Liberal Education

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

“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. The first essay cycle drew on historical material from the nineteenth century. We assigned readings of varying lengths that covered the Declaration of Independence, slavery, the market revolution, and the nineteenth-century women’s movement. The second essay focused on contemporary America, and students read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow as background material.1 For the last essay, we asked students to propose a vision of social justice for their generation, drawing on Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed along with texts of their choosing we had studied at some point in the semester.2

Past and present

The first time we taught the course, we chose the sequence described above because starting with material that provided historical context made sense to us. But we didn’t consider the effect of starting the exploration of potentially uncomfortable social justice topics in the safety of the distant past. This strategy allowed students to begin with shared assumptions (of course slavery is unjust, of course it’s ridiculous that women couldn’t vote or own property) while also seeing how contested these assumptions once were. By considering abolitionists Frederick Douglass and David Walker in conversation with suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, labor activist Orestes Brownson, and slavery apologist George Fitzhugh, students came to see that there has never been consensus about what constitutes social justice in the United States.3 Moreover, by challenging students to seriously consider the arguments of an avowed racist like Fitzhugh and a radical feminist like Stanton, we required them to explore important ideas related to race and gender without taking political positions.

Importantly, the formal writing assignment that emerged from the historical readings forced students to identify with someone whose circumstances they could not have experienced themselves. In the first essay prompt, we asked students to write from the perspective of a single, literate, enslaved woman living in the 1840s who had family members sold away and often traveled with her owner to textile mills in the North. Students were tasked with integrating at least three readings from class while exploring what social justice—or injustice—meant from the perspective of this woman. Students had a lot of leeway in how to approach this essay, including narrative voice (they could write as her or as her advocate), focus (they could choose which parts of her identity to emphasize), and creative license (they could generate details about her life to develop their arguments). That is, they were not bound to the standards of thesis-driven academic analysis, though they did need to reach a conclusion about the nature of social justice.

The results were encouraging. Not only did students discover creative approaches, but they also grappled with weighty issues in a thoughtful manner. Some students focused on how the women in their narratives—the enslaved woman, the plantation mistress, and the Northern mill girls—shared the injustice of dependency based on their sex; others wrote that even though the mill girls were exploited, they enjoyed a freedom that the enslaved woman did not. Writing these first essays also helped students identify for themselves what aspects of social justice mattered most to them, and these became reference points when they tackled the contemporary world in the second half of the class. Furthermore, that first history-focused essay gave students experience in writing about race, gender, or class. It allowed them to practice negotiating a controversial topic without worrying about offending their classmates. Hence, the skills and confidence they learned or enhanced during this first essay cycle—empathy, integrating sources, developing an idea, defining social justice, and others—helped them succeed in the next two essay cycles when the stakes were raised through their focus on the contemporary world.

Sanctuary and empathy

We came to see the historical component of the course as essential to entering the social justice topic. Once students had advocated from the perspective of a historical character whose life was very different from their own, they were more receptive to considering the experiences of those whose contemporary life circumstances differed from theirs. With that empathy, they also became more liberated to change their minds. Perhaps the most striking example of this occurred in the student who initially associated social justice with mean-spirited liberal hysteria. Near the end of the course, in an informal response paper synthesizing Alexander and Ehrenreich, he confessed that although he initially felt defensive in response to Alexander’s critique of law enforcement because his father was a police officer, he found her examples and evidence persuasive. And after placing her argument alongside that of Ehrenreich, whose narrative recalled his own negative experiences in the service industry, he reevaluated his earlier negative view of what social justice meant and decided social justice issues were worth investigating. In other words, he announced firmly and without prompting that he had changed his mind. This capacity to rethink a position in the face of new evidence is an essential component of social justice.

While we had approached the course with the assumption that writing is a form of thinking as well as communicating, and while we had emphasized writing as a process that begins with the attempt to understand and respond to ideas that, through plenty of drafting, develop into an evidence-supported argument, the possibility that writing could be a source of sanctuary had never occurred to us. Students in Bethany College’s writing-intensive interdisciplinary courses are often intimidated by the workload; even the stronger, more confident writers fulfill many tasks with a grim sense of duty rather than enthusiasm. So at the end of the semester, we were genuinely surprised when, in their end-of-year reflections, many students expressed gratitude for the writing assignments because they offered a safe place to figure things out. They also seemed to feel that writing gave them control over how they engaged with the topic, both because they had several options for each assignment and because they could test their responses in what one student called “a semi-private way,” without the stress involved with articulating a position quickly and openly in class discussion. Thus, writing became a valuable tool for negotiating difficult topics rather than merely a task to complete. As another student explained, “I got to look at the issues I felt.” By literally looking at social justice issues in the form of writing, students began to identify patterns that changed their perceptions of their immediate and larger worlds. As a student wrote in her reflection, “There are so many unjust things that happen on a daily basis” which mostly “go unnoticed (small and large).” The writing kept reminding her.

The writing assignments offered an important space for students to piece together and make sense of the readings, the discussions, their peers’ experiences, and their own reactions. The assignments also prompted them to “author” regularly, and this activity gave them a sense of agency. By the semester’s end, they viewed themselves as full participants in an ongoing conversation about how social justice shapes our lives. During the final exam period, we asked students to talk with one another about what social justice looks like and what it means. Students talked for two hours with almost no direction or intervention from us, and at the end of our allocated time, they weren’t done. They still had more to say and hear. The many months of writing had prepared students to engage in the riskier work of impromptu public conversation, and to do this work in a sustained, productive way.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of writing about social justice and injustice in the past and present was students’ willingness to make it personal, leading to their individual “Aha!” moments, which they revealed in their end-of-semester evaluations. A white student who had grown up in a small, overwhelmingly white town where he “didn’t face much diversity” said his growing recognition of what he hadn’t seen or felt “helped me listen to my classmates to understand their experiences.” An African American student from California described being surprised and heartened when his white classmates validated his concerns by sympathizing with Alexander’s conclusion that racism remains endemic to both the legal system and social structure in the United States. He was surprised a second time in reading Ehrenreich’s description of the extent to which the working poor struggle. As a result, he realized that he was included in the circle of empathy required by social justice—and he was also needed as a giver of empathy. “Because what I notice now,” he explained, “which I did not notice at the beginning of the semester, is that we are all suffering.” By the end of the semester, then, students seemed to see that social justice has implications—that a socially just system both includes them and requires something of them.


1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).

2. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, rev. ed. (New York: Picador, 2010).

3. Students read the following texts, among others: Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,”, accessed May 15, 2017, ; David Walker, “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World,” in Speaking of America, Vol. 1 to 1877, 2nd ed., ed. Laura A. Belmonte (Belmont, CA: Thomson, Wadsworth, 2007), 221–24; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,” Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton Papers Project, accessed May 15, 2017, ; Orestes Brownson, “The Laboring Classes,” in Voices of Freedom, A Documentary History, Vol. 1, 2nd ed., ed. Eric Foner (New York: Norton, 2008), 189–92; George Fitzhugh, “Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society,” in Voices of Freedom, ed. Foner, 222–25.

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KRISTIN VAN TASSEL is professor of English at Bethany College, Kansas. THOMAS F. JORSCH is instructor of American Studies at Oklahoma State University.

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