A new book co-edited by a VCU professor aims to help teachers better handle difficult moments as they teach about social justice and diversity. (Getty Images)

Teaching about social justice can lead to tense moments. A new book helps educators navigate them.

The book, co-edited by a VCU professor, aims to help teachers better handle challenging topics. “We are going to make mistakes” in being effective allies, Kim Case said. “But we must take the leap.”

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A new book, “Navigating Difficult Moments in Teaching Diversity and Social Justice,” co-edited by the director of faculty success at Virginia Commonwealth University, aims to help educators address challenging topics — such as diversity, privilege and intersectionality — that arise when teaching social justice and diversity-related courses.

The book, published by American Psychological Association Press, was co-edited by Kim Case, Ph.D., the director of faculty success in the Office of the Provost at VCU and of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, as well as a professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Along with Case, the book was edited by Mary E. Kite, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at Ball State University, and Wendy R. Williams, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and women’s studies at Berea College.

Case, who previously edited the books “Deconstructing Privilege: Teaching and Learning as Allies in the Classroom” and “Intersectional Pedagogy: Complicating Identity and Social Justice,” is also an affiliate professor of psychology at VCU. She recently discussed her latest book with VCU News.

“Navigating Difficult Moments in Teaching Diversity and Social Justice”
“Navigating Difficult Moments in Teaching Diversity and Social Justice”

What inspired you and your co-editors to put together a guide for teaching topics such as diversity, privilege and intersectionality?

Faculty teaching diversity and social justice topics often struggle with the question of how to handle these unexpected, potentially tense moments. They search scattered journal articles, random book chapters and online forums for advice and support. Despite these desperately needed and much appreciated resources, finding sufficient support quickly and efficiently when these difficult moments occur presents a problem.

More often than not, we operate in pedagogical isolation. Many faculty are the sole instructor in their department charged with infusing social justice and diversity content into the curriculum. Accompanying this isolation are worries about the consequences these instructional challenges might have on their career success. This collection aims to provide a prepared and directly relevant source for some of the most common and challenging dilemmas for educators teaching social justice.

What is a common difficult moment that can arise when diversity and social justice are being taught? And how can it be addressed?

One of the most common difficult moments comes in the form of a student stating a stereotype as fact or making biased comments. An example from the introductory chapter of our book illustrates intersections of race and class bias: “My student asserted that people living in poverty should be ‘packed up on a bus and sent back across the border where they came from.’” When comments like these occur, the entire room seizes up in tension.

What to do as an educator who may be from one of the groups being stereotyped? What to do as an instructor with privilege? Do I correct the student, offer some data or scientific evidence that counters the information, ask other students to chime in, speak to the student after class?

In an instant, we must find a path for learning that serves the entire community of learners without centering on or alienating the person making the comment. As you may guess, this is tricky. Authors in our new book recommend actions such as taking a class break to decompress, providing students a chance to write reflections, consulting with faculty peers who also teach about diversity and social justice, and not rushing into action without a carefully considered pedagogical plan.

Kim Case is the director of faculty success in the Office of the Provost at VCU and of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence. (Courtesy photo)
Kim Case is the director of faculty success in the Office of the Provost at VCU and of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence. (Courtesy photo)

What advice would you give instructors who make a misstep, perhaps based on their own biases or privileges?

The thing to accept is that if we, educators with intersectional privileged identities, are working toward the lifelong goal of being effective allies to our marginalized and underserved students and being ally role models to students with privilege, we are going to make mistakes.

Identifying possible avenues for responding effectively to our own biases and mistakes requires openness to learning from others, and what I call “pedagogical humility.” Educators can get stuck in the fear of saying the wrong thing or fear of not knowing the answer. Those fears are valid, but we must take the leap to teach about social justice issues anyway.

When the missteps occur, we must seek guidance from our peers and access resources like this book for support. We can take a deep breath and make a plan for how to address the misstep with student learning at the center of that decision-making process. We must avoid the tendency to co-opt the process to avoid our own negative feelings of discomfort, guilt or anxiety.

This book arrives in a year in which social justice has been the topic of conversation both in and outside the classroom. What do you hope this book adds to those conversations? 

First, we have to acknowledge that a wide range of educators have been focused on infusing inclusive practices and social justice content into student learning for many decades. For example, teacher-scholars applying the science of feminist, anti-racist, intersectional, queer, liberatory pedagogies (and more) are not new to the academy. Yet traditionally, these educators have been extremely marginalized and pushed out.

In 2020, the global health pandemic and the renewed attention to Black Lives Matter brought social justice curriculum to the forefront. The social justice issues that impact our students’ lives (and ours) did not begin in 2020. However, the current increase in collective awareness among privileged individuals means what was previously invisible is now more visible. Our collection of open and honest stories in this book, all based on real situations the authors faced in the classroom and on campus, will support those who have been in this work for years and those who may have been avoidant or afraid to get started.

Our main goal is to help normalize the idea that these moments are in fact difficult, but we can support each other to center student learning and keep going. In the spirit of pedagogical humility and continuous growth, we present this volume as an invitation to a lifelong conversation.  

Anything else you’d like to add?

Honestly, I always end up bringing new books into the world because they are the books I needed as a teacher, but they did not exist: “Deconstructing Privilege: Teaching and Learning as Allies in the Classroom” (Case, 2013) and “Intersectional Pedagogy: Complicating Identity and Social Justice” (Case, 2017). We (co-editors Mary Kite and Wendy R. Williams) put this collection together because this is the book we wish someone had given us when we first started out decades ago. Our hope is that faculty teaching from a social justice lens will benefit from these honest stories from their peers. The more we openly discuss these difficult moments, the more we can normalize that great teaching benefits from pedagogical humility, sharing and storytelling.