TEACHING SOCIAL PROBLEMS
Born as an effort to use science as a foundation for studying social problems, sociology is often caricatured as a dour discipline, well equipped to deconstruct what’s wrong with the world, but poorly positioned to teach students how they might change it for the better. (Schwartz & Smith 2010; Wolf 1996; Lenski 1983). While dismantling students’ cherished ideologies and mythologies, sociology professors rarely demonstrate how the discipline can inform alternative systems of values and practices based on more peaceful, just, and humane premises. (Johnson 2005) The Social Problems course, in particular, remains a general litany of the world’s miseries instead of an inspiring peek at how a sociological imagination might empower students to use their individual and collective agency and make a better world. (Dolgon 2013; Desmond 2005)
Historically, the foundations of American sociology embraced active research and service committed to a progressive sense of social justice and civic engagement. (Deegan 2013; Trevino 2012) But much of this tradition became marginalized in the hyperprofessionalism, positivism, and red-baiting of the Post WWII era. (Tuchman 2009; Simpson 1999; Lewontin, et. al. 1996) In response, The Society for the Study of Social Problems [SSSP] started as a professional organization whose founders took seriously the questions Sociology for What? (Lynd 1939) and Sociology for Whom? (Lee 1976). SSSP’s mission not only seeks, “to stimulate the application of scientific method and theory to the study of vital social problems… [and] to the formulation of social policies,” but also commits us to work towards a “higher quality of life, social welfare, and positive social relations in society.” 2013 Presidential, R. A. Dello Buono furthered this commitment by challenging sociologists to more directly align themselves with local and transnational social movements for social justice. (Dello Buono, 2013) Perhaps the most challenging place for such an inspired and committed sociology is in the classroom.
Recently, however, movements towards service learning and public sociology, as well as the scholarship of teaching and learning [SoTL], have advocated a more progressive pedagogical project linking research and teaching to community based-research, service learning, activism, and human rights. (Korgen, White & White 2014; Nyden 2012; Lewis 2005). We believe that a broad-based liberal arts education should be crucial to developing civic engagement and social responsibility in students, and such an approach must effectively combine both analytical sophistication and practical applications for systemic change. (Saltmarsh & Zlotkowski 2011, Huisman 2010) To work towards a just world, students must understand that their active engagement is indispensable in a democracy, but to participate in a democracy, they need the intellectual tools to carefully investigate social problems, their interrelationships and possible solutions. (Dolgon and Baker, 2010; Eitzen & Zinn 2006) Most importantly, we need to develop a clear understanding of power structures and dynamics, and align our teaching with the work of community and social movement organizations. (Morton, et. al 2012; Coghlan & Higgins 2004)
Social media and public discourse have increasingly included false, misleading and conspiracy-story based information that not only muddles debate and consideration of public issues but often diverts attention from more important issues. Thus, addressing critical thinking as part of social problems curriculum has never been more urgent. In addition to the social justice and practical aspects of social problems curriculum, sociological knowledge provides students with tools to decipher and evaluate information. Thus, a social constructionist perspective on how social problems are identified, discussed and addressed are a vital part of a social problems curriculum and should be included in the study and thinking of social problems pedagogy. (Loseke 2003)
The mission of the Teaching Social Problems Division is to help faculty members engage in conversations with their students and develop effective and innovative methods for applying these lessons in the world outside the classroom. (Sandy 2013) To that end, we provide networking opportunities, information about innovative teaching techniques, teaching materials and resources, and support for faculty members. Together we hope to empower each other and bring forward our discipline’s highest visions of a sophisticated social science in active service of a more just and humane world.
Division mission statement edited in October 2020 by Pattie Thomas, College of Southern Nevada, Teaching Social Problems Division Chair, 2019-2021.
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