Privilege, Power, and Justice in the Classroom

Anti-Oppressive Practices for Teaching Assistants at the University of Toronto

The following information is available in PDF format.

This resource was created as a response to the University of Toronto’s Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee’s call to action to develop and deliver anti-discrimination training, including concepts such as privilege, power, and justice. It is intended for Teaching Assistants (TAs), who wish to engage, make connections, and support critical self-reflexive teaching practices in their classrooms, labs, and tutorials and build greater self-awareness through anti-oppressive and action-based practices. This resource is structured through three guided questions, each of which will provide definitions, active learning activities, and anti-oppressive practices.

  1. How can I work towards an anti-oppressive teaching practice?
  2. How am I in a position of privilege?
  3. What does power have to do with being a teaching assistant?

Before we begin with these questions, research has shown that being reflexive about our social identities in the context of our institutional roles can help us better understand the power relations embedded in our research, classrooms, and pedagogies (Tapper 2005). For more references and resources on how our intersectional identities come into play at the university, see the resource on Social Identities.

Mapping Our Social Identities

As TAs and Course Instructors (CIs), we bring our experience and our expertise into our classrooms, tutorials, and labs. We also bring our social identities. Our social identities include our social relationships, both on a micro (personal) and macro (social) level.

For example, our personal identities are based on our experiences, or what makes us unique, while our social identities are based on our group affinities, such as age, gender, race, religion, abilities, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. Some identities are visible, such as race and assumed gender, while others are invisible, such as abilities, socioeconomic status, and education level.

All of our social identities intersect, change, and evolve over time.

Activities to Consider:

How can I work towards an anti-oppressive teaching practice?

When we talk about social justice in the classroom, we are talking about a process and a goal to provide students with critical understandings of the social, historical, cultural, political, economic, and ethical contexts of our respective disciplines. This will look different for each of us, but we might begin with asking ourselves: What kinds of knowledge do we need as TAs to provide an education to students that is grounded in anti-oppressive practices? For more on social justice and how to set the stage for equitable discussion, see the Diversity Toolkit.

As Teaching Assistants, we can work towards an anti-oppressive teaching practice by…

  • treating students from all backgrounds with dignity and respect
  • supporting students based on their diverse social locations
  • ensuring students are physically and psychologically safe and secure
  • ensuring that every student has a voice in the decisions that affect them
  • fighting the oppression or the “isms,” including sexism, racism, classism, ableism, ageism, heterosexism, etc.

Remember: The “isms” happen at all levels. They are reinforced by societal norms, institutional biases, interpersonal interactions and individual beliefs.

  • Individual e.g., feelings, beliefs, values
  • Interpersonal e.g., actions, behaviors and language
  • Institutional e.g., legal system, education system, public policy, hiring practices, media images
  • Societal/Cultural e.g., collective ideas about what is “right”

How do I create, facilitate, and promote an anti-oppressive learning environment? Here are a few approaches you can try:

How am I in a position of privilege?

When we talk about privilege, we are referring to the systemic or structural advantages we experience based on our social identities, or the “unearned social power accorded by the formal and informal institutions of society to ALL members of a dominant group (e.g., white privilege, male privilege, class privilege, etc.). Privilege is usually invisible to those who have it because we’re taught not to see it, but nevertheless it puts them at an advantage over those who do not have it.” As mentioned above, we can expect our identities to intersect, overlap, and create different advantages and disadvantages over time.

Here are some examples of how to be aware of our privilege in our teaching roles. We’ve included leading discussion-based tutorials, labs and practicals, and teaching students how to “write good,” or within field-specific boundaries, as the teaching contexts.

During discussion-based tutorials, we will…

  • Pay attention and react to trends in conversations. Who is speaking up? Who is staying silent? Why? How can your facilitation support new voices joining?
  • Listen for understanding seeking to understand as well as empathize with different logics, ways of knowing, experience, etc.
  • Structure conversations to support equity of voice. Sometimes, simply giving some time for participants to process individually or with a partner before a whole group conversation helps bring new voices into the discussion.
  • Consider how the set up and structure can invite all voices into the conversation.
  • Set norms in advance. Agreeing on shared norms can help set the conditions for more equitable exchanges and allow groups to explore learning moments thoughtfully and with curiosity.
  • Draw on the insights of others. Develop a network of colleagues of different identities and perspectives to help you notice and compensate for your blind spots in planning, facilitating and reflecting on discussions.
  • Go to where the learning is. The learning may be in the activity you planned as a facilitator, but it may also be in a critical incident that arises during a conversation and is worth unpacking as a group. Learn when to follow your agenda and when to take an Equity Pause.

