The humanities and social sciences are often leading fields in studying and teaching social justice, and institutions’ increasing attention to social justice initiatives can foster student success more broadly. While the move to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic put an enormous strain on teachers and students to follow through on teaching social justice content that also engages accessible methodologies, it also invited faculty and students to explore the pedagogical possibilities of collaboration, student choice and access provided by digital technologies (Stommel 2018). We present an assignment here as a case study in the challenges and opportunities in creating an accessible assignment on social justice topics for a general education first-year social science course during the Spring 2021 COVID-19 semester.
The assignment was the last major requirement for a course with the theme “Core Concepts of Social Justice,” created for students enrolled in our university’s General Studies Learning Community. These students receive additional support in their first year in the form of small class sizes and academic coaching and counseling. One of the drives of the program is to increase institutional retention among vulnerable populations by providing them with multifaceted support that fosters their re-enrollment for their second year. However, financial challenges are the primary reason why students do not return to our university, especially during the pandemic, which heavily impacted our already struggling students. This increased financial burden resulted in increased disengagement: students who knew they did not have—or did not know if they would have—the financial means to return the following fall reported a lack of motivation to do more than a cursory completion of the current semester’s requirements. In addition to the financial and emotional toll of pandemic, students still reeled from the murder of George Floyd that summer. In building this assignment, I was aware of the potential hypocrisy: How could I assess their learning about social justice from a theoretical perspective as they confronted the realities of inequity, injustice, and oppression every day? In short, how could the social justice content be matched with a social justice methodology?
In this assignment, students developed their own syllabus on a subtopic involving social justice using digital research and presentation tools. It asks them: What do you want to learn? What lessons do you want to take with you on your academic journey and eventual career path? How do you want to be assessed? While Lauren built much of the assignment on student choice, she assigned specific tasks: create a course description, a reading list and one assignment for a course on a topic related to social justice. We also asked students to select from a prefabricated list of themes to keep them from being overwhelmed, though they could suggest their own theme as well. They worked mostly in self-selected groups composed of any students in the learning community. (All students in the learning community are enrolled in this course in the second semester; the groups often included students in different sections.) By grouping students in this manner, they came to see what they were studying as connected not just to a course, but to the broader community and curriculum. They then presented their course syllabi to the entire learning community as live slide presentations or pre-recorded videos.
Beyond our own program, this assignment met a universal struggle of pandemic learning: while students are more than ever able to harness digital tools, they also struggle with digital distractions and misinformation. Thus, students were invited to navigate different forms of online engagement over the course of the semester. They accessed most of the reading material through an online community-reading application embedded in our learning management system, in which they could see what students in our section highlighted in their reading and what marginal notes they made, and also respond to one another’s marginal comments. While students gave mixed attention to this application, it did allow some to experience reading as a communal rather than solitary act. In addition, in order to further build their understanding of the history and theories behind social justice, Lauren provided students with a range of online material: news articles, YouTube videos, TedTalks, films, podcasts and websites. Students could choose which source to consult from a list Lauren created and then report back to the class. This enabled students to see the digital world as a repository of useful information that is worthwhile to investigate in depth, rather than falling prey to the “scrolling” behavior we tend to rely on. In addition, while most of professors and students would have preferred to be in person, the online meetings offered the opportunity to model online research tools. For example, during the Zoom sessions, students were often invited to look up answers to questions online, and while Lauren would similarly research questions using the “Share Screen” function on Zoom: we addressed questions as simple as the year the Voting Rights Act was signed to more complex ideas related to the meaning of the word “justice,” for example, in which we would all come up with different web pages and discuss the differences in the definitions we found. As the semester progressed, students were invited to assess the resources shared with them, using the CRAAP test (currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose) or their own instincts. This enabled students to see themselves as authorities that can and should assess content, even when that content appears to be from a trusted source.
Students initially expressed enthusiasm for the idea that they could design their own course on their chosen social justice theme, and for the opportunity to collaborate with their peers, especially given how limited such opportunities were due to the pandemic.
