Teaching as Justice Work

Posted on: April 29th, 2015

Beth Dougherty, Instructor and PhD Candidate in Sociology here at Loyola, writes about her experiences teaching and how they are a form of engaging with social justice.

There is some debate as to why one might teach. For many industry leaders, a secondary career in higher education is a nice ‘retirement’ job. But for those of us in the early stages of our careers, it’s certainly not a decision made based on financial compensation. For me, it is in pursuit of social justice.

When I first started teaching, in 2004, I kept thinking about the fact that many scholars I knew talked about teaching as a vocation. What they meant was that university instructor was a bit like a member of a religious order. It was a calling to engage with students and spark their interest, not a rational career choice to pursue an improvement in socio-economic standing. It’s a privilege to be in a position where these academic credentials are even possible, but they come at a cost. Student loans, emotional exhaustion at the end of every semester, and disengagement of some students are all a drain. But, in the end, it’s the calling to teach that makes it worth it.

Teaching sociology is, in some ways, a form of entertainment with bonus facts. If I can’t make you laugh, groan, and get angry – you won’t remember a darn thing from the class. Emotional engagement with theories seems impossible, but when we start talking about theories of stigma alongside questions of bullying and self-harm, students care. When they have to present on an article relating Cartesian dualism to organ donation, they question the self. When they have to figure out who made their favorite shoes, or what the message about gender really was in the newest kids’ movie, it is THEIR insights that power the discussion. I’ve seen heated debates, dejected faces, and uncomfortable silences that show the point where the rational and the emotional meet. This bridge between the ‘academic’ and the ‘real’ is a locus for whole-life engagement that I seek to foster.

It is this engagement with students, those moments when they connect their lives with the sociological theories we discuss in class, that are the payoff for me. When students tell me that it was my class that made them think about privilege and inequalities, I do a dorky little dance. It is student feedback which tells me I have succeeded. I may not ever re-invent the wheel scholastically, but I certainly can help those younger than I learn to look at social facts and put their lives within a grander context It is this ability to engage in discourse with students that is, in the long run, both amazing and a terrifying responsibility.

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