During labs and practicals, we will…

  • Acknowledge that gender inequality in STEM is a real phenomenon in Canada.
  • Acknowledge that our students come from diverse social locations with different relationships to STEM and Euro-Western science.
  • Set ground rules, guidelines, or a code of conduct before starting to collaborate.
  • Use this cheat sheet for Consensus-Oriented Decision Making (CODM), which is a process where everyone in a group agrees to move forward on a plan of action. This doesn’t mean everyone agrees equally, but that everyone has agreed to move forward regardless of unevenness and differences of opinion.
  • Consider practices such as Round Robins/Talking Circle, wherein each person gets a chance to speak.

When teaching students how to “write good,” we…

  • Acknowledge that “good writing” is often associated with specific social locations.
  • Recognize that “good writing” has multiple forms depending on field and discipline and that academic writing is just one of many different kinds of good writing.
  • Encourage students to use their voices.

What does power have to do with it?

When we talk about power, we are referring to the complex set of power relations we experience as both graduate students and teaching assistants as well as the forms of oppression that can result from the use of our institutional privilege and power. For example:

As graduate students, we exist in relation to the University of Toronto, our department, our supervisor, and our colleagues, as well as all of the invisible labourers and caretakers that maintain the libraries, classrooms, technologies, and all of the other resources we rely on as students.

As Teaching Assistants, we have responsibilities to the University of Toronto and its policies, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the department where we teach, the course instructor (Professor or CI), our fellow TAs, and our students. The specificities of these relations will be determined via our diverse social locations.

As graduate students and TAs, we hold multiple identities, which means that our relationship to power/power imbalances will be different and change over time.

Knowledge is power, but who decides what counts as knowledge? In universities, the default model of teaching places teachers in a position of power over students. It is up to us to work towards identifying, reflecting, and accounting for bias in our evaluation. Let’s go over some of the abilities and capacities we hold in relation to our students:

As experts in the classroom, TAs can…

  • Hold the power to call on, recognize, and reward students for their participation, perspectives, and work.
  • Hold the “expert knowledge” that students require to succeed.
  • Depending on our teaching contracts, we might even have the power to choose course content from readings to forms of evaluation. When it comes to choosing course content, we must be aware of the power we have to define or erase particular knowledges.

When we evaluate participation, TAs can…

  • Place value on the particular ways we define participation, likely based on how experience tells us participation is typically evaluated. This most often equates participation with putting one’s hand up and speaking in class, and can privilege students more comfortable with this form of engagement (often male, often those whose first language is English, and often students whose parents attended university).
  • Risk assuming that students looking at their computers or phones should not receive a high participation mark. These students may actually be reviewing course materials, looking up definitions, or using assistive technology.

When we develop assignments or exam questions, TAs can…

  • Decide what knowledge we feel is most important for the students to have learned from our teaching over the duration of the course. In deferring to norms in our fields about what is most important or what foundational texts are, we are likely to require the very diverse group of students at the University of Toronto to write assignments or exams based exclusively on the work of white men.
  • Are rewarding students who are best able to respond in the assessment style that we have chosen. Diversifying the types of assessments that we use provides more students the opportunity to excel.

When we oversee exams, TAs are…

  • In charge of enforcing the University of Toronto’s Rules of Conduct for Examinations, which includes keeping time and controlling how students move in the space. For example, students are not allowed to leave the examination room unescorted for any reason. When taking students to the bathroom, consider how you are interacting with them and how these interactions might impact their experience of writing the exam. While you should not chat with the student, you can make an effort to be pleasant and be clear that walking them to the bathroom is not an inconvenience for you.
  • In charge of monitoring cheating. Are you checking in on some students more than others? Why or why not?
  • Acknowledging how our presence may impact students’ mental state during an already stressful experience such as an exam. Consider the kinds of interactions (positive or negative) that your students may have had with individuals of your social location in the past. This will likely influence their interpretation of your role in the examination, their relationship with you and the resulting impact on their experience.

When we grade assignments, TAs can…

  • Work from a rubric based on our (or the course instructor’s) assessment of what is most important, which is a subjective assessment that relies on potentially biased norms in the field and what we particularly value as academics rather than a more general truth.
  • Quickly skim and reward students based primarily on whether or not they are clear writers (often intended to be 5-20% of the mark) rather than whether they included the required content. Often TAs have limited time to spend on each assignment.

Remember: There is no “outside” of power relations. Whether we are in a classroom or lab, evaluating participation or grading from home, or overseeing an exam, we bring our experiences and beliefs to our teaching practice.

References and Further Resources

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