As an observer, and not yet instructor, of the course, Nathan noticed in watching the presentations how the students seemed especially comfortable bringing their own political voice and their own social positionality to bear on their work. In presenting on ethical and political topics, students in general education classes often tend to censor themselves to avoid expressing controversial or seemingly “biased” stances. But Nathan found the students comfortable in expressing their group’s judgments and solutions. In presentations on topics relating to healthcare for the underinsured, on immigration policy and on LGBTQ rights, students described problems and injustices that they witnessed or experienced, which demonstrated a willingness to be vulnerable. Rather than seeking an “objective” or “moderate” tone, the students owned their own identities and made this the basis for their proposed solutions.
Another noteworthy aspect of the assignments that Nathan observed in the presentations was the extent to which students’ course proposals often showed an acute awareness of different teaching approaches and challenges that they had faced as learners. Some groups, for example, designed creative assignments that were meant to get around the dynamic of “teaching to the test.” In one of the most creative instances, a group that took on immigration policy designed a teaching activity around the game of Monopoly that would highlight many of the structures in immigration law. Their narrative explained how the game would teach students to empathize with scenarios faced by immigrants, as well as how it would highlight ethical dilemmas and tradeoffs in formulating laws. One of the most pedagogically informed projects was a course on reforming higher education. The concept of the class was to design a seminar, “Learning for success and not to pass the test.” The students created a model for instruction that prioritized collaborative discussion. They also proposed an assignment that encouraged student-led inquiry, similar to what the original project was trying to achieve. Regardless of whether this course design could be put into practice, a benefit of such an assignment was that it allowed the students and the rest of the community to reflect on structural and pedagogical obstacles to learning, and for students to become advocates for their own needs and learning.
While providing students with an essential foundation in general education, the assignment offers a more dynamic learning environment that encourages students to explore their interests related to social justice, as explained in this overview on the Guided Learning Pathway from the AAC&U. In addition, new course goals (see appendix) built around Fink’s Taxonomy of Learning shifted our attention to two primary aspects of the course: that students engage with core texts that are more diverse and inclusive than the traditional repertoire, and that our community approaches such texts with an eye toward their capacity to generate empathy and caring (Mar et al. 2009). Students thus gained crucial insight into how their education was adversely affected both by the pandemic as well as the inequity endemic to the educational system; reflecting on this, they used the opportunity to create their own curriculum materials to imagine how they could lead their individual learning experiences moving forward.
Mar, Raymond A., Oatley, Keith and Peterson, Jordan B. 2009. “Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes.” Communications: The European Journal of Communication Research. 34, no. 4 (2009): 407-428. https://doi.org/10.1515/COMM.2009.025.
Stommel, Jesse. 2018. “Online Learning: A Manifesto.” In An Urgency of Teachers: the Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel. Fredericksburg, VA: Hybrid Pedagogy. https://criticaldigitalpedagogy.pressbooks.com/chapter/online-learning-a-manifesto/.
A World of Ideas II: Core Concepts of Social Justice
Adelphi University, General Studies Learning Community, Spring 2021
Dr. Lauren Rosenblum
- Foundational Knowledge: Identify and describe entrenched social, political, economic and educational practices and systems that impact the physical and psychological health, safety, education, and financial stability of global citizenry and on the environment.
- Application: Synthesize texts to understand historic social movements that have confronted these challenges and analyze their outcomes.
- Human Dimensions: Draw from diverse sources (film, memoir, personal essays, academic essays, news sources, personal interactions and observations) to reflect on the human outcomes of disrupting, improving, altering or cancelling these practices and systems.
- Caring: Reflect and interpret on how understanding these systems and their impact on us and others influences our empathy and desire to create change.
- Learning to learn: Assess areas that you might be interested in studying further. Argue for proposed solutions to the identified existing practices and systems still present or not yet addressed. You might also begin to advocate for a particular social movement or solution that our academic institution might address.