Academic Exchange Quarterly      Spring  2011    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  15, Issue  1

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Social Justice and the Composition classroom


Peggy Johnson, Saint Mary’s University, MN


Johnson, Ph.D., teaches various writing courses and directs the university’s writing center.



This article sheds light on teaching social justice to composition students in an effort to minimize the widening gap between the privileged and marginalized on college campuses.  The purpose of this article is to help overcome this gap by sharing a curriculum the author has used successfully that integrates Catholic social teaching into a composition course. This framework meets a learning goal of not only increasing students’ critical writing skills, but also facilitating social awareness and advocacy.



Social justice education has been linked to the critical pedagogy movement since the early 1970’s and was envisioned as a means to interfere with education’s construction and reconstruction of social inequalities.  In recent years, social justice education has focused on incorporating a value-added component to classrooms by teaching students to be charitable to others; in other words, social justice education generally centers on helping students become aware of social disadvantages that result from white privilege and teaching students the personal and societal value of providing individual acts of charity and service to help alleviate that disadvantage, or what Tarc (2007) calls “doing good in the world.”  At the Catholic Midwestern university where we teach, students are offered service learning opportunities in the classroom and are led on service trips to paint dilapidated houses, care for underserved children, and feed the hungry, actions that thousands of students nation-wide perform in an effort to “do good in the world.”

We wholeheartedly support the general aims of social justice education in shaping and promoting more caring citizens and a more engaged student body, but we argue that social justice education with a charitable framing remains a weak force in changing student perspectives on societal oppression (Katz & O’Leary, 2002).  In this article, we argue that social justice education with a charitable framing can act to widen the hierarchy between the privileged and the marginalized in that it does not give voice to the authentic experience of being oppressed.  We contend that teaching social justice using a Catholic social teaching (CST) framework in the composition classroom can help change student perspectives regarding marginalized groups because in this framework, social justice is rooted in the affirmation of human dignity, which Loewen and Pollard (2010) advocate as the core of social justice.  In this article, we explore the challenges of teaching social justice in the composition classroom and contend that the deepening gulf between the privileged and marginalized (Kincheloe, 2004; Knudson, 2009) requires such effort, especially in schools that have significant socioeconomic disparity.  We also document our efforts to highlight social justice as a framework to guide composition students in their development of critical thinking and writing skills in an effort to reposition students to strive for the human rights and dignity of all people. 


Social justice education is not without its detractors.  Leo (2010) argues that social justice on college campuses may be regarded by opponents as a feel-good term that masks hard-core ideology which upholds gay marriage and redistribution of wealth, and students who voice opinions against such ideology are often chastised or penalized.  At three public universities, students were punished for stating conservative opinions that differed from faculty opinions (Leo, 2010).  According to Leo, teachers who dedicate their classrooms to social justice put themselves, and their universities, in a precarious position to judge whether students’ political and social opinions are acceptable.  The opposite also rings true.  Under the umbrella of social justice pedagogy, those classrooms in which students’ personal experiences are accepted as unmediated sources of knowledge are counterproductive to the aims of social justice education because the classroom provides students with a subjective understanding of experiences (Applebaum, 2008).

Educators at some universities, however, support social justice education because it engages students in debates about important social issues.  In his research-focused composition classroom, for example, Hale (2009) introduces students to the crisis in the immigrant rights movement by teaching them the critical tools they need to look beyond media propaganda and misinformation in order to understand the issues and develop more informed and reasoned opinions.  In this way, Hale’s students not only develop the writing skills they will need to succeed in the classroom and beyond, but they also develop a consciousness of advocacy. According to Sapp (2003), composition education encourages students to develop new ways to think and act both inside and outside the classroom, so teachers of composition can structure their classrooms in ways that facilitate social justice by helping students “analyze systematic oppression and collaborate with them to build a more just, equal, and peaceable society.”  Yet at most universities, it is rare to find teachers like Hale (2009) who incorporate a social justice mission into their composition classrooms because there are considerable challenges that prevent them from successfully doing so (Sapp, 2003).  These obstacles include a lack of training, which results in teachers being under-qualified to promote social justice learning; a lack of time needed to develop appropriate instruction; a strong conservative opposition, which does not believe social justice pedagogy should be promoted; and an untenured or part-time faculty who legitimately fear non-supportive administration and resistant students. 

