Blog 49


image – Adrian A Smith (

Social Inequality and Teaching in the Academy

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.

Elaine Coburn, Glendon

Part II: The Problems with the Conscientious Pedagogue

When it comes to creating pedagogical content that honours the knowledge and wisdom of each and all human beings, ironically, pedagogical conscientiousness is a significant problem.

In Part I, I gave the example of a syllabus about social inequality that excluded the voices of women, those from the global South, gender and sexual minorities and so on. Here, I draw on another instance, my own early teaching, to explore how such patterns may be the product of an apparent virtue: pedagogical conscientiousness.

Thus, when I began to teach at the university I sought – very deliberately– to make sure that my students were aware of and critically engaged with key thinkers and key problematics.  In my classes, I centered the works of intellectuals that have been understood, historically, as central to my field of sociology.

This included such luminaries as Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx and Max Weber, all white, male and European. In addition, I made sure to highlight recent articles that were frequently cited, in objectively major peer-reviewed journals with quantifiably high impact factors. These articles were usually by male American authors writing from Ivy League schools, published in journals like the American Sociological Review. The problem is not with these voices, which are an important part of the sociological conversation; but only with their relatively exclusive domination of many scholarly fields, including sociology.

That was fifteen years ago, but not much is different today. In the year 2010, for instance, all ten of the top-cited sociological articles written were by American principal authors (Times Higher Education 2010). Just two white American men, based at Harvard and the University of Michigan, were the lead authors of five of the top-ten articles. All the articles appeared in journals based in the United States.

In the 2012 edition of a major Canadian textbook on sociological theory, the opening pages emphasize the central contributions of Durkheim, Marx and Weber, although they additionally underline the contributions of Black American philosopher W.E.B Dubois, for instance, and the Canadian feminist Dorothy Smith. Still, of the 31 significant sociological theorists highlighted in the opening pages, only four are women and none are from the Global South.

Pedagogical conscientiousness, that is, seeking to share the most critical, central authors, as defined and objectively measured within a disciplinary field, may appear to be an important quality of good teachers. It may even seem a duty that professors have towards their students, since such conscientiousness prepares students to engage with the most vital historical and contemporary questions, theories and findings within a discipline.

In practice, however, this same conscientiousness tends to reproduce the centrality of voices writing from a very narrow set of social locations: white, male, US-based, and in Ivy League universities. Concomitantly, this means the marginalization of contributions by racialized women and men, Indigenous perspectives and those of sexual and gender minorities, especially when rooted in the global South.

Stated bluntly, pedagogical conscientiousness and faithfulness to established canons and disciplinary boundaries reproduces major social inequalities as pedagogical virtue. For those of us concerned with challenging social inequality in the classroom, it is vital to critically challenge the apparent virtue – but problematic real implications – of the conscientious adherence to the canon.

The other four parts of this series have been or will be published on the following dates:

  • Part 1 – 23 Jan
  • Part 3 – 13 Feb
  • Part 4 – 27 Feb
  • Part 5 – 13 March

Return to blog homepage

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *