Interdisciplinarity as a Social Justice Portal: Where History and Writing Can Offer Sanctuary

By Van Tassel, Kristin; Jorsch, Thomas F. | Liberal Education, Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

Interdisciplinarity as a Social Justice Portal: Where History and Writing Can Offer Sanctuary


Van Tassel, Kristin, Jorsch, Thomas F., Liberal Education


"THE WOOL OVER MY EYES HAD BEEN REMOVED," wrote one student in spring 2017 when reflecting on our team-taught course, We All Have a Dream: Searching for Social Justice. This is the type of reaction-the "Aha!" moment-instructors hope to elicit from students, but it can be difficult to achieve. Having taught this general education course twice at the time of this writing, we have discovered a strategy for encouraging students with diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and interest levels not only to take the subject matter seriously, but to engage in the coursework in ways that are often deeply personal. Our observations and students' written responses at the end of the course have indicated that when engaging with controversial topics like social justice, students need lower-stakes spaces to think-and history and writing, together, can provide these needed spaces. When taught in combination, these two subject areas can prompt engagement and self-reflection, with results that we did not fully anticipate but that changed how we understood the relationship between our subject areas. In sum, we found that a personal sanctuary for students emerged from the interdisciplinary synergy.

Most students arrived on the first day of class as unwilling participants seeking to fulfill the writing-intensive requirement for the interdisciplinary core curriculum at Bethany College, Kansas. The course combined the fields of English and history in an exploration of American social justice issues regarding race, class, and gender. As is often the case for general education courses, students enrolled primarily to check off a box at a time that worked for their schedules. We designed the course with the goal of achieving early buy-in among a group of students that was diverse in terms of race, gender, sexuality, nation of birth, politics, and writing ability. Our aim was to establish a classroom atmosphere that allowed students to overcome shyness and negotiate controversial topics, while accounting for additional dynamics related to our positions as two middle-class, white professors sympathetic to the topic.

Informal and formal writing

We began the course by inviting students to make the topic their own. For the second class meeting, we asked students to bring a three-hundred-word statement on what social justice meant to them; for the following class period, we asked that they bring another three-hundred-word essay identifying intersections between their definition of social justice and the language of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document we chose because it offered a chance for students to encounter unfamiliar ideas or consider why other ideas were left out. Both of these assignments were ungraded, so students received credit solely for completion.

Initially, we integrated these low-stakes tasks into the course because we wanted students to practice writing as a means of thinking through new ideas without becoming mired in worries about form. This strategy also prepared students for discussion; when they arrived in class with writing in hand, they had something to say. In fact, even in the first week of classes, we found that students were willing to describe issues that concerned them, from the immigration ban to gun rights, from Black Lives Matter to gay and transgender rights-as well as skepticism about whether social justice itself is worth striving to achieve. In this first week, our aim was simply to encourage students to clarify what they understood the concept to mean for themselves, on their own terms. Some of the social justice concerns that students identified through these early exercises became discussion points later in the course when we covered topics like race and mass incarceration or gender and dependency.

Students also had the ability to explore areas of interest through writing as they moved through three cycles focused on writing formal essays. Each cycle involved a few weeks of reading, informal writing, and discussion, followed by a few weeks of drafting while incorporating feedback from peers and professors, and culminating finally in revision. …

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