Perhaps because of these obstacles, teachers of composition rarely use pedagogies that relate directly to a social justice mission (Sapp, 2003).  Teachers in other disciplines, such as theology, philosophy and ethics, are more easily able to incorporate social justice pedagogy into their classrooms (Whitmore, 2000; Cassidy, 2006; Wall, 2004).  Yet Kincheloe (2004) contends that all teachers (including teachers of composition) must understand and commit to education that is socially just so that education can become an avenue by which students learn to embrace a view of justice that allows people to fulfill their human dignity, an educational endeavor that requires students to address issues of oppression and hierarchy that harm societal groups who are not given equal rights or opportunities.  Kincheloe believes that only by pursuing both mainstream and alternative knowledge can teachers make informed judgments about curriculum development and classroom practice centered on social justice.  Teachers, then, must take the time and effort to develop a classroom in which authentic dialogue exists so that students can connect to notions of social justice through the framework of human dignity.


We determined to teach composition using a social justice framework three years ago when we saw that the majority of students in the course upheld a conservative belief system that excluded the marginalized, including the growing number of minority students, many of whom were first generation college students from a lower socioeconomic background, as well as those who were homosexual.  Students often justified their perceptions and behaviors by pointing to the Catholic religion as the foundation of their belief system, especially in regard to gay issues, yet these conservative values seemed to create a classroom environment that encouraged privilege while deepening the chasm between homogeneity and diversity.   We saw that many students upheld a moralized judgment of others outside their belief system, and they tended to hyperbolize the inconsistencies and shortcomings of those who differed from them.  Adhering to a traditional belief system acted as a means to separate students of privilege from students of disadvantage, the result of which was an atmosphere of silence for those students who felt they did not belong.  According to Kincheloe (2004), this dysfunction of reality caused by privilege allows youth to maintain a sense of their own superiority of middle-upper class values while quashing opportunities to understand and dignify the lived experiences of others.  More troubling, the classroom becomes a place that never brings into question authentic human experience, and traditional values and beliefs are never challenged. What results is a micro-climate in higher education that works to suppress social consciousness rather than awaken it, and classrooms become safe settings only for students whose voices are conventional.

Pedagogy.  In reflecting on our composition classroom practice, we saw that most students had a clear vision of what they viewed as ethical/unethical and moral/immoral behavior based upon their religious tradition and privileged culture and that most students embraced opportunities of volunteerism to help those considered disadvantaged.  In other words, most students were familiar with and embraced a charity focus on social justice.  As critical educators, we believed students needed opportunities to expand their notion of social justice beyond a charity framework to include a focus on human dignity, the hallmark of CST.  Another compelling reason to integrate CST into the course was the increased emphasis on congruence of curriculum with the university’s mission statement, which includes a commitment to challenge students’ intellectual, spiritual, personal and professional growth through an emphasis on social justice that is directed toward the common good.  The goals of the composition class were threefold:  1). To move students beyond viewing social justice through a charity lens in order to understand the harm caused to marginalized groups; 2). To use CST as a language of critique that could expose the way contemporary society maintains unequal social relations and the harmful effects of that inequality; and 3). To help students develop the critical thinking and writing skills they will need to succeed in college and beyond.

Two basic tasks were involved in meeting the above goals.  The first was integration of content, which applied CST to a range of current topics.  The second task was integration of design, which involved moving away from the conventional composition course (with an emphasis on the writing process) and toward a critical ethics writing course.

 The first list below identifies the main principles of CST.  The second list applies CST principles to current issues students find relevant to class discussions and important in their lives.

List 1.   The CST document outlines themes of social justice, all of which conspire to create a culture in which human rights are valued and the world is regarded as a precious resource (Byron, 2004).

1.     Human dignity and respect for life.   All human beings possess dignity and value; this translates into respect for all life and working for human rights.

2.     Participation and association: Human beings are called to participate actively within family and community; there is no peace and justice for one.  Relationships directly affect the capacity of individuals to grow in community.

3.     Rights and responsibilities.  Human beings have basic human rights that encourage “human flourishing.”  With these survival rights (e.g. food) and “thrival” rights (e.g. education) come responsibility to provide for others.

4.     Stewardship, or care for creation.  Human beings must be in relationship with one another as well as in relationship with the earth and all creation.

