Literature and Social Justice

Almost a decade ago, the Lehigh University English Department made a commitment to literature and social justice (LSJ) as the central intellectual emphasis of our department. Through this focus, we explore how literary texts make distinctive contributions to urgent ethical, social, and political questions that cross disciplinary and historical boundaries. This commitment has influenced all our faculty hires over the last eight years, it has systematically reshaped our graduate program, and in a range of ways it is now influencing our undergraduate major. Our department has twenty-two tenured or tenure-track faculty, thirty-four graduate students, and roughly forty-five English majors. We are also responsible for administering and staffing the two-semester writing program required for incoming Lehigh students.

Our emphasis on LSJ emerged through a department-wide process of intellectual community building and goal setting. The university administration asked the English department (along with other programs) to identify an intellectual “signature” that would establish the distinctiveness of the department—both for prospective students and on the broader academic landscape. At the same time, the English department was seeking to develop ways to encourage cross-period collaborations in our small PhD-granting department. Over a period of several years, we came to recognize that our research and teaching in various fields were united by a consistent engagement with ethical and political questions. We thought this engagement could be fruitfully described as an inquiry into LSJ, a thematic approach that was capacious enough to include most faculty members, but also specific enough to create a distinctive departmental identity.

The LSJ Initiative

We began the LSJ initiative by collaboratively writing a mission-statement over the course of a year. All our faculty—including a classicist, rhetoric and composition specialists, creative writers, and scholars of literature from the medieval period to the twenty-first century—participated in shaping this document, although our LSJ committee did much of the initial drafting and final revisions. We worked hard to write an inclusive statement that spoke to the research and teaching most of us do. We also emphasized how LSJ contributes to the mission of the university itself.

Our mission statement captures the spirit and goals of our LSJ emphasis, although it is a fluid document that will change as our department changes. As we explain at the outset:

The English department's focus on literature and social justice comes from a shared sentiment among our faculty that we all have obligations to our fellow human beings, to our students and colleagues, our families and neighbors, and to strangers we will never meet in places we will never go. Whether articulated in medieval Catholic theology or modern Marxist thought, in the paintings of Rembrandt or the poems of Whitman, in the woods of Concord or the sound stages of Hollywood, this ethical and philosophical perspective envisions the world as a place where people are bound to one another in a network of mutual responsibility, where the rights of all human beings must be recognized.

We believe that the study of literature, mapping the contours of what it means to be human—our aspirations and anxieties, our histories and hopes—is essential to the work of social justice. We come to know others by the stories they tell, even as we determine who we are by the stories we tell ourselves.

The English Department’s full mission statement on LSJ can be found at

Our development of this initiative coincided with the growing national crisis in the placement of humanities PhD students in tenure-track jobs, as well as declining enrollments in humanities majors at universities around the country. It has enabled us to respond to both these challenges in American higher education in ways that we hope will prove successful. It has enabled us to rethink graduate education in ways that link literary study to the public humanities and to forms of public-sector social-justice employment that include but are not limited to tenure-track options. Enrollments in our undergraduate major (and minor) have remained strong, and we suspect that this success has been reinforced by the departmental emphasis on social justice and public-facing scholarship.

We have defined LSJ learning opportunities and outcomes for our master’s program, and we will next consider how these goals could be adapted for the undergraduate English major. We have implemented a required seminar for all first-year master’s and PhD students in Theories of Literature and Social Justice. And the department has just this year developed a required capstone seminar for all master’s students, which will provide an opportunity for students to revise a conventional literary critical seminar paper as a public humanities project.

LSJ Permeating the English Major

Since we began with the revision of the graduate curriculum, the LSJ initiative has not yet restructured our undergraduate major to the same degree. We are now beginning to consider that curricular work, although the intellectual priorities of the LSJ initiative have already inevitably permeated the English major.

A quick survey of the English department’s fall 2017 course offerings illustrates this trend. In one entry-level course taught this coming fall by one of our advanced PhD students, undergraduates will study why poetry matters in the twenty-first century, and they will have opportunities to attend local poetry slams and to consider the role of poetry in exploring social dynamics and social justice issues in our community. In another entry-level course, Introduction to Latinx Literature and Culture, a faculty member will lead students in exploring the relevance of issues raised in contemporary Latinx literature through service-learning placements with nonprofit organizations that serve the local Latina/o community—and through service-learning journals that reflect on those placements. In a seminar for advanced English majors, Women and Revolution in Early America, students will analyze a range of literary and historical texts in order to assess the ways in which women’s aspirations for new social and intellectual opportunities, and for more ambitious kinds of liberty and independence, were and were not forwarded by the project of the American Revolution. And a course called Modernism, Mourning, and Social Justice will enable students to think about the ways in which early twentieth-century writers created literary works that mourned the exploitation and alienation that pervaded American life—and they will then have opportunities to speak with unemployed steelworkers in the city of Bethlehem about their own strategies for mourning lost jobs, pensions, health plans, and forms of labor in our postindustrial city.

