What does it mean to incorporate social justice principles into my teaching?
UNIVERSITY COLLEGE CORK | 8 September 2020
“I think the key to any progress is to ask the question ‘Why?’ all the time. Why is that child poor? Why was there a war? Why was she killed? Why is he in power?…Without [these] questions you won’t ever make any progress at all.”
Tony Benn, Creating Freedom: The Lottery of Birth (2013)
For me, the social sciences are intimately and intrinsically bound up with questions about social justice. This is because social science is always about asking why. The most enduring lesson of my own political studies has been that present realities – the nature of the institutions through and by which we are governed, the borders of the nations in which we live, the cultural forms we embody – are not natural or inevitable, and that we can and must interrogate how they have come to be. Whether they are a postgraduate in political science or an undergraduate taking a sole politics module simply to fulfil their degree requirements, it is my aim to inspire and support each of my students to find both the will and the courage to ask why things are the way they are, and the hope to believe that they could be otherwise. This is the principle message of my discipline, and it is one with resonances beyond the classroom.
It is my intention as a teacher to encourage within my students a certain scepticism about what we can claim to know; the will to challenge assumption; and, crucially, to look beyond how things appear and ask why we see them that way, how we might see them differently and with what consequences. I want them to interrogate the categories we use. All categories, terms and political ideas contain the seeds of their own disruption, and it is our job as political scholars to deconstruct them.
This process is intrinsically complex, frustrating and difficult. To undertake this kind of engagement with the political in the university classroom requires patience and perseverance on the part of both teacher and student. This necessarily requires some investment on the part of the student for which it is not always possible to control. But crucially – and drawing on my own experience of teachers who have encouraged me to do precisely the kind of hard scholarly work I am advocating – it is only possible if the subject is one for which the teacher is passionate, and willing to share that passion. The why question matters, and it my job to demonstrate this.
While it is my ultimate aim that students should seek their own answers to and develop their own passions for key political and social scientific questions, it is my duty as a teacher also to provide something of an ethical and philosophical compass to help navigate these questions. Particularly in light of the rise of ‘fake news’, the social mediatisation of information and the explosion in its production and availability, it is part of the teacher’s role within the social sciences (and beyond) to provide the tools to help students navigate it.
There is not always a valid multiplicity of answers to key social scientific questions: interpretations framed by colonial paradigms, racism, homophobia, misogyny or transphobia are not simply some among a range of valid world-views available in the ‘market place of ideas’. Indeed, the very notion of a ‘market place of ideas’ is all-too-often promoted by those who have a vested interest in protecting and projecting the power and dominance of paradigms designed to divide or oppress. Challenging oppressive approaches or framings does not mean avoiding teaching difficult subjects or perspectives (indeed, this should be leaned into), nor does it mean silencing or denial. Rather, it means (re)contextualisation, critical interrogation and the creation of facilitative spaces in which to examine the harm that oppressive and exclusionary ideas and structures can cause.
Finally, I believe that a crucial part of teaching for social justice within the social sciences is about cultivating the will to engage in politics beyond the classroom, to consider what it means to be a ‘citizen’, and with what implications for how students will seek to apply what they have learnt. Politics (and the wider social sciences) should be intellectually informed practice, not merely an abstract object of scholarly curiosity, and it is important that scholars of it should seeking to apply theirknowledge and understanding. It is therefore my hope that students leave my classroom with a belief that what they have studied matters; with a will to keep asking questions about it; and with a desire to think about what this means for their role in the world after University. I hope that if they leave my classes with nothing else, my students have been encouraged to explore crucial political questions from a multitude of critical viewpoints; to engage with these questions critically and empathetically; and to think about how they can be active citizens.