Critical Pedagogy and Politics in the College Classroom

“Liberalism is rampant on campus and ruining academia,” reads a September 6, 2018 headline from the Washington Examiner. Indeed, while some people claim that liberal academics indoctrinate their students into radical views, other people praise academia’s ability to open students’ views in general. For example, a recent study from researchers at James Madison University (JMU) surveyed college students at the beginning and end of their first year. The survey data suggests that participants become more appreciative toward liberals and more appreciative toward conservatives. In other words, students who entered college as liberals became more appreciative of conservative views, and students who entered college as conservative became more appreciative of liberal views.

This suggests that something deeper is going on than liberal indoctrination. While the researchers from JMU cite that students’ interactions with other students may account for their changing views, another possibility is what happens in the classroom. For example, “critical pedagogies” engage students in critical conversations about politics, economics, and culture, which may develop students’ abilities to see multiple views. Ann George, a writing professor at Texas Christian University, writes that critical pedagogies aim to educate students to become engaged citizens who analyze cultural practices and institutions.

“Critical pedagogies envision a society not simply pledged to, but successfully enacting, the principles of freedom and social justice” (George, 2014, p. 77).

In George’s chapter in the book A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, she defines critical pedagogy, traces its history in academia, offers support and critiques, and suggests ways for teachers to use critical pedagogy.

Critical pedagogies engage students in what Brazilian educator Paulo Friere calls problem-posing education. Problem-posing education engages students in dialogue to raise their critical consciousness about the cultural, social, political, linguistic, and economic forces that (often invisibly) shape their lives. Critical pedagogy rests on the notion that knowledge is socially constructed rather than fixed, and that language and thought are deeply connected since ideology plays out through language.

In the writing classroom, critical pedagogy may:

  • Allow students to co-create the syllabus, deciding alongside the teacher the course materials and objectives (George, 2014, p. 81).
  • Engage students in discussions of power and rhetoric.

As George explains, while the goal of critical pedagogy is to produce student activists and engaged citizens, not everyone is on board. Some educators critique critical pedagogy as dogmatic and argue that it’s unethical to attempt to radicalize students. Others critique critical pedagogy when teachers offer their own agenda of social activism rather than allowing students to determine the goals of their education, even if the students’ aims are counter to the teachers’. These critics recognize student resistance to leftist politics as unsurprising.

Teaching Feminism 

I can personally relate to the challenges of implementing critical pedagogy. I once taught a class that was quite resistant to my unit that introduced them to feminism. My aim wasn’t to convince them to become feminists, but to engage them in analysis and dialogue about feminism. In this way, I was doing what many college courses do: allowing students to try on different ways of seeing. Despite my good intentions, students resisted. One asked me if I knew of any feminists. I said yes. The student asked “is she married”? I said yes. The student sarcastically said, “to a man?” I laugh at this now, but I wondered then where I went wrong. My attempts to introduce students to a historically valid movement, feminism hit a nerve. I misread my audience.

Know Your Audience

Thus, I appreciate George’s suggestion that student resistance to critical pedagogy might be a rhetorical problem, “one that might be lessened by employing rhetorical theory or smarter rhetorical strategies” (p. 89). In other words, know your audience. In the future, I might’ve anticipated potential responses from my students and thought more about how my message might not jive with their ideologies. This doesn’t mean I’d avoid a discussion of feminism, but that I’d frame it differently.

What do you think? How might critical pedagogy work without isolating the very students we seek to teach?


George, A. (2014). Critical pedagogies: Dreaming of democracy. In G. Tate, A.R. Taggart, K. Schick, & H.B. Hessler (Eds.) A Guide to Composition Pedagogies,(pp. 77-93). New York: Oxford University Press.


3 thoughts on “Critical Pedagogy and Politics in the College Classroom

  1. Jing Zhang

    Wow I love this post! You had an intriguing introduction, presented a clear and concise summary of the article, and unfolded your own argument/example naturally. Your example worked compellingly to emphasize the importance to treat students’ resistance to critical pedagogies as a rhetorical problem. I also wrote about this article and I focused on creating democracy by engaging students in co-generating class materials. I did not get into engaging student in discussions about power and rhetoric, but reading your post has provided me with new thoughts! Thank you!


  2. eslwritingcafe

    I really like the way you frame your understanding of readings, your reflection and final question. To respond to your inquiry about how critical pedagogy might work without isolating the very students we seek to teach, I would like to mention a few points. First, role of teachers and students are the greatest importance in critical pedagogy. Looking at teacher, as a “transformative” intellectual who emancipates, save and inspire students, and students as “deficit” who don’t have voice, knowledge, and humanity is rejected. To do so, the role of teacher needs to be shared to students for a collaborative cause as they become involved in every aspects of their education by deciding on contents, themes of the course, ways of grading, and even critiquing the teacher’s performance. Moreover, the teacher needs to have a “political clarity ” and do not pursue a political agenda so that students become more engaged in dialogue and move toward acquiring critical consciences and transforming. The reiterating the cause and importance of their democratic involvement like “why do we care about X?” Why does it need to be addressed?What are the impacts of X on our daily lives? What should do about it? will help students to think collectively and feel connect to the cause and learning objectives.
    I hope it helped.:)


  3. writingwithvetter

    Hi Krista,

    I love this introduction to critical pedagogy and am very aware of the kind of problem you faced when introducing your students to a unit on feminism. I don’t know that there’s any easy solution to this problem. Student will resist ideologies that make them uncomfortable or that conflict with the culture of their home and community. However, I do think we can mitigate these conflicts by avoiding labels and focusing instead on problems and problem-posing. For instance, I often teach a Wikipedia-based assignment that asks undergrad students to improve the encyclopedia’s representation of women (see Project #3 at This assignment is very much feminist/critical pedagogy. However, in introducing it as a problem (e.g. gender gap/representation), I engage students with a problem rather than this label that they are often misinformed about.

    Great post, and I hope we can bring these conversations into the classroom.



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