Teaching For Social Justice

Posted on: March 21st, 2016 1 Comment

For me, social justice isn’t a concept, something we teach; it’s a practice, something we do. When a student like Melinda Bunnage learns about social inequality in her sociology classes and puts that knowledge into practice by supporting food workers on campus organizing for better pay and benefits, that’s social justice. When a student like Julian Marshall learns about organizing in his political science classes and co-organizes a rally in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, that’s social justice. As teachers we can give students the knowledge and skills to act, but social justice begins in the streets, so to speak, when ideas take action.

As a literary scholar and theorist, I teach students how to analyze texts (verbal and visual) for the gender, racial, class, and sexual discourses that inform them. I want students to understand the history of these discourses (institutionalized symbolic systems that enable us to conceptualize ourselves as subjects) and how they have shaped our commonsense notions of sex or race, notions that have become naturalized as the way things are rather than the way things are represented to be. Reading literature can expose this process, enabling it to be noticed, and changed. Reading, for example, isn’t a gender neutral experience. We’re gendered by discourses such as literature; or put differently, we’re situated in discourses as gendered subjects.

Teaching for social justice, then, doesn’t mean teaching about individuals and the historical oppression of certain groups, though it can and does mean that as well. It means understanding how social privilege is upheld, and how social mobility is hindered, by language and representation as much as by laws and institutions.

In teaching transgender, for example, I can and do teach narratives by transgender subjects, such as Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, or Jennifer Boylan’s memoir, She’s Not There. I can and do cite facts about transgender lives: that the rate of poverty among transgender people is four times the national average, that the unemployment rate is twice the national average, that 41% attempt suicide at some point in their lives compared with 4.6% in the general population. I can and do discuss landmarks in transgender history, such as the founding of the World League for Sexual Reform in 1928 and the uprisings from Los Angeles in 1959 to Stonewall in 1969, and specific areas of progress, such as Germany’s 2013 law allowing an option of neither/nor on birth certificates. But for me, understanding how language and discourse work is crucial.

Teaching transgender over the past few years has challenged my own assumptions about language. I’ve learned, for example, to accept the grammatically incorrect “Everyone has their paper” (and that’s really hard for a strict grammarian like myself) because what we call the “gender neutral” construction, “everyone has his/her paper,” isn’t neutral at all but retains a binary notion of gender based on a binary concept of sex. Together God and grammar seem to give us only two options: male or female. “European and American culture is deeply devoted to the idea that there are only two sexes,” writes biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling. “Even our language refuses other possibilities.” Yet, she continues, “if the state and legal system has an interest in maintaining only two sexes, our collective biological bodies do not.” (In her recent lecture here, medical historian Alice Dreger noted that if one considers all the ways in which an individual can be considered intersex, about 1 in 100 people are neither male nor female.) Sensitizing students to the way language—verbal and somatic—structures our sense of ourselves as gendered subjects can make them aware of how social privilege and abject identities are reproduced by our own embodied practices.

And that’s where things get risky. It’s not just a matter of standing up for transgender people; it’s a matter of changing ourselves. It’s what I call, in the affirmative sense, pedagogy at risk.

Increasingly students identify as trans* or genderqueer. That may require certain adjustments in the classroom, such as calling the roll by last names in case “Mary” now goes by “Mark,” and asking students what pronoun they use. But it also can affect our very relation to the subject matter we teach, even when that subject matter is not transgender. In the past, for example, I have found teaching avant-garde literature challenging because students prefer novels they can “identify with,” and the bizarre subjects and experiences depicted in experimental form in avant-garde writings frustrate that desire. I used to say, “Precisely. You can’t identify with the characters so let’s pay attention to what the language is doing.” But last semester a student who self-identified as genderqueer told me that these novels were the first this student was ever able to identify with. I can no longer teach avant-garde literature the same way.

It’s not, then, the politics expressed by language that’s at issue for me in teaching for social justice; it’s the politics of language itself. Where teaching for social justice takes place is not in the positions we take in the classroom, what we teach, but in the positions we come to occupy in the classroom, how we read and how we’re read by others, positions we can’t always control. Risky business indeed.

Pamela Caughie


Department of English

Faculty Member

Women’s Studies and Gender Studies Program

Tags: , ,

Loyola University Chicago's Social Justice Web Portal is designed to provide a positive environment for the Loyola community to discuss important issues and ideas. Differences of opinion are encouraged. We invite comments in response to posts and ask that you write in a civil and respectful manner. Comments will be screened for tone and content. All comments must include the first and last name of the author and a valid e-mail address. The appearance of comments on the Web Portal does not imply the University's endorsement or acceptance of views expressed.

One Response

  1. Anne Callahan says:

    Until today I was unaware of the existence of the Office of Social Justice Initiatives and heartened to discover this blog page on LUC’s web site. I was delighted to find my former colleague, Pamela Caughie’s blog on Teaching Social Justice in literature courses. Her contribution to the blog bears witness to the active participation of distinguished senior faculty in the university’s social justice and diversity initiative and demonstrates, in her description of the issues at stake and her examples from classroom experience, that Loyola faculty is keeping pace with changes in pedagogy worthy of a liberal arts institution. I can only hope that other faculty members will follow her lead and share their experiences, experiments, successes and suggestions in the spirit of collegiality in the current climate of evolving cultural imperatives. Anne Callahan, Professor emerita, Modern Languages & Literatures