NEA awards profs $600K for 'social justice education' courses

Two University of Southern Maine professors recently received a $600,000 grant to organize free “pop-up courses” related to “social justice” and the “current political climate.”

Funded through a National Education Association (NEA) grant, USM faculty Julie Ziffer and Susan Feiner will establish “The Frances Perkins Social Justice Initiative for Social Justice Education” in October, which plans to offer students free classes on “social justice education” and “related current events.”

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Feiner explained to Campus Reform that under the school’s current system, an “academically rigorous course” exploring the recent events in Charlottesville, for example, would take at least a year to develop, at which point students would lose interest in the topic.

Accordingly, the Social Justice Initiative will enable professors to teach courses on current events immediately, allowing them to develop and submit a course within weeks rather than the standard amount of time.

Ziffer, the other co-founder of the institute, told Campus Reform that “pop up topics will address a broad range of social justice issues including, but not limited to, prejudice and discrimination, environmental justice, poverty, human rights, and social activism,” noting that any professor will be eligible to submit a proposal.

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“We’ll put out a call for a proposal to faculty about what they want to teach, how they want to teach it, and we'll screen them, make suggestions...and try to roll these classes out as quickly as we we can ride the interest and momentum of current events,” Feiner expounded, stressing the importance of maintaining student interest.

Notably, the social justice-themed “pop-up” courses will be free for all students, covered by the $600,000 grant, and upon successful completion of a course (graded pass or fail) students will earn academic credit towards their degrees.

“Almost all the money in the grant is paying the students’ tuition, so that the students can take these classes for free,” Feiner confirmed, explaining that the Institute could offer a solution to the school’s staggeringly low four-year graduation rate of 13 percent.

[RELATED: Course teaches educators to infuse social justice into classes]

“What we're hoping is that it'll give us a better way to retain these students. Some students don't necessarily form [friendships in their required classes]. But if we can do pop-up classes, and students share their interests, that should have a positive effect on retention,” she suggested, noting that the extra tuition revenue from such students could eventually allow the program to become self-funding.

“If we can show this program is paying for itself, then the university has agreed that they will support these activities” in the future, she concluded.

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