5 Principles Toward Social Justice Pedagogy

The plenary panel at this year’s Shakespeare Association of America Annual Conference is titled “Walking the Talk: Embodied Pedagogies of Social Justice.” I have the dual honor of organizing the panel and co-presenting a paper, “Of Alliances and Pluralities,” with Elizabeth Williamson, Dean of Faculty Hiring and Development and Tenured Member of the Faculty at The Evergreen State College. In preparing for this significant event, I have returned to some foundational scholarship on social justice in higher education (e.g., Sara Ahmed, Barbara Tatum) and in Shakespeare and early modern literary studies (e.g., Ayanna Thompson, Arthur Little, Jr.). I have also read exciting new work by Denise Albanese, Doug Eskew, Ruben Espinosa, Katherine Gillen, and Kyle Grady, to name just a small handful of the brilliant established and emerging scholars working at the seams of Shakespeare, pedagogy, and social justice.

Conducting this literature review has highlighted for me several principles shared by scholars committed social justice pedagogy. These principles appear in work by scholars in various fields with divergent approaches. So what do literary scholars, social workers, and sociologists, whether writing manifestos or teaching philosophy or detailed accounts of classroom practice, agree on?

  • A definition of social justice pedagogy. Eleanor Drago-Severson and Jessica Blum-DeStefano articulate a definition of social justice pedagogy that is most often implicit in work on the topic:  

“Both a goal and a process, social justice in schools incorporates wisdom from many different paradigms and seeks to leverage education as an avenue of access and advocacy for all students–inclusive of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, geographic location, socioeconomic status, language of origin, immigration status, physical and intellectual ability, and the many and overlapping aspects of who we are.”(a)

  • Equality isn’t the same as sameness. Acknowledging differences in identity—among students, between students and teachers, and, for myself and colleagues in my discipline, as represented in literary texts and enacted in performance—is necessary for social justice pedagogy. We ought not perpetuate a fiction that classrooms, both brick-and-mortar and online, are separate from world. There are no ivory towers protecting learning environments from the inequities and injustices playing out in the streets, workplaces, homes, parks and pools of the United States and around the globe. Yet we can work to construct classrooms where educational inequities and assessment injustices have no place and where differences may be mobilized in the service of students’ confident mastery of content and skills.
  • Guilt—ours or students’—isn’t especially productive. Identifying for students—or better yet, enabling them to identify for themselves—systems of privilege and oppression, both past and present, is a crucial if only a first step. Teachers must also take an honest look at themselves, to recognize their own prejudices and limitations.
  • We need to meet students where they are. This means acknowledging students’ lived experience as subject-expertise. Even as we aim to bring unfamiliar, difficult, sometimes alienating, sometimes unsettling material to students, students bring to their peers and to us unique sources of knowledge that will enable learning—and may shed new light on our subjects.
  • Teaching, like scholarship, is never a neutral act. Whether or not a teacher embraces social justice pedagogy, their teaching communicates social, political, and cultural meaning. To say “I don’t do that sort of thing in my classes” doesn’t mean that social dynamics are not playing out in a classroom. Rather, the teacher is choosing not to acknowledge, engage, or mobilize them. To quote Felice Blake, “We cannot separate critical analysis from social movements.”(b)

Teachers in higher education take different approaches to social justice in their classrooms, often reflective of differences in discipline, student population, and institutional resources. What we share is a sense of moving the ball forward, sometimes by inches, and then passing it on to others. This is “a goal and a process,” as Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano write, for us as teachers, as much as it is for educational institutions from pre-K to graduate programs. Yet we can come together in our commitment to creating meaningful, inclusive learning environments that foster the success of “all students.”

Cited references:

(a) Eleanor Drago-Severson and Jessica Blum-DeStefano, “The Self in Social Justice: A Developmental Lens on Race, Identity, and Transformation,” Harvard Educational Review 87, 4 (Winter 2017):  457-481, quote 461, original emphasis.

(b) Felice Blake, “Why Black Lives Matter in the Humanities,” in Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Luke Charles Harris, Daniel Martinez HoSang, George Lipsitz, eds., Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness across the Disciplines (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 307–26, quote 319.

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