What We Can Do from Where We Are:
“The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.”
From the first time I stepped into a classroom as a graduate student, I loved it for the intellectual exercise. I love the process of translating and communicating content, of watching dynamics unfold in the room and finding opportunities to connect students’ thoughts and experiences with central ideas. George Mason University, where I have had the privilege to teach for the past 15 years, is a marvelously diverse place, so students’ own life experiences offer a particularly rich repository of material. I love to watch connections emerge and to knit them together, pushing students forward.
While I have always enjoyed teaching, it took me a long time to realize that I could integrate my teaching life with the passion for social justice that led me to a career in psychology. My social justice teaching—teaching that guides students to understand and engage in solving the social issues that plague our society—has become the heart of my career. I have developed courses in this vein, integrated this thinking into existing courses, and framed research questions that have pulled my research program and graduate students into this arena as well. The central research question is this: How can we create the kind of citizens who will populate a just world? This question stokes my motivation to innovate and explore the impact of teaching methodology on student experience.
As I have immersed myself more intentionally in teaching for social change, several aspects of a cohesive philosophy have emerged. At the heart of this philosophy is the idea of creative maladjustment. Dr. Martin Luther King coined this phrase, arguing that there are “some things in this world to which we should never become adjusted,” ticking off a list of seemingly timeless social ills. This insistence on seeing injustice as such is important, and I work to draw students’ attention to the structures and social arrangements that produce it. But we cannot just wallow; the second part of the phrase, “creative,” directs us to let the discomfort fuel us. My graduate students and I have adopted this as a sort of lab motto (see www.labforcommunityreach.com). In order to make our discomfort productive—in our own work and in the classroom—we need to be ready for it, we need to name it, and we need to repeatedly draw students’ attention to avenues for change. This is a dynamic that requires intentionality and energy throughout the semester.
A second aspect of my philosophy is my intent to shift the frame. I provide a new lexicon and facilitate experience that will give that lexicon life. At the end of the class, I want students to see familiar things in a new way. My initial experience with such a frame shift still inspires me: During college I was exposed to the work of Jean Kilbourne, who analyzes the advertising we see each day so powerfully that one can never see it the same way again. This kind of frame shift is what endures beyond the classroom. Content may be forgotten, but a different paradigm for understanding the world sticks.
Finally, in developing and refining courses, I adhere to the idea that teachers are architects of experience. The challenge is to find the experiences, both inside and outside the classroom, that will produce productive discomfort and shift the frame. Finding the right alchemy takes trial, error, attention, and willingness to change—sometimes right in the middle of the semester. Through experiences both inside and outside of class, I aim to shake up students’ sense of the world, and continually circle back to concepts and frameworks, so they have a new way of understanding.
As a teacher, I try to produce the same kind of experience and productive discomfort in my own growth trajectory as I do in my students. Most recently I have immersed myself in the social problem of mass incarceration, and I am exploring how higher education can contribute to change. My goal is to stay uncomfortable and energized, growing as a teacher right alongside my students.
 King, M.L., Jr. (1968) The role of the behavioral scientist in the civil rights movement. Journal of Social Issues, 24(1). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/features/king-challenge.aspx.
View Dr. Cattaneo accept the award and give her talk entitled, "What We Can Do from Where We Are: