Higher Education, Social Justice, and Public Pedagogy by Nana Osei-Kofi

A number of years ago, I taught a graduate summer course on higher education in fiction and film. Paired with readings, we watched several films including Mona Lisa Smile, Good Will Hunting, and Oleanna, and discussed the social, cultural, political, and economic implications of these portrayals of higher education, viewed from a social justice perspective.

Some of the questions we discussed included:

  • How does the portrayal of college and university environments/students/learning/faculty/etc. shape the public’s understanding of higher education?
  • What are the lessons these films teach about race, class, gender, sexuality, and higher education?
  • How are different fields and disciplines represented?
  • How are faculty-student relationships portrayed?
  • What do these films teach us about college and university administrators/about student affairs professionals/about staff?

During several weeks, we were engaged in a discussion of public pedagogy. Infrequently discussed in mainstream higher education and student affairs scholarship and practice, public pedagogy describes education that takes place outside formal educational settings. Scholars that engage with public pedagogy take a number of different approaches to the subject matter, focusing on a variety of ways informal learning occurs within the public sphere. Some of the sites of education that are explored within the discourse on public pedagogy include film and television, marketing, social media, museums, libraries, the built environment, as well as civic organizations and social movements. At the heart of the work is an examination of these spaces in relation to learning, social reproduction, and resistance. I think of it as a body of work that is about the ways in which values, beliefs, and different ways to understand the world are both taught and resisted within the public sphere.

For those of us who work in higher education, the scholarship on public pedagogy is an important reminder that what students learn is not limited to what they are exposed to in the classroom or on campus. For those concerned with social justice, it is of particular significance, as popular culture is often a powerful educational force in service of the reproduction of oppressive social structures. As an example, in a study Lisette Torres, Joyce Lui and I recently completed where we looked at how racial/ethnic diversity is portrayed in college admissions viewbooks, we found that people of color are often tokenized and stereotyped in viewbooks, while concomitantly relied on to create a sense of racial harmony.

To delve into the literature on public pedagogy is to quickly recognize that it is a concept that is understood in many different ways that are not always congruent (Sandlin, O’Malley & Burdick, 2011). At the same time, I view the study of public pedagogy as having great potential for social justice-informed student affairs scholarship and practice. Teaching and learning outside the formal classroom are in many ways at the heart of what student affairs professionals are engaged in on a daily basis, yet conversations at the intersection of student affairs and public pedagogy have yet to take root. Instead, much of the work on public pedagogy within the study of education is grounded in cultural studies, curriculum studies, women’s studies, and adult education.

I believe the opportunity to engage with public pedagogy within the study of higher education and student affairs, especially using a cultural studies lens, is an opportunity to expand the ways in which we think about students, their lives, beliefs, values, experiences, and actions. It offers a chance to grapple with the role of social context in significant ways. It pushes against compartmentalizing the ways in which we understand human experience. It creates opportunities to become cognizant of forms of resistance to injustice engaged by students within the public sphere, of which we may previously have been unaware. Through examining public pedagogy, we may also learn how to improve our own educational practices and more effectively reach students.

If any of this has captured your imagination, an excellent place to start is with the recently published Handbook of Public Pedagogy edited by Jennifer Sandlin, Brian Schultz, and Jake Burdick. For a shorter yet robust point of introduction, the Sandlin, O’Malley and Burdick article that I have included in the reference section provides a good overview of the literature on public pedagogy within the study of education.

In the spirit of engaging with public pedagogy, as students come back to campus next week, what do you think they learned about race and race relations in America from Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (here are a couple of perspectives with which to grapple: Django Unchained: What kind of fantasy is this?; Tarantino’s Candy), or gender issues from Les Miserables (this is an interesting viewpoint from the Washington Post)?


Sandlin, J., O’Malley, M, & Burdick, J. (2011). Mapping the complexity of public pedagogy scholarship. Review of Educational Research, 81(3), 338-375.

Nana Osei-Kofi is Associate Professor and Director of the Social Justice Studies Certificate Program in the School of Education at Iowa State University. Her scholarship focuses on cultural studies in education, critical and feminist theories of education, the politics of higher education, and arts-based inquiry. Journals in which her work has appeared include Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education; Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies; and Equity & Excellence in Education. She has served on the editorial board of the Review of Higher Education and is currently a member of the editorial board of Feminist Formations.  You can get in touch with Nana at oseikofi@iastate.edu.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: