My Teaching-Mentoring Journey: SPSSI Lessons in Supporting Social Justice

(this post is based on my 2017 Outstanding Teaching and Mentoring Award talk at the SPSSI Convention in Albuquerque, NM.)

When I joined SPSSI (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues) in 1999, I honestly had no idea what a major life-changing action I had taken. The generous spirits of my senior mentors and peer mentors have made it easy to call SPSSI my home. I learned from this group of professionals to always invite people to the table, remember that there is enough room at the table, and ask “who is missing from the table and how do we get them here?” SPSSI also gave me permission to become the teacher-scholar working for social justice that I wanted to be. My SPSSI family taught me not to let anyone squash my social issues research passions. My first year in graduate school working on my Master’s thesis, my faculty chair told me that no one would be interested in research on white privilege, so I should not bother with that line of inquiry. In retrospect, if I had followed his advice, I would have 15 less publications, one less book, and one less Journal of Social Issues special issue on my CV (Case, 2012; Case, 2013). When I presented my study of white privilege awareness at SPSSI, I was met with encouraging words and support to keep pursuing this topic. Now, my main goal as a mentor focuses on my students’ passions for social justice and never discouraging them or deflating their enthusiasm.

As a first-generation college student unaware of the process, I almost did not get accepted to graduate school. From the beginning, I felt like an outsider and was even told directly by a male classmate that I was only accepted into my doctoral program because of affirmative action. SPSSI made it clear there is a space for me and my kind within psychology as a profession. SPSSI mentors taught me that our work is valid, recognized, and even important. This gave me permission to say, “Well, SPSSI supports science, so get outta my way!” I lean on my SPSSI crew for community and support to keep going when I ask the privileged to reflect on their actions and especially when bullies label me as difficult because I speak up for fairness, transparency, and justice.

In my teaching and mentoring, I try to channel what SPSSI has given me into supporting students on their own paths. In mentoring student activism, I worked with a transgender student to advocate for adding “gender identity” to our non-discrimination statement. Collaborating across structural hierarchy, we worked as equals on a team to create social change based on her passions (Case, Kanenberg, Erich, & Tittsworth, 2012). By bringing students into my own process of designing courses, assignments, syllabi, and the Applied Social Issues graduate concentration, I acknowledge and utilize the gifts students bring to teaching and learning (Case & Lewis, 2017; Case, Miller, & Jackson, 2012). My SPSSI idols taught me about feminist participatory action research, co-construction of knowledge, recognizing my privileged location, and centering the voices of the marginalized. Why not apply these tenants to what I call participatory action pedagogy? Our standard training often promotes teaching at students, but why not teach with students. To do this effectively, I had to admit to my students that I am still learning as an educator, rather than pretending that I know it all.

If we can begin to trust students and let go in the classroom, beautiful things will happen. By applying SPSSI research values to teaching, we benefit as faculty. Students bring their internal motivation for learning and the drive to serve future students to the drawing board for designing a new course, for example. When we co-designed the Psychology of Gender, Race, and Sexuality course, students benefited from learning about the pedagogical process, one-on-one mentoring from me, and networking with additional faculty to gather resources and relevant research. By allowing students space to create their own learning experiences, I gained skills for incorporating content, activities, and assignments that represented the students’ backgrounds and better served my own learning goals. Perhaps my greatest reward of all, three students that helped design the graduate concentration and two courses are now teaching their own courses in our undergraduate psychology program: Shaprie Jackson, Angela Miller, and Rachel Hensley. And let me be clear, they are impressive in the classroom!

A New Course: Intersectional Critical Liberation Psychology

Invited guest blog by Lisa Rosenthal, PhD; Psychology Department, Pace University

I have been slowly brainstorming about creating a new course in my area of expertise since I started teaching in graduate school. I’ve bounced around between several ideas of what it would focus on, but it has always had a clear social justice framing.

When I started my position at Pace University a few years ago, I learned that it was certainly possible to develop new undergraduate courses and felt encouraged to continue my brainstorming. I also learned about various types of courses Pace undergraduates need to take as part of core requirements and that my institution values faculty teaching, including learning communities.

A learning community at Pace involves two faculty members from different disciplines teaching the same set of students in a given semester about a particular theme or topic. This can be done either as a single integrated, team-taught course, or as two courses paired together. For the social justice-focused psychology course I was imagining, I thought a paired learning community could be perfect and pursued that option.

