image – Adrian A Smith (adriansmith.ca)
Social Inequality and Teaching in the Academy
Elaine Coburn, Glendon
We live in an unequal world; these inequalities do not stop at the university classroom door.
In this five-part series, I consider some ways unjust inequalities are (re)produced in the classroom. These inequalities affect the pedagogical relationship. Moreover, critically investigating them matters if the university is to be a site for challenging, not reproducing, social inequalities.
Part I: Pedagogy is Not (Just) About Technique
Pedagogy is often understood as a matter of technique. Pedagogical concerns around teaching frequently centre on the ways that professors interact with their students, rather than the content being taught. Regardless of course content, we might prefer modes of teaching that encourage students to participate in the classroom, for instance, rather than the lecture-only teaching styles usually considered less effective for student learning. Likewise, it’s important that we find ways of communicating the enthusiasm that we feel to our students, or they are unlikely to be engaged with the knowledge that we would like to share with them.
It is possible to be a technically excellent pedagogue and poor teacher, however, if the content is wanting. If a professor successfully teaches a literary interpretation that depends upon empirically incorrect assumptions about the author or insists upon a factually incorrect historical sequence, there is a problem with the pedagogical content no matter how well the students learn.
Less obviously, if unoriginally, it might be observed that in a radically unequal world, pedagogical content is usually problematic. Despite persistent references to the university as an ivory tower isolated from more mundane social relationships, the university, and the knowledges that the university produces are outcomes of unequal social relationships, both historical and contemporary.
Sometimes, social inequalities are reproduced in clear, quantifiable ways. Here is a suggestive example, drawn from the recent syllabus of a distinguished professor at a Canadian research university for an undergraduate course about social inequality. In the syllabus, 85% of the authors in the required readings are men, most from Ivy League and research-intensive universities located in North America.
In the vast majority of assigned readings, the scholarly voices of women, Indigenous academics and knowledge-holders, and those of racialized scholars, including intellectuals from the global South, are absent. Social inequalities related to disability, historical and contemporary colonial relationships (including across lands claimed by Canada), trans* theories and realities and more do not appear in any way in the syllabus.
Clearly, for those of us concerned with social inequality in the classroom, this is deeply problematic, if not unusual. This is because the pedagogical content offers a powerful message about whose voices count, as authoritative, as expert, as worth listening to – and whose voices are outside the canon, marginal, inexpert and safely ignored. In short, for those committed to social equality, it is a pedagogical problem when those relatively dominated outside of the academy are pushed to the margins within the university, including (but not only) in our syllabi.
What does this suggest? At the very least: if we are concerned about social inequality in the academy, we need to make sure that discussions about pedagogy go beyond conversations supportive of improved pedagogical technique. Rather, we need to find ways to support each other, collegially and institutionally, to make our teaching content meaningfully supportive of our commitments to social equality: the honouring of each and all, rather than the few.
 Thank-you to Anna Russakoff and David Tresilian at the American University of Paris for encouragement. At Glendon College, York University thank-you to Angelo Dossou-Yovo and Philippe Theophanidis, the latter for a careful reading of an earlier draft and helpful comments while literally on the run. At the Keele campus of York University, thank you to historian Margaret Schotte for critically supportive observations and for providing some of the links to syllabi that open up the canon. Also at the Keele campus, York University, thank you to Celia Popovic for challenging me to write up these ideas and Barbara Kerr for supporting an upcoming three hour seminar about the concerns raised here. Many other conversations inform these arguments; the references and resources section alludes to some of these conversations. Finally, thank you to my students, past and present, for everything we have learned together. Responsibilities for errors remain my own.
The other four parts of this series will be published on the following dates:
- Part 2 – 30 Jan
- Part 3 – 13 Feb
- Part 4 – 27 Feb
- Part 5 – 13 March