CTA Diversity Module Protocol for Students (Collaborative Version 1)
Diversity modules among therapy students’ graduate/professional training by now are no doubt imbued, at least in part, by critical theory. It is Critical Therapy Antidote’s goal to aid students in effectively navigating their diversity modules through their coursework, and do so while standing on solid ground. The fear of dissent from nearly anything professors teach about social justice is pervasive and experienced by students from multiple disciplines, including psychology, social work, counselling, and psychotherapy. The goal of the following protocol is to offer some solid ground on which students can stand when they come across critical social justice ideological stances in the classroom.
First, it is important to understand traditional theories of therapy, what they have in common, and learn where and how Critical Social Justice Theory (CSJT) violates these core beliefs of counseling and psychotherapy. For example, most of the profession’s foundational theorists believe that the therapeutic relationship is of paramount importance. As such, theories which undermine or otherwise make it more difficult to establish therapeutic relationships and rapport are practically a non-starter. Now consider how critical theories such as intersectionality operate, by their very nature they emphasise how two people are different, rather than all the ways they are the same. Critical Theories also contain theoretical underpinnings which posit that individuals who occupy different positions have experiences which those who occupy other positions simply cannot understand. A belief which underpins the best of therapy is that through the therapeutic alliance, a counselor and client can come to deep understanding of each other, regardless of their differences.
The next thing is to understand the literature from which the ideology draws its power. One core component of CSJT’s effectiveness is its wordplay. It is common for research articles of this type to use esoteric academic jargon that is notoriously difficult to decipher and describe to the layperson. One way to help with this is to learn exactly what the jargon means in their own terms. Fortunately, significant work has been done on this. James Lindsay’s Social Justice Encyclopedia has definitions of numerous critical social justice buzzwords, along with examples from the critical social justice literature. Using these, one can learn to speak the language more fluently and make objections using the terms properly. And, of course, all the articles published here on CTA deal with these issues specifically.
Guidance and Strategies
This section is addressed to students who find themselves having to take compulsory modules which are informed by Critical Social Justice Theory. The guidance is not intended to be prescriptive in any shape or form. Instead it is offered as a support. It is important that you know that you are not alone—a steady stream of emails have been coming into the CTA inbox all describing experiences of struggling with CSJT informed training. One common theme appears to be that if you are the student who stands up to this in the classroom, no one else will speak up with you. But afterwards other students will approach you privately and agree with you. One of the factors implicated in this behaviour is the group dynamics that come into play. The pressure experienced by peers to conform to the accepted beliefs of the ingroup is intense.
Before we offer a framework of strategies, it is important to make a much more general point. It is important to trust your instincts and intuition. If you sense there is something wrong with the teaching then trust yourself. There are resources at your disposal that can help you identify what the problem is. You could use personal therapy, for example, to explore in confidence. You can start to sound out trusted friends and colleagues. You can also begin to raise your concerns with other trusted peers on the course. It may be that this is not the right time for you to engage with any of the strategies offered in the next section. However, becoming clearer in your own mind is a very good preparation for a more public stand further down the road.
In this section we look at various strategies you could employ for the task of managing the diversity elements in your programme without compromising your own integrity/authenticity. These strategies are grouped along a continuum from minimal challenge through to maximum challenge. We have used a stages framework but in reality, it is likely to be much more fluid than this. You can choose from these strategies depending on the level of challenge that the ideology is presenting on the course and/or the level of challenge you feel you want to engage with. However, it goes without saying, that any attempt to challenge the status quo is unlikely to be well received. You will need to take into account your own personal circumstances before employing any of the following.
Stage 1: The diversity teaching favours Critical Social Justice Theory but it is not imposed on the students.
Strategy focuses on articulating your position through:
- Develop your grasp of the literature and make informed counter-arguments within the assignments.
- Initiate class/group discussions on other approaches to achieving soclal justice
- Develop a set of clear and non-antagonistic position statements e.g. ‘I believe that Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectional theory is useful but it is not the only framework.’
Stage 2: The diversity teaching is mainly informed by Critical Social Justice Theory and there is an expectation that the students accept the basic tenets.
Strategy focuses on drawing attention to the incompatibility of CSJT with counselling theory through:.
[All of Stage 1 plus:]
- Ask respectful clarifying questions that focus on how the tutors think that CSJT can be integrated into counselling theory such as: How can CSJT’s group perspective be integrated into mainstream counseling approaches? How can CSJT’s view of relationship always grounded in oppression be compatible with the notion of the therapeutic relationship?
Stage 3: The diversity teaching is grounded in Critical Social Justice Theory and students are pathologized if they offer up principled resistance.
Strategy focuses on how CSJT, in practice, contravenes the training ethos as follows:
[All of Stages 1 and 2 plus]:
- Take opportunities to reflect verbally in the classroom context on how different you are finding the experience of the diversity teaching to the rest of the programme.
- Ask respectful and non-antagonistic questions that can illuminate the authoritarian/anti-therapeutic nature of CSJT, e.g. : how would the lecturer work with a client who rejected CSJT? How can a position that understands human society as a nested system of power relations be integrated into therapy.
- Begin to keep a record of instances where the relational modeling offered by the tutors contradicts the ethos of the course.
- Volunteer to be the cohort student representative for official course meetings and have your feedback noted formally.
- Call out any practices that involve shaming fellow peers in order to induce them to comply with the ideology.
Stage 4: The diversity teaching is completely ideological and the trainer/student relationship is coercively controlling i.e. abusive.
Strategy focuses on using formal procedures to counter abusive practices as follows:
[All of Stages 1, 2 and 3 plus:]
- Work out where your limits are and what you will/will not comply with. E.g. you may be required to participate in a social activist project as part of a module assessment.
- Scrutinise the published course descriptions and find statements relating to the course ethos. Note any discrepancies with how the diversity module is delivered.
- Form alliances with other students who are having similar responses.
- Approach the course leader and arrange a formal meeting to air your concerns and request that this is minuted
- Consider seeking legal redress for misrepresentation of services
Below in italics are Leslie’s responses and comments – please comment:
I think these are great suggestions. My main concern is that given the context (if it is similar to what I experienced) the student looking for these resources may feel as if they are completely alone and be afraid of speaking out against what they are being taught for fear of being gaslighted, ostracized, or accused directly of racism for challenging the ideology. In my multiculturalism class all of the other students seemed to be in agreement with the CSJT teachings, and it was only after I spoke up several times in class that I began to get emails and whispers of support in the halls outside class. During class there was utter silence from the others when I spoke, except from those who sided with the teacher and the SJ principles. No one was willing to even look as if they agreed with my questioning of the SJ doctrine, even though I knew some of them did. I would not have been bold enough to pose the questions above in that atmosphere, because the teacher was hostile and would have used her superior position to humiliate me. In fact, she tried- once breaking into tears about all the “emotional labor” she had performed for the class, in order to avoid addressing a question I asked.
I think better than having students ask questions to get their professors to explore contradictions between foundational counseling theories and CSJT would be to actually produce a well-sourced document which enumerates and expounds upon those contradictions. Armed with knowledge and resources, the student would then be empowered to engage in these kinds of discussions without fear that the professor will embarrass them in front of the other students.