Many years after these ideas started brewing, I am excited that I am going to teach Intersectional Critical Liberation Psychology for the first time in Fall 2017. I will teach this course in a learning community paired with a section of Gender, Race, and Class (a Women’s and Gender Studies department course) taught by a wonderful colleague, Jason Whitesel, who is a sociologist by training. These courses paired together will hopefully provide a rich experience for students.

Why Intersectional Critical Liberation Psychology?

I believe many students want and need to learn about social justice frameworks for understanding the world. I think this has always been true, and increasingly so given the current political climate both within the U.S. and all around the globe. As an undergraduate psychology student, I learned about social justice frameworks in courses outside of but never within my own major, and I had to figure out on my own how those frameworks could be applied in psychology. I’ve always wanted to offer undergraduate students what I didn’t have.

Across my entire training and academic career, I have steadily increased my engagement with and use of intersectionality as a framework in my research and teaching, as well as in my broader understanding of the world. So I knew I wanted the course I developed to center intersectionality and how it is (and can be) applied within psychology.

I also knew I wanted to highlight traditions within psychology that have always been social justice-focused with roots outside of North America and Europe, which are very often omitted from standard undergraduate (as well as graduate) training in the field. This led me to incorporating critical psychology and liberation psychology into the framing of the course. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that intersectional, critical, and liberation perspectives were intricately linked and complemented each other in an ideal way for what I wanted to accomplish in this course. And, voila- Intersectional Critical Liberation Psychology it would be!

Developing the Course

After years of brainstorming, I had to put concrete ideas down on paper to propose the new course, which is always challenging! I worked on drafting a syllabus to propose, and found out in the middle of that process that my amazing friend and collaborator Nicole Overstreet was simultaneously developing an Intersectional Psychology graduate course (great minds think alike!?). Nicole shared her syllabus with me, and in particular her reading list helped me tremendously to finish up the draft of my syllabus.

I successfully proposed the course, and it was approved. But, I am still in the process of considering a range of options for how to teach it. I want to make sure students can understand the material and walk away with frameworks they know how to apply to the rest of their learning in psychology as well as other fields. I want student to learn things that they will apply to all realms of their lives and careers. Ultimately, I hope the course can help students to understand the world more clearly, find allies in social justice struggles, and engage in trying to make the world a better place.

I have been reading a lot to help me make various decisions about the course, including regarding readings, assignments, activities, etc. One of the first things I read was Kim Case’s book Intersectional Pedagogy: Complicating Social Justice and Identity (HUGE thank you to Kim and the other contributors for doing the work of putting this book together, it’s an incredibly helpful resource!!). I’ve also read Adrianne Aron and Shawn Corne’s edited compilation of translations of Ignacio Martín Baró’s work, Writings for a Liberation Psychology. I’m currently in the middle of Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman’s book Toward Psychologies of Liberation. And, next in the queue is Dennis Fox, Isaac Prilleltensky, and Stephanie Austin’s edited book Critical Psychology: An Introduction, Second Edition. I am thoroughly enjoying reading about all of these perspectives in psychology that I was not introduced to as a student!

I have a lot more work to do before I am ready to start teaching this course in Fall 2017. I am both nervous and excited to continue this journey, and I look forward to sharing updates about how it all goes!

Intersectionality Game- C’est La Vie: The Game of Social Life

On Saturday, January 21st, millions of women around the world united to stand up for women and the causes they believe in, including (but not limited to) the end of sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, and xenophobia, along with the protection of general human rights. The backlash against these marches was immediate. Several women and men turned to social media to argue that women in the United States and Canada were not unequal and needed to “quit blaming” others and “take responsibility” for their own successes and failures (see, for example, Brandi Atkinson’s meme “I am not a disgraced woman”). The sentiment was clear: if it’s not happening to me, it must not be happening.

But it is happening.

Gender inequalities happen every day, especially to women of color, women living in poverty, religious minorities, trans* individuals, lesbians, and women with disabilities. Intersectionality highlights the complexity of discrimination experienced by individuals with multiple oppressed identities. From an intersectionality perspective, it is not surprising that the anecdotes denying the existence of gender inequality focus primarily on the experiences of White, middle class, Christian, cisgender (non-trans individuals), able-bodied, heterosexual women.

As an instructor for more than 10 years, Kosha has witnessed similar dynamics occurring within her university classes. Students with multiple privileged identities often react to discussions of oppression with defensiveness and denial. In the face of this denial, students who have experienced oppression find themselves forced into a position to either fight back in anger or withdraw from the conversation all together. It is challenging to maintain a productive dialogue when the parties involved all start from different realities.


