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This post suggests that the classroom should be considered as a model that students can use to achieve social justice in the world. This is a particularly urgent topic for those teaching at Notre Dame, since socially infused pedagogy is an integral part of its mission statement, which defines social justice in its promise “to cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression that burden the lives of so many. The aim is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.” The University’s Center for Social Concerns even has a specific research area focused on Social Justice.

In Teaching to Transgress, one of the seminal texts on social justice in the field of pedagogy, bell hooks offers a strategy to obtain the above mentioned goals of “human solidarity and concern for the good” that harnesses learning as “service to justice.” In particular, hooks challenges teachers to be vulnerable in the classroom and not to ask students to do anything that they would not be willing or comfortable doing themselves:

Empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks. Professors who expect students to share confessional narratives but who are themselves unwilling to share are exercising power in a manner that could be coercive. In my classrooms, I do not expect students to take any risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share (21).

Though in this specific example, hooks’ is talking about personal narratives, the idea of professors empowering students to take risks by doing so themselves is translatable to multiple contexts and disciplines. This quotation both confronts how neutrality might function as a barrier in the classroom and challenges professors to question how they might make themselves vulnerable and join difficult conversations, thereby demonstrating to students that they are also willing to take risks, without recreating hierarchical power structures in which students perceive the teacher to be the main voice that matters. This question is particularly important given that a professor’s race and gender expression or identity play a major role in how much respect they are given by students and that this strategy of vulnerability may be even harder for professors who do not fit most students’ narrow views of what a professor should “look like.”

Some strategies include:

  • To co-construct a participation rubric with your students at the beginning of the semester, in which the class talks about what a classroom aimed at social justice might look like. This group conversation should emphasize your role as a professor while also drafting a list or statement of ways to create a safe space in which everyone’s views may be challenged, broadened, and learned from.
  • To frame the class with a reading such as hooks’ and engage with their ideas as a group so that a social justice framework is built right from the beginning.
  • To consistently remind students that there is not one specific answer to every problem and that students are welcome to bring their own viewpoints into the conversation, even if they are in opposition to yours, as long as they are respectful when doing so and have an argument that will support their view. (This likely, though not exclusively depending on the topic, applies more to the humanities and social sciences than those in STEM)


When attempting to model social justice in the classroom, it is important to constantly reflect upon our practices. This blog post itself is a reflective response to feedback from a recent Kaneb Center workshop titled “Teaching Social Justice,” which suggested that a clear working definition of social justice should have been identified before the topic was opened for discussion. I have therefore been more intentional in my framing in this blog post by using the University’s mission statement as a guide.

We as educators should consistently evaluate our teaching practices, pay particular attention to the feedback we receive from students and other participants, and implement that feedback in order to make our classrooms and pedagogy more inclusive, and just.

Further Reading

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York, NY: Routledge, 1994.

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