How can I discuss justice usefully in my classroom?

Date: September 2017


Hello Deans,

Like many teaching assistants, my class is diverse with students from many countries, states, and ethnicities. The class is about sustainability and justice is an essential component of sustainability. I don’t want to talk about justice in the abstract. I want to talk about our own backyard, especially in light of recent events. I think instructors should speak about these things particularly because they often have some of the closest interfaces with students, and thus a duty to set an example.

How can I do this usefully (without being isolating or paternalistic)? Are there workshops or webinars that the university offers advice on how to discuss these issues? I care about my students and I want them to succeed, which in part comes from vocalizing a safe, welcoming environment.


Concerned Teaching Assistant


Dear Concerned Teaching Assistant,

Thank you for reaching out to us regarding your interest in incorporating issues of justice into your curriculum and the classroom. The Cornell Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CU-CIRTL) and the Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI) offer several resources and learning opportunities that can assist you with developing strategies for creating an inclusive learning environment as well as for engaging students in dialogue around issues of social justice, equity, power, and privilege. You will find more information about the resources and learning opportunities offered for graduate students and postdocs at the links below.

Last year, CU-CIRTL, the Graduate School Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement (OISE), and the Intergroup Dialogue Project (IDP) launched IDP short-courses for graduate and professional students and postdocs. These short courses are offered during the winter and summer sessions. Many of the past participants have utilized the IDP strategies learned in these courses to inform their curriculum design and teaching methods. Read the Chronicle story about the first short-course offered in summer 2016, and go to the Intergroup Dialogue Project page to learn more about this initiative.

When addressing such topics in the classroom, especially immediately following incidents of violence, it is important to recognize that your students may respond in different ways. For some, such incidents may touch them deeply based on their personal identities and experiences. Therefore, we encourage you to also be familiar with the university’s resources on how to respond to students in distress. You will find more information about the Notice & Respond: Assisting Students in Distress program on the Cornell Health programming for faculty and staff page.

Thank you for your commitment to making Cornell a more inclusive learning and research environment for all.

Warm Regards,

Sara Xayarath Hernández
Graduate School Associate Dean for Inclusion & Student Engagement


Colleen McLinn
Director, Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CU-CIRTL)