings a smile to my face quicker than when a student expresses a newly formed perspective on the world as a result of our time learning together. As SPSSI teachers, we are privileged to witness amazing growth among our students (e. g., a student begins questioning her hometown’s support of the KKK) while recruiting new social issues researchers. Although arguably the greatest teaching challenge, teaching social issues produces unimaginable teaching rewards.
[Note: This post was originally contributed as part of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Early Career Committee 2009 blog.]

Learning about Privilege: Shattering Myths of Education and Embracing Growth

On December 3, 2014, Channel 2 News in Houston ran a story about a white male student who was “uncomfortable” with an ungraded assignment about white privilege. A professor teaching the first-year students’ course, Learning Frameworks, at Lone Star College-Tomball asked students to reflect on the white privilege checklist, marking which items related to them. Sadly, the news report labeled the assignment as “controversial,” yet included no historical context, educational experts, or critical analysis of student expectations and myths related to learning. Although I reached out to the reporter covering the story, she declined my offer to shed some “privilege” expertise that could educate the public. Let’s shatter a few myths on our own then:

Myth 1: White Privilege Checklist = Controversial
Not really- this checklist has been around since Peggy McIntosh published it in 1988. Since then, it has exploded as a teaching tool in high schools, college classrooms, graduate-level courses, conference workshops, and community groups across the country and beyond. We are now decades into teaching and learning what is often called “privilege studies.” Many students perceive privilege content within a course as an attack on the students with the privilege. For example, studying white privilege is viewed as an attack on white students. However, rather than blame individuals, privilege studies critically analyzes the full system of oppression with many interlocking parts that include discrimination and privilege. Lucky for the student in the story, he took a course from an educated professor aware enough to include this checklist and offer him and his classmates the opportunity to think, learn, grow, and develop as individuals. This assignment is only viewed as “controversial” because most of the general population and students have not yet encountered the concept. Privilege is usually completely invisible to those that benefit from it. That’s all the more reason to applaud the professor for providing a safe space for students to grow.

Myth 2: Uncomfortable = Bad
Math makes many students uncomfortable, but no one is letting them out of math and statistics required courses to avoid discomfort. The white student in the story implies that course content should never make a student feel uncomfortable. In fact, being uncomfortable is a good sign that some serious advancements in personal growth and learning are about to take place. The key is to stay with the discomfort, explore it, and reflect on what the discomfort can teach you/us. Many teaching scholars have written about the importance of embracing these uncomfortable moments whether you are alone completing the white privilege checklist or in a room full of classmates discussing racism and privilege. This myth implies that learning should be easy and avoid the difficult task of critical thinking. Professors owe students more than easy courses and degrees that never challenged them to think critically about the world and the systems that maintain unfair group disparities.

Myth 3: Teaching about Privilege = Getting Fired
Sadly, many of the public comments posted in response to this story online called for the professor teaching about white privilege to be fired. This type of backlash is quite common when teachers attempt to raise awareness about oppression, discrimination, disparities, and especially privilege. These calls for firing the professor amount to an uninformed witch hunt designed to maintain the status quo and squash attempts to develop critical thinking around the structure of racism at the societal and institutional level in the U.S. Medical doctors regularly ask us to do things that make us uncomfortable such as get blood drawn or endure a colonoscopy, but we understand that this is for our own physical health and do not call for them to be fired. In much the same vein, learning about privilege and reflecting on one’s own biases is for the greater health of the min. Avoiding the facts or firing someone that illuminates those facts only keeps us ignorant and uninformed. Instead, we should express our gratitude to this professor for being willing to bring very difficult discussions to students and offer them the chance to learn about themselves and hopefully better understand others in the safest place for doing so – the college classroom.

Supporting Privilege Studies:
I will close with a call to action. Educate yourself. Be open and willing to discover your own biases and invisible privileges. In the matrix of privilege and oppression, most of us experience a mix of privileged and marginalized identities, but we all hold ultimate responsibility for making our own privilege visible. Take courses that challenge you. In fact, demand that your coursework requires you to truly think, reflect, and grow. Be brave and allow learning to take you to uncomfortable places that just might lead you to an entirely different world that you never knew existed.
For more on privilege studies, Dr. Case’s website includes publications and information about her book, Deconstructing Privilege; Teaching and Learning as Allies in the Classroom.