C’est La Vie: The Game of Social Life is a simulation activity that is designed to give individuals an opportunity to experience aspects of privilege and oppression in a simulated context, so as to provide a common foundation to introduce discussions about inequality. The game, which is published in its entirety with the Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology, is facilitated via a Powerpoint Presentation. It is suitable for groups as small as 10 and as large as several hundred.

At the beginning of the game, players receive a character profile that describes the race/ethnicity, citizenship status, gender, sexual orientation, and existing disabilities (or not) of a character, along with starting money and bonus credits (meant to represent socioeconomic status and social privilege, respectively). Using these existing resources, players navigate decisions about housing, education, social life, and occupational attainment to maximize their character’s wealth, well-being, and educational experiences.

Consistent with an intersectionality perspective, the factors that influence outcomes in the game are interactive, complex, and cumulative across the character’s life time. For example, early in the game, players use their starting resources to choose housing in different neighborhoods. The choice of neighborhood, along with the character’s social location, subsequently affects access to education and other resources. As the characters in the game face other academic, social, and legal situations, each character’s social identities serve to facilitate or constrain the choices and resources available to face those challenges.

Importantly, because our game focuses on several intersecting identities, it challenges people with differing social identities (privileged and oppressed) to reflect on the systems that maintain structural inequality. This in turn motivates discussion and self-reflection about one’s own privilege and oppression. Indeed, our research on the game, which is published with the journal Teaching of Psychology, finds that the game is associated with increased awareness about intersectionality, structural inequality, and privilege and oppression (Bramesfeld & Good, 2016). Anecdotally, the game has produced some of the best discussions about privilege and oppression that Kosha has ever experienced in a classroom context.

Certainly, a simulation game will not fix the numerous inequalities that exist within our society (nor is it designed to do so). However, before we can even begin to work together as a society to generate solutions to the very big problems that we face, people must be able to acknowledge that inequality is not a “one size fits all” issue. C’est La Vie: The Game of Social Life is designed to provide an introduction to these realities.

Teaching Resources:


Blog Guest Author Bios:

Kosha Bramesfeld ( has a PhD in Social Psychology from The Pennsylvania State University. She currently works as a Data Analyst for the Course Evaluations team at the Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation (CTSI) at the University of Toronto. She has more than 10 years of experience teaching university courses in psychology and sociology within the US and Canada.

Arla Good recently received her PhD in Music Psychology from Ryerson University. Arla’s research focuses on the socio-cultural benefits of making music together. In particular, her work explores how singing in the classroom can be used as a strategy for promoting positive social relations within and across cultures.

Educators are People, Too: Reflecting on Social Location in the Classroom

How many of us think of our courses as intersectional? Yet, are we truly living up to the theory of intersectionality when it comes to pedagogical structure, design, implementation, and assessment? Are we honestly taking the time to consider how our very presence in the room might alter the environment?
Of course, making all of this a reality is not easy. Intersectional pedagogy requires continuous examination of instructor social location in terms of impact on learning, privilege, invisibility, bias, & assumptions. We must repeatedly ask:

  • What is invisible to me due to my privilege?
  • Who is missing?
  • How might I be performing my privilege in the classroom?
  • How might students respond to me based on me social identities and the interactions among those identities and power structures?
  • How is communication altered by my social location?
  • What needs to occur in the curriculum and in the classroom to account for my social location (if possible)?

circle privilegeI doubt anyone reading this wants to be Circle Teacher unaware of privilege, marginalizing students, maintaining invisibility of structures (literally a wall in this case) that result in disparities. We have to work at becoming aware of when the wall is cut to our form while others are scrambling to climb over or painfully squeeze through.

As an academic from a working-class background, I often struggle with the wall which is cut to the form of middle-class norms of communication, language, dress-code, and individualism. With a large percentage of my students being first-generation and/or working-class, this helps me understand many of their obstacles entering the academy and figuring out the landscape and where the landmines are located. Of course, being a woman at the front of the classroom also affects not only my approach, but how students view me and frame my presence.

At the same time, my whiteness, able-bodied status, and U.S. citizenship can often prevent me from recognizing the daily microaggressions that students of color, students with disabilities, or immigrant students face. My full mix of privileges and marginalized identities undoubtedly impact not only my pedagogical choices, but also how students experience me.

