Teaching Diversity and Social Justice

This semester, I had the pleasure of teaching two required sections of SW 504 Diversity and Social Justice at the University of Michigan.  The course was one that I had a major hand in creating and one that I had attempted to create for at least 15 years.  This course in needed in social work education, as it provides a depth of understanding that mere integration of this content into existing courses cannot provide.  In social work, students take two required courses in research, yet very few actually go on to do research.  They take two courses in policy, yet this is often not a major part of their practice.  Yet, until a couple of years ago, there was no required course in diversity and social justice, even though every social worker will encounter diverse populations and most have no idea of how to deal with them when they do.  Although I had hoped to teach the course after it was created, my sabbatical and leave of absence prevented me from doing so until now.  While there are many things I might have done differently, I feel the course was a success and that students benefited from their learning.

Today was supposed to be the last day of class for my two sections, but 5 inches of snowfall led me to cancel the class.  Safety first, as I know many commute.  Also, it was my understanding that most would just be coming for my class, as most other courses for this day were already completed.  And finally, I had planned a final reflection and celebration, which would have been an excellent way to end the course, but not critical enough to endanger students.  Thus, in lieu of our in class reflection, I will reflect here on my blog.

We began the course by building relationships and community within the classroom.  Using liberation and decolonizing pedagogy, we acquitted ourselves as teachers and learners in the class.  We called upon the spirit of loved ones to enter the space to share in our learning and growth.  We learned about our differences and found common ground among our intersectional identities.  We reviewed terms related to oppression, power, and privilege.  We challenged ourselves to think critically about these terms as they relate to our personal and professional lives through classroom discussions and our blogs.  We then entered a hybrid portion where students engaged in self-study and developed their plans for their final projects.  Upon returning to the in person portion of the class, we discussed how we can take the concepts we’ve learned and apply them to our practice as social workers.

Throughout the course, my main objective was to empower my students as adult learners, as diversity and social justice are life long learning goals, not just a course requirement for graduation.  I challenged them to strive for excellence and to be leaders in this area.  I believe they possess the tools for this, through not only my course, but through the MSW program in its entirety.  I challenged my students to have an analysis and not be complacent.  We will all make mistakes and in some cases, we will choose not to act when it results in a loss of privilege.  We all do this everyday for that is the insidiousness of oppression, but we must at least have an analysis.  We need to understand that with this inaction, we maintain systems of oppression and the dominant narrative that subjugates those without power.  We learned about non-violent action and resistance and how this can be used effectively in dialogue to interrupt oppression.  We also discussed the use of popular education and was able to identify how they can be applied through our own experiences in the class.

My students were awesome.  Many of them took on the challenge that I presented to them and far exceeded normal expectations.  Others were quiet but attentive to their task and did outstanding work.  There were very few naysayers, although these individuals are usually difficult to identify if they do not speak up.  However, I believe the environment I created left a space open for disagreement and introspection when there was not full agreement.  The blogs were largely outstanding.  After the first few weeks, I challenged students to dig deeper into their analysis and not simply regurgitate the main themes from the readings.  As time went on, this was accomplished and the blogs became a learning tool not only for the authors, but also for the readers.  My intent is that students will ultimately publish their blogs publicly so that they can share their learning with others.  I am not sure how many will do so, but my hope is that everyone does so.  This in and of itself is a form of action.

What would I have changed from this semester?  First, the hybrid online portion was experimental.  I had previously taught a full asynchronous course on a similar topic that was extremely well received, but thought that it would benefit from an in-class presence.  That led to this hybrid model.  I believe that students benefitted from the hybrid portion, even if it meant that they were given extra time to work on projects, other courses, or just attend to life, which we forget about in graduate education.  My courses also tend to be intense, as I bring a lot of passion to the classroom, so the hybrid portion also gave them time to process and take a step back from Prof. Mike and spend some time with their own thoughts.  At the same time, I believe that we lost a certain level of engagement from some students.  I noticed some blogs were not as deep and I had no way of gauging whether students who were not blogging that week had done anything for the course.  I also felt a bit of distance due to my own lack of engagement.  In the future, I would probably have all students blog during the hybrid portion and I would commit to blogging or vlogging (video blog) each week as well.

We used Mullally’s (2010) Challenging Oppression and Confronting Privilege:  A Critical Social Work Approach as our main text.  While I had heard that some students found it to be dry, I originally thought that this would be a common text for all SW 504 classes, so I used it.  To my surprise, the book was very well written and covered the major content of the course in a succinct but comprehensive manner.  Was it dry?  I wouldn’t say so, although some students may disagree.  I found it to be rather engaging for a graduate text and quite easy to understand.  Would I use it again?  Likely so.  Suggestions for other texts are welcomed!  There was one major problem with the book and that was finding it for sale online.  Some students were not able to obtain a copy until mid-semester, which is unacceptable.  I will need to make sure that students can obtain enough copies in the future.

Finally, with regard to my own style and my learning.  I love to teach and love to see transformative learning in the classroom.  I use lecture, popular education, experiential learning, and media to convey the materials.  However, most of all, I use myself as a tool for learning.  I make visible my own self reflection and critical analysis of my actions and inactions.  I attempt to model for students the kind of transformative learning I hope they see in themselves.  With this style, it is almost impossible for me not to learn along with my students.  I feel this style has been effective for me, although I do know that it takes a bit more energy and emotion from me to deliver.  Some may believe that emotion does not have a role in an objective classroom.  I beg to differ.  This content is so loaded with emotion that to ignore it would only reinforce the norms of silence around these issues.  It takes a lot out of me, but it provides so much more than just listing concepts.  While it may not be the best style for all students, it works for me and I believe the majority of those how take my courses.

A last word to my students this semester.  Thank you for your patience, your enthusiasm, and your presence in the class.  It has been a while since I have been back to teaching full time and you made this experience so positive and fulfilling for me.  Despite the confidence I may project, I am my worse critic and had many doubts about how life would be back in the classroom.  In many ways, you reinforced in me the critical importance of this course in our curriculum and my confidence in conveying this material.  You engaged with one another with civility and respect.  You realized the richness that your classmates brought and embraced them.  In the coming years as you enter our profession, I wish for you courage to take risks and grow from any mistakes.  I challenge you to interrupt oppression at the individual, organizational, and systemic levels to the best of your ability.  I hope that we will stay in touch and that even though I’ll be on the west coast next year, you will seek me out as a trusted colleague when you need me.  We will forever to tied to this class and our learning.  Imua (forward)!

Mahalo and aloha!