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Sep 13, 2013

A passion for social justice

Psychology professor Matt Lee teaches students how to create the society they want to live in
By Jan Gillis ('07)

Psychology professor Matthew R. Lee
Psychology professor Matthew R. Lee (far right) brings a passion for social justice to his JMU classroom discussions.

Start with a noble goal. Perhaps it's promoting a democratic society where everyone has a say.

Now, try and accomplish your goal.

Communicating across cultures
Unfortunately good ideals are often easier to conceptualize than achieve. That doesn't deter Matt Lee, a professor in the JMU Department of Psychology. In fact, he came to JMU with a keen desire to teach students how to achieve such goals. And he has spent his career developing ways to understand, communicate and interact with people of different cultural backgrounds. The result? "I've been able to use that background to give JMU students a different way to learn," he says.

An aspiration for social justice is great. "But to accomplish that," Lee says, "you have to know everyone who lives in your community. You have to know the religions of your neighbors and understand their socioeconomic backgrounds." Lee's classes create that awareness.

"If you can get people from different backgrounds to have genuine conversations about their lives, it can really improve the trust and the learning that can happen in the classroom," says Lee.

When diversity is invisible
Lee points out that diversity isn't always visible. Religion, disability, ancestry and a host of other experiences often remain hidden from public view. "There are a lot of ways to get at differences," says Lee, "even ways to simulate diversity in the classroom."

So how do you get students to be that open?

He says it requires "dynamic activities incorporating current events and making it applicable to students lives."

One of his students, Brian Caperton ('13), says, "During Dr. Lee's weekly learning activities, we would sit in a circle and describe a unique experience or event that pertained to the subject. One discussion revolved around privilege. Some of my peers really opened up about the difficulty of not growing up with financial and ethnic privilege. I began to recognize that being a white, male, middle-class American comes with an incredible amount of safety and convenience. The stories of my peers encouraged me to put myself in their shoes."

Make the world you want
Lee says his passion for understanding started when he was a teenager. "When I was in high school, I was the only Asian in the school and experienced a lot of discrimination." he says. "That's how my research got started. I feel that part of my professional identity is to stand up for people who may historically not have been at the table or have been misportrayed."

The ultimate learning achievement of Lee's classroom is applying what you learn in the real world so that you can create the kind of society you want to live in.

Learning a different way can, and does, make a difference.

Read more about Matthew Lee's classroom philosophy in his personal essay.