So what can educators do to at least attempt to correct for social location influence on teaching and learning? Some ideas:

  • Take the time to think about your own social location and intersections of identity;
  • Consider how your social location might affect your views of students and especially the areas where you might be less aware of their experiences;
  • Seek out and apply pedagogical resources that promote educator reflective practices;
  • For each course each semester, ask yourself how the assigned readings might represent your social location more than others. Adjust accordingly to bring in perspectives outside your own location;
  • Reflect on examples, videos, activities, assignments, etc. and what ways they can be adjusted to incorporate social locations beyond your own;
  • Speak openly with students directly about how instructor social location could impact how they interact with you, how you communicate with each other, and how awareness of these influences can help us overcome preconceived notions (in both directions); and
  • Expect to learn something new from students based on the rich knowledge they bring to class from their own social locations that can inform the community of learners more broadly.

And if that feels too overwhelming, as Doctor Who always advises, “hold on tight and pretend it’s a plan.”

Feminist Pedagogy is Bigger on the Inside: Intersectionality and Social Justice as Foundational

tardis-Portions of this blog borrowed from “Intersectional Pedagogy: Complicating Identity and Social Justice” (in print August 2016)

As a Doctor Who fan, I frequently integrate my academic thinking with Time Lord philosophy. One of the most famous lines from the show consistently follows when any new traveler enters the TARDIS, which is the doctor’s time and space travel machine disguised as a United Kingdom blue phone booth. Although the typical size of a phone booth on the outside, the TARDIS is “bigger on the inside” with a massive control room, expansive sections, a swimming pool, and much to explore.

When I think about feminist pedagogy, and many other forms of critical pedagogy (e.g., critical race, queer, liberatory), I view them much like Doctor Who’s TARDIS. Feminist pedagogy is simply bigger on the inside, with intersectionality and social justice as co-conspirators that we easily forget and neglect if we are not vigilant. As feminist scholars, we must challenge ourselves to theorize and practice intersectionality to achieve feminist pedagogy.

Perhaps we typically think about these three pedagogical philosophies of (feminist, intersectionality, social justice) as overlapping like a Venn diagram. However, perhaps the overlap is stronger than we imagine. Even more controversial, what if these three frameworks are all part of the same circle?

Without intersectional theory, which also includes a social justice focus, we simply are not fulfilling the promise of feminist pedagogy. In other words, intersectionality and social justice are basic requirements of feminist pedagogy. Therefore, it is time to put our energy into transforming feminist pedagogy with intersectional theory as foundationally present at all points and turns, rather than as an optional “add-on” package. Claiming feminist pedagogy without intersectionality and social justice also sends a clear values message to those at the margins.

Rather than trying to create a course from a feminist pedagogical standpoint and then fix the gaps with patches of “others” (which is an act of being “othered” for people with those add-on identities), now is the time to completely reframe what it means to claim feminist pedagogy. I realize some feminist teachers already do this, but psychology has a long way to go before we meet this goal. Our collective curriculum requires intersectionality from the ground up rather than trying to force it in after the fact. Make no mistake that I am advocating for a values shift… or at least a behavioral shift to reflect our stated values.

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about a student who raised an objection to the whiteness of the textbook. When she spoke up, she made salient the values statement we sent by choosing that text. By expressing her own marginalization due to the course readings, she made a distinct impression on me as an educator who feels professionally and ethically responsible for making sure students from a broad range of backgrounds feel represented in the course materials and get the message that their identities are worthy of academic study.

In other words, intersectional theory translated into pedagogical practice is my professional and ethical responsibility. If we deny intersectionality and social justice as part of our teaching, then we risk making a values statement that gender analysis is of value, but other types of analyses do not deserve our time. We must make the time or else cease claiming that intersectionality is valued and central to our work. What will you do in your next course to infuse intersectionality?
In my next post, I will explore instructor social identity and its impact on application of intersectional pedagogy in the classroom.

Trying is Not Enough: Toward Intersectional Feminist Pedagogy

-This blog is a portion of my talk at the 2016 Institute for Academic Feminist Psychologists in Pittsburgh, PA.
Reading through your Institute participant survey responses, I was inspired by your pedagogical values, learning goals, and visions for intersectionality and social justice.