5.     Preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.  Since we are created as social beings to be in right relationship with others, we must provide for the most vulnerable in our society first.  The good of society requires this, otherwise the balance necessary to keep society stable will be damaged to the detriment of the whole.

6.     Solidarity.  We are all one human family and should care/work/provide for one another as such to help others develop to their full potential.

7.     Dignity of work and rights of workers.  Work must be respected as an essential component of a human being’s vocation.  Safe, meaningful work with a just wage is part of respecting that dignity of work. (US Catholic Bishops, 1998)

List 2.  CST and relevant issues.  Hellwig (2004) and Smith (2004) propose these questions to promote critical dialogue:  What is the system doing to the poor and excluded?  What is justice? What are rights? What is the right to meaningful work and how can it be safeguarded?  Topics of discussion:

1.      Homelessness                             1.  Human dignity and respect for life

2.      Health care                                  2.  Rights and responsibilities

3.      Unemployment                           3.  Dignity of work and rights of workers

4.      Advocacy                                     4.  Participation and association

5.      Dorothy Day                                5.  Preferential option for the poor/vulnerable

6.      Flood Relief                                 6.  Stewardship

7.      Education                                                7.  Solidarity


Learning opportunities.  The composition course emphasizes shared inquiry in a seminar-style format to promote participation by every student in discussions of articles featuring current topics, the CST document, and applications of CST principles.  In this way, the instructor has minimal intervention in these discussions.  The instructor’s role is to get the discussion started, promote participation by all students, and mine the full potential of students’ questions and comments by asking supporting questions. The course is designed to encourage and enable all students, including students who are not Catholic or do not have any knowledge of CST, to participate in class discussions and to articulate orally and in writing their stances on particular issues.

Assessment. In our efforts to help students in their movement toward social consciousness and in their development of critical writing skills, we ask students to become personally involved by reflecting on their childhood relationships that shaped their values and beliefs.  In the first exercise, students are asked to reflect on their relationship with their parent(s) and ponder the ways in which their parent(s) helped form their values and perspectives.  Through this exercise, students reflect on how their value system has been formed by the value system in which they were raised.

From Mary:  My mom told me that education will allow me to live the good life I have always dreamed of living.  I want to live my life by the traditional, conservative standard set by the white middle-upper class because those who achieve this white middle-upper class standard tend to own nice, suburban houses, have two-parent families, steady jobs, and strong family values. If everyone lived by conservative standards, our society would be more successful.  

From David: At home and at school, my classmates and I were taught about other cultures as if they were farfetched fantasies that would never impact our lives.  The net effect was that I was aware of differences in race, class, and gender in society; however, I was unaware that people around me could hold value systems separate from my Eurocentric one.    

From Adam:  I embrace the teachings of the Catholic Church; these teachings, which uphold the common dignity of every human person, provide the most advantage for our society because the Church believes that with proper opportunities all people can succeed and that society can progress when it maintains set standards.

Upon completion of four academic essays that featured a social justice framework, students were asked to provide qualitative feedback regarding the course.  This feedback suggests that incorporating a social justice framework in the composition course can broaden students’ understanding of how individuals are a product of their social, cultural and economic upbringing.

From Thomas:  Developing social consciousness in order to address issues of oppression is critical for our society because it allows society to squarely address conflicts among societal groups.  Without this understanding, relationships are merely labeled as unnecessary or irrelevant without explaining why they exist or how they are diminished.  Only through social consciousness can society take into account the realities of oppression and repression present in society, realities which cannot be overlooked if we are to thoroughly solve society’s problems.

From Mark:  The need for tolerance among people is an important part of being a single

diverse community striving for success, . . . yet the conservative ideal believes in the necessity of rules to mediate the standard of living.  This focus on sameness within society comes at the expense of diversity and is harmful in that it fails to acknowledge diversity and claims everyone should live by a set standard.  A key theme of Catholic Social Teaching is solidarity, which promotes cultural, ideological, and racial tolerance and teaches that peace can be achieved even through difference.


This composition curriculum based on Catholic social teaching reveals that social justice education positively changes the perspectives of students.  By offering a composition curriculum with a social justice framework, we strengthen students’ awareness and appreciation of human rights and dignity.  Through shared inquiry, students learn the dynamics of conscious and unconscious oppression and move from a position of privilege to a position of social advocacy.



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