Teaching Social Problems

In many ways, statistics is easier to plan for compared to social problems, because there were certain concrete skills and concepts I wanted to students to come away with. Social problems is a very broad and vague construct, and could be operationalized (and likely is) in many different ways in different classes around the country. However, that also makes the class open to many exciting possibilities.

  • Like with Introduction to Sociology providing a survey of sociology, I felt I should provide a survey of social problems. While there is no way to cover all social problems, I could use different ones that worked best to help explain certain concepts, and otherwise expose students to a variety of social problems. I felt I needed to do this in part because the course description (which I did not write) promised this as one of the outcomes. However, I was not a fan of any of the Social Problems textbooks. The majority focused on a new social problem area each chapter. Some applied sociological theories, but it seemed most oriented towards a fact-dump. It’s important to be knowledgable about current matters, but that was not my end goal with the class. There were some other textbook options, such as ones that focused almost exclusively on a social constructionist approach or ones that talked about social change and activism, though these latter were often more designed for social work or other non-sociology disciplines. In the end, I decided not to use a textbook, and instead we surveyed social problems by each student presenting a Contexts magazine article of their choosing (from a list of those that dealt with social problems) to the class. Here is that assignment. As part of the assignment, I wanted students not just to share the interesting research, but also to contribute how the author made use of the sociological perspective to better understand the social problem being discussed.
  • Beyond the survey component, students got to dive deep. Students selected one social problem to investigate as part of their research project. I have since begun using social problems as the research project for the introductory course I sometimes teach at the neighboring community college rather than simply having it be any sociological research question. Here is that assignment.
    • We did a lot of reflection. 3 metas, 41 LIs, etc.
    • Both to ensure my classes were purposeful in meeting learning objectives and not just haphazardly covering material or topics, I had guiding questions for each class. I shared these with students, to also help funnel/frame them in, and they had to respond to these in their LIs. I had to figure out how to help students transcend their own cognitive biases and barriers to learning about social problems. In many ways, sociology acts as a myth-buster, revealing the ideologies behind and function of particular cultural mythologies that are simply empirically invalid. Because how we address social problems is based on how we understand the problem to begin with, I felt students needed to learn about social constructionism and cultural cognition.
  • Contemporary Social Problems fulfills the Social Science category for UNH’s “Discovery Program.” My goal for students was for them to critically engage with social problems such that they understood how the sociological perspective helps us understand social problems, and to really dig deep and investigate what makes a social problem, why we have social problems and why (if?) they persist, and, how social problems can be challenged. In order to take this deep dive, I decided to focus the class on a case study. For about 3/4 of the semester, we walked through this case study, while departing to explore the theories and concepts we were applying in more depth and to other social problems (which also had a goal of promoting transference).
    • Our first class we watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie TED Talk, “The Single Story.” What it is. This set us up for the course but also for the second class, The second class, as part of their Do now, students wrote their response to the prompt, “What is the single story of U.S.-Americans on welfare?” We came back tot his a little bit later in the class, and students engaged in a think-pair-share on this question, with the following three sub-questions: “Who is on welfare? How do you hear them described? / What is the conventional wisdom regarding why they are on welfare? / What do people say about the welfare program?” After our classwide brainstorm, we had a good list of popular conception(s) / the single story of U.S.-Americans on welfare. SEE HERE. Students then began answered “Fact or Fiction? What do you think? To what extent are these narratives true?” Our case study dove into the issue of women on welfare (or women in poverty?), first by exploring patriarchy and gender through Allan Johnson’s book The Gender Knot and then by exploring women on welfare through Karen Seccombe’s book “So You Think I Drive a Cadillac?” Welfare Recipients’ Perspectives on the System and Its Reform. I selected this book (though I had to custom-order it, which still was not too expensive) because it included a qualitative study that really helped students think structurally. Well-done qualitative studies also can challenge people’s perceptions. Near the end of the course we revisited the list we had brainstormed at the beginning of the semester. Now everyone knew what was and wasn’t true. This was also a good meta moment for folks as they realized they had come into the class with many conceptions they also held about people on welfare that simply did not match the reality of the situation.
  • We discussed and delved into many challenging and contentious issues. As such, we needed to have appropriate ground rules, ones that demanded respect and not speaking for others, but that also encouraged students to dialogue and take risks, to say something imperfect and to give each other the benefit of the doubt. HERE are the class norms that I used.
  • One great service UNH offers is the MAP. I did it, and here’s how it worked.
  • One thing I learned – did you know nobody’s ever tried to poison your Halloween candy? Ever?
  • School is a lot of work. One interesting tidbit I would like to pass on is regarding the definition of the credit hour and federal regulations. I think this is helpful for giving students some perspective and I always include it now in my syllabi.