Post Classifieds

Profs speak about social justice

By Jonathan Epstein
On February 13, 2012


An event called "Social Justice in the Brandeis Curriculum" was held in the Usdan Alumni Lounge on Wednesday as a part of ‘Deis Impact, a week of events highlighting social justice on campus. Professors and approximately 30 students engaged in small group discussions and in a larger dialogue about what social justice means to them and how it can be studied in an academic environment.

The goal of the event was to explore questions including: "What majors, courses and programs contribute to advancing social justice, and in what ways? How could other majors and courses contribute more to advancing social justice? How do we define social justice, and how do we interact if our definitions differ?" according to an email sent to the student body.

The professors present were from different departments and provided a range of personal definitions of social justice in an initial discussion.

Prof. Susan Lanser (ENG) spoke first and explained, "I see social justice as the fully equitable provision of rights, distribution of resources and access to opportunities for every individual and group." She added that the humanities are necessary for understanding what social justice as a concept means. Prof. Gordon Fellman (SOC) espoused an intuitive definition of social justice, saying "I know it when I see it, and I know it's not there when I see it's not there." He added that social justice includes "fairness, empathy, compassion, empowerment, mutuality, a full recognition of the self and the other as entitled to all rights and aspirations." Fellman criticized politicians for not discussing social justice. He said that his goal "in imagining social justice is to recognize and publicize and figure out ways to actually reconstruct society so that there are no more structures of violence."

Prof. Tim Hickey (COSI) provided a more explicit definition: "I think of social justice as the process of seeking out unfairness and injustice … in our society and working toward the creation or evolution of a more fair and just society." Prof. Jennifer Cleary (THA) cited oppression on the individual and community as indicative of a violation of social justice and stated that it was important to validate each individual's experience. 

Two other professors defined social justice within the boundaries of their fields. Prof. Laura Goldin (AMST) viewed social justice in environmental terms, with a focus on global warming's effect on the world's poor. "Who gets hit first and who doesn't have the ability to migrate quickly when their islands are sinking into the sea?" she asked. 

Prof. Melissa Stimell (LGLS) cited Justice Louis Brandeis' reputation as "the people's lawyer" and her own background as a public defender in formulating her conception of social justice, which she defined as "listening and empathizing with those who do not have a voice in our institutions, those vulnerable populations, and really finding a way to help them be heard and give them a voice."

In the ensuing smaller discussion groups, each professor drew from his or her field. Lanser talked about a new first-year seminar on social justice, whether Brandeis is succeeding in having a curriculum that supports social justice and the role of pedagogy in fostering deep thinking and action. 

Fellman led a discussion on how society works, its faults and how it can be changed and highlighted the recent actions of Occupy Harvard and the group's potential. He also highlighted the Economics course "Social Priorities and the Market," taught by Prof. Anne Carter (ECON), because Economics departments are traditionally considered to be less concerned with social justice than other departments, such as Sociology and Women's and Gender Studies. 

Hickey described social justices in the sciences and ways that scientists can affect society and the broader world. Goldin focused on expanding the role of environmental studies in social justice, and Stimell discussed experiential learning and social justice. 

Dillon Harvey '14 stated that many students participate in social justice as an extracurricular, but that this event allowed students to see it within an academic context.

The event was sponsored by the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences and the Programs and Departments of American Studies, Computer Science, Sociology, English, Environmental Studies, Legal Studies and Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Studies. 

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