“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.]