How I Teach

I was honored to be invited by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP; APA Division 2) to be featured on their “This is How I Teach” blog. Below are the answers I provided to their questions. Visit the STP post at http://teachpsych.org/page-1703896/3686277teachingimage1

What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received?
Give up control. My friend and colleague Dr. Lillian McEnery told me to try new things in the classroom, even if it scares me. One thing I have come to accept is that there is no perfect course or assignment or activity. You just have to trust yourself and your students that if you try something and it flops, you have the skills and community spirit to pick back up and try something else. This freed me to do much more in the classroom to increase student engagement, get me away from the “sage on the stage” model, and create a brave space for learning.

What book or article has shaped your work as a psychology teacher?
Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice (Adams, Bell, Griffin, 1997), Teaching to Transgress (hooks, 1994); Teaching Critical Thinking (bell hooks, 2010); Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Tatum, 1997); Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Friere, 1970)

Tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach.
In my courses, students learning about group privilege and intersections of identity for the first time is both a pedagogical challenge and huge reward for me as a facilitator of growth. These topics are most commonly 100% new to my students. Therefore, there is an extremely high payoff when they begin to understand these new concepts and apply them to their lives. At this point in my career, I am turning my efforts to creating resources for other faculty that need support in their teaching about privilege and intersectional theory.

Describe a favorite in-class activity or assignment.
My very favorite assignment is my Intersections of Identity Education Project. Students choose an aspect of intersectional theory such as the intersections of race, gender, and social class to examine women of color in poverty versus middle class. They research the chosen intersection and create a product to be used for public education about intersectional theory. For example, one male student created and provided workshops on masculinity, homophobia, and human trafficking to juvenile detention officers. Another contacted a non-profit immigrant advocacy group in New York City and developed brochures for distribution to migrant domestic workers to inform them of their legal rights. His resulting brochures had already reached over 1,000 workers by the end of the semester. Projects also included a documentary emphasizing how Asian women and men are portrayed in popular films, a board game designed to teach players about oppression, privilege, and intersectionality, and videos on ways forms of privilege intersect.

What teaching and learning techniques work best for you?
For assessment, I lean most heavily on reflective papers that incorporate critical thinking while making connections across course materials. I also tend to use reading quizzes to keep students on track so they do not fall behind on reading. My exams are usually a mix of multiple choice, short answer and essay. For graduate classes, all exams are take home and might require 20 hours to complete.

What’s your workspace like?
Two widescreen monitors, Doctor Who and Wonder Woman action figures, mini-fridge close by for Snapple, clean and uncluttered, candy jar for visitors, wide array of colorful pens and markers within reach, 4 X 6 foot wipe off board for planning, listing, and imagining.

Three words that best describe your teaching style.
interactive, inclusive, reflective

What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer?
Toward engagement, critical analysis, and social justice action.

Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had.
Teaching my first course in as a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, the city was struggling after a White police officer shot and killed another unarmed Black man, Timothy Thomas (2001). Still under city-wide curfew and civil unrest all around, our next syllabus topic was white privilege. During that class, a white woman passionately yelled out “they’re all animals” in reference to Black Cincinnatians expressing their outrage about police violence and racism. I was more than completely unprepared for how to handle such a volatile statement in a racially diverse class of 70 students. My memory is hazy, but I think I tried to say something about seeking to understand the perspective of others even when it is difficult and uncomfortable. In my mind, this has always been my biggest pedagogical fail.

What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you?
I am a member of an exhibition dance team, Collective Sound Cloggers. We clog at festivals, events, Disney World, schools, etc. Our dances are set to a mix of rock, country, pop, folk, and traditional clogging music. For more see our website: http://collectivesoundcloggers.org/

What are you currently reading for pleasure?
The Crow Road by Iain Banks- great mystery novel about a Scottish family and coming of age

What tech tool could you not live without?
My android phone. Perhaps sadly, I allow work email to spill over into time when I should be away from work. Also, I use my phone a lot to post teaching items (e.g., videos, articles, blogs) on the Facebook page I created about teaching privilege studies and intersectional theory.

What’s your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most (whether or not it is related to teaching/school)?
In our break room, we have a large table we jokingly refer to as the “Table of Knowledge.” During lunch, faculty gather and discuss a wide range of issues such as the latest political candidate’s anti-immigrant comments, student plagiarism, deconstruct media messages about the Houston anti-discrimination law, ideas for supporting students with disabilities, or university policy changes and the potential impact on student learning. Some days, we just talk about what happened on The Walking Dead or other favorite shows.