What does it mean to incorporate social justice principles into my teaching?


DUBLIN CITY UNIVERSITY | 14 September 2020

To incorporate social justice principles into teaching requires more than teaching about social justice. In addressing human rights, historical abuse, armed conflict and so on in my teaching, the risk is that these can be presented and taught in a self-evident and self-righteous fashion.

Reflecting on the role of social justice in higher education across the DISCs project has challenged me to ensure that each of my classes not only reflect social justice oriented content, but also model and practice social justice experiences for students, while retaining their ability to exercise choice and agency in their understanding and freedom regarding social justice issues.

A first step has been to ensure that there is meaningful representation of a diverse range of voices and sources in each of my reading lists. In teaching international law subjects, this has been aided by employing authors within the Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) tradition, that offer radically different perspectives on international law, colonialism and empire.

In nationally and trans nationally focused modules such as Critical Approaches to Law this has required ensuring that curriculum contain a meaningful cross section of authors of colour, of female authors and LGBTQI+ authors.

It also seeks to ensure that the sources used combine peer reviewed academic sources, with the use of recent developments and multimedia content that may be of relevance to social justice issues. These may include newspaper, NGO and civil society reports, podcasts, Tedtalks, and so on.  In doing so there is a design to ensure academic content is situated in its current social and political contexts.

The third and most challenging context is in considering its application to research and methods modules I teach to postgraduate students. A diversity of authors and methods here requires not merely a representation of different backgrounds in the reading list, but also diverse methodologies and diverse epistemologies and ways of knowing.  I am keen in future years to explore further ways to explore the decolonisation of methodologies and to recognise the experiences and approaches of indigenous ways of knowing.

A second approach to incorporate social justice principles in teaching is to ensure that there are ground rules for the classroom discussion. These can be agreed at the start of term with students and returned to when approaching particularly challenging topics. The use of teaching strategies such as online communication tools in class rooms which may enable anonymous contributions may mitigate in class confrontation but are not substitute for the challenge of navigating potential differences of opinion in a respectful, vulnerable and brave manner.

A third element is to ensure that students recognise the potential and possibility of social justice as immanent. By examining the role of cause lawyering and lawyering as a form of social justice, I encourage students to reflect upon what are the factors that enabled their predecessors to engage in social justice lawyering and what the potential challenges and obstacles, as well as opportunities, that may present themselves in their future careers.

A final element concerns assessment. I have discussed the potential for an eportfolio to offer students a means of reflective engagement with questions of social justice in my teaching strategies section of this project. The experience of student reflection as an element of social justice l earning has encouraged me to continue to diversify assessment beyond traditional exams or essay assignments familiar to legal education. I have the privilege of being able to make such changes by virtue of the subject areas (International law, critical approaches to law, research methods) that I teach. Colleagues who teach in areas subjected to regulation by the legal professional bodies may be required to adhere to more traditional forms of assessment and structures of knowledge.

The most significant and profound way in which social justice can be incorporated into teaching is in how we as academics engage with students whether inside or outside the classroom. Our values, our practices and our attitudes towards students matter and embody the reality of social justice in higher education beyond what is assigned or what is assessed.