The more detailed description below of two Lehigh English professors’ courses will suggest the diversity of our offerings at the undergraduate level, all of which take seriously the notion of civic responsibility for the English major.

Poverty and Representation

Kate Crassons’s course explored how literature foregrounds the complexities of poverty as a force that encompasses both economic realities and psychological dispositions, spiritual ideals, and political visions of justice. Kate taught texts ranging from the Bible, Franciscan writings, and the fourteenth-century allegorical poem Piers Plowman, to more modern texts like Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell's novel, and Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich's best-selling exposé on the working poor in modern America. Kate’s course asked that students acknowledge poverty as a lived experience, present beyond the classroom walls. To this end, they performed twenty hours of work at a local Head Start classroom, the South Bethlehem Neighborhood Center, or the New Bethany Ministries’s homeless shelter and soup kitchen. In conjunction with the diverse content of the course, engagement with members of the community (including low-wage Lehigh workers who were clients at the soup kitchen) helped to foster students' exploration of poverty as a condition with multiple causes, meanings, and manifestations. Throughout the semester, students attended to the relationship between the literary modes and material reality of poverty: How are poverty and poor people represented in a variety of literary texts? In what ways have the poor represented themselves? How does the practice of interpreting a literary work relate to “reading” the signs of poverty in the bodies and speech of people themselves?

Arguing Differently

In this course, Barry Kroll tackled how we think about argument, a word that seems inevitably to evoke a conflict between opponents, the goal of “winning,” and the effort to overpower the opposition. Barry’s course was designed to focus instead on different ways to engage in conflicts and address disagreements without resorting to adversarial tactics. Barry led his students in learning tactics associated with “transformational” approaches to arguing, drawing from work on negotiation, mediation, organizational leadership, and conflict resolution. As a critical part of his project of helping his students “argue differently,” Barry had them meet in a “lab” for an extra period each week. Here, his students explored patterns of physical movement and habits of mind that support arguing as conflict transformation, including movement exercises (adapted from tai chi, aikido, and Japanese sword fighting) that provide physical analogues for arguing. Students also engaged in some contemplative (or meditative) exercises designed to cultivate composure, attentiveness, and awareness. Barry’s course, in short, trained students in interwoven physical movements and qualities of mind that support practices of conflict transformation, habits that students honed in both their written and verbal communication.

Social Justice Dimensions of Other Courses

Because our first-year writing courses are designed and taught by our graduate students and faculty, these classes are also shaped by the department’s LSJ emphasis. In fall 2017, for instance, the syllabus for the new instructors included a unit on cultural constructions in which students will watch Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015), using both works to examine how race plays a crucial role in the ways people build (often unjust) assumptions about the world, themselves, and others.

We could easily describe the social justice dimensions of numerous other courses we offer at the undergraduate level every semester. In most of our courses, in fact, students learn how the study of literature can enable them to map deep structures of domination, inequality, and injustice in the societies in which they have been produced. They also learn how the study of literature across a wide range of historical periods can provide them with ways of imagining more just and equitable societies.

Some of our courses contain service-learning components, others involve forms of university–community collaboration supported by the South Side Initiative; Health, Medicine, and Society; Africana Studies; Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; and other programs on campus. Many of our undergraduate courses are also characterized by an increasing focus on the development of multiple literacies (diverse modes of writing; digital communication and publication skills; documentary filmmaking) to enable students to communicate to broader and more varied audiences.

Lehigh was best known until the 1980s as an engineering school—and in more recent decades, its large undergraduate business college has gained increasing centrality to the university. Because of these strong undergraduate technical and business programs, the university has not had, by and large, an especially strong social justice (or even liberal arts) orientation. But our LSJ initiative has nonetheless thrived at Lehigh. The university’s desire for humanities programs to develop a distinctive focus empowered our faculty to rethink both graduate training and undergraduate education in literary studies. The university’s practical orientation has also provided a setting in which our effort to define the broader social relevance of literary studies has been legible and well-received. Our experience at Lehigh may thus serve as a useful model for other departments and programs at institutions that might at first seem to be unpromising environments for explicitly cultivating a curriculum focused on “civic learning and social responsibility.

The contents of this article were modified from the issue's print version.

Seth Moglen, Associate Professor of English; Dawn Keetley, Professor of English, Lehigh University;and Kate Crassons, Associate Professor of English, Lehigh University

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