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!