“Did you ever think that all this talk about me being an alcoholic led me to start drinking in the first place?” “No dad1, you’re an alcoholic that’s why we are always talking about it.”
Every semester at one point or another a student will raise their hand or send me an email to ask, “Did you ever think that things aren’t really this bad? Maybe sociologists create the problem by telling us things are so bad. Like the self-fulfilling prophecies we talked about in class.” When pressed these students typically state that, “the world is not as bad as you make it sound, so maybe the problem is you looking in the first place.” If you’ve taught for any period of time, you’ve heard this and you’ll hear it again very soon, so having a prepared response on hand will pay dividends.
Your Temporal Order is Backwards Dad
Talking about dad’s drinking didn’t make him start drinking. Dad started drinking and then we all started talking about it. Sociologists talking about social problems didn’t make them exist in the first place. Social actors made decisions, the consequences of those decisions created evidence then sociologists collected it, reported it, and then we talked about it in class. While this may be obvious to you, it’s not always to our students. As they learn I’ve found the alcoholic dad metaphor really helps them.
Social Location and Your World View:
Why do students say “things aren’t as bad as sociologists say they are”? Simple, because in the world they walk in things aren’t that bad. Typically, but not always, the students who say __ social problem isn’t a big deal are enjoying being a member of the dominant group in regards to the social issue in question. So Whites are prone to disbelieving racism, middle & upper class students discredit institutional explanations of inequality, and heterosexual students question if homophobia is really a big deal.
I use a set of socratic questions to address this. I ask my class, “Let’s say that I was totally sexist toward the men in my classes. Who would be the first to notice this fact?” “Men,” half the class says in unison. “Okay, so imagine that a male and a female student are talking after class and the female students says, ‘I just love Professor Palmer’s class!’ to which the male student replies, ‘Are you crazy? I hate him. He’s so unfair.” Heads gradually start nodding as I go into the story. “Is it possible that the female student might say, ‘you’re making a big deal out of nothing. He’s always been fair to me.’?” Lots of heads nodding now. “Yeah and maybe the female student might say, ‘I can’t believe you’d pull the gender card. You’re either seeing something that’s not there or you’re just too sensitive, but I think your real problem is your approach to the class not Professor Palmer.’” As you know, this is a common reaction when a minority person claims that they’ve been discriminated against. Creating a straw man out of this argument and then knocking it down in class typically inoculates the class from using this argument later in the semester. Furthermore, student who use this logic later in the semester find that their peers jump all over them with the tool kit they picked up from this discussion.
This isn’t sociologists’ opinions
I also reinforce that students aren’t making social problems happen because they aren’t making up these ideas in their heads. I remind students that the sociological research we read in class is empirical and peer reviewed, not simply the opinions of some ivory tower jerks.
“Why Don’t You Move To Europe if You Hate the US so Much!”
If you discuss the social problems facing the United States well enough you are likely to hear an angry student tell you to kick rocks. Hear again the alcoholic dad metaphor can help. Saying “well if you don’t like the problems this country has than you can leave” is akin to saying, “well if you don’t like my drinking so much why don’t you just go find another family.” When I feel I am about to incur my students ire I bring up this metaphor and say, “I could leave or dad could go to rehab. Just saying.” My students laugh and typically the tension is released. I tell my students that I love this country enough to do something about the social problems. And then I belt out a version of “I’m proud to be an American” and all is well again.
1. My dad is not, nor has he ever been an alcoholic. He is, however, a great sport about letting me use him in metaphors. Thanks dad!