  • “…awakening students’ feminist identities and activism”
  • “…techniques for integrating feminist activism”
  • “…how to weave a feminist lens and perspective more wholly into teaching practices”
  • “…discuss issues of sexual orientation or gender identity in breadth classes”
  • “…teaching psych of human sexuality from intersectional perspective”
  • “…effective ways to use privilege as academics to live out social justice values”
  • “…incorporating community into research through a feminist, social justice lens”
  • “…integrating feminist theory, critical race theory, and queer theory into psychology”
  • “…applying intersectional theory”

Of course, we are quite often trying our best to accomplish these goals in hostile climates on campus and beyond. Just to name a few:

  • lower student evaluations,
  • alum threats to pull funding,
  • colleagues and admin tell us to be quiet,
  • stud disrespect such as being called Miss/Mrs.,
  • challenge you as authority figure and qualified professional in class,
  • microaggressions from all sides,
  • backlash against higher education, anti-intellectualism, rage against critical thinking,
  • being labeled as radical, bitchy, having an agenda, rude, unfair, and difficult by students ( and women of color get this at higher rates)
  • guns in our classrooms and in our offices
  • two-worlds dilemma: often feeling we don’t fit in Psychology or Women’s Studies

With all of these negative climate issues presenting serious obstacles to our learning goals for students, how do we let our feminist flags fly?
In constructing this talk, I looked back at some older talks and previous writing. What I discovered is that I typically open with some pedagogical failure of my own. And if the use of the word “failure” seems too judgmental, feel free to think about this moment in my life as a pedagogical mishap, letdown, or disappointment (though I don’t believe those words as strong enough).
So why do I tend to repeat this pattern of putting my failures out there for public consumption? That seems like a fair question to ask. Perhaps I’m subconsciously issuing a warning that you should not listen to anything I have to say. And if you do, this approach allows me to relinquish all responsibility because you were thoroughly warned. On the other hand, my hope is that I tend to do this as an act that counters the overwhelming pressure in the academy to pretend we have it all figured out, were teaching experts from birth, and have nothing new to learn. I share these pedagogical displays of privilege because we must out ourselves as lifelong learners of the profession of teaching, which is unsuccessful at times, freely admit we do not have all the answers, & normalize that process of striving for better. So here goes for today:

Excerpt from my book Intersectional Pedagogy (2016):

“The first time I taught Psychology of Women as a graduate student, the textbook was extremely narrow in focus, lacking any hint of inclusion outside normative and privileged identities within the vastly diverse group called women. Due to this shortcoming, I created a supplemental packet with readings to address race, sexual diversity, poverty, and non-western women’s experiences. This “solution” felt like a legitimate approach at the time to correct for the main book’s reinforcement of defining women via only white, heterosexual middle-class perspectives. On the first day of class, a brave student raised her hand to point out that the textbook did not represent her as an African-American woman and seemed focused exclusively on White women. She was right. My co-instructor immediately defended the text saying “no one book can cover everything.” I then agreed with the student and pointed to the packet as one way to include diverse viewpoints and avoid the idea that all women are White, middle-class, heterosexual, U.S. citizens.

Almost 15 years later, I view our supplemental packet and our response to the student as an insufficient, dismissive, and insulting Band-Aid that essentially perpetuated the marginalization of women outside the mythical norm, as described by Audre Lorde (1984). Just as Lisa Bowleg (2008) critiqued her previous research as additive in nature and lacking intersectionality, my original approach to teaching gender from a multicultural perspective served as a lesson in what not to do. At the same time, adding the packet allowed us to pat ourselves on the back as two White women instructors who believed we were acting as exceptional anti-racist allies. Not only was the packet an add-on afterthought residing outside the centralized text (in other words: important and legitimate textbook), but it also treated various social identity categories and their associated structural oppressions as separate considerations.”

So why do I label this a pedagogical failure? First, it wasn’t enough. Despite my good feminist intentions, despite my attempt to diversify the readings; despite my anti-racist and anti-heterosexist efforts, it just was not enough to prevent marginalizing students of color, poor and working class students, students with disabilities, and I could go on and on.
Excerpt from Intersectional Pedagogies (2016):

“Jones and Wijeyesinghe (2011) encouraged consideration of how teaching might be altered when instructors infuse intersectional theory. Without intersectional theory applied in the feminist classroom, educational spaces serve to both perpetuate invisible privilege by focusing on personal oppression and construct only mythical norms as worthy of earning valuable real estate within course materials and broader curricular designs. Valid pedagogies must stop pretending, for example, that White women possess no race, Latino men are genderless, or Black and Asian women embody mutually exclusive gendered and racial social locations. Even though some privileged women in my gender courses insist race and sexuality are irrelevant to the study of women while men of color often resist the deconstruction of gender and gender identity in courses addressing race and racism, intersectional theory demands attention to the mutually constitutive nature of these interacting and intra-connected systems.”

Therefore, I argue that feminist pedagogy deserves a more complicated and challenging application than we tend to enact in psychology. My next blog will address how we can go about moving toward intersectional feminist psychology pedagogy.

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

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:

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.