Social Problems has problems. The class title alone, “Social Problems,” is pessimistic and despair inspiring. On top of that most texts (and most classes if we want to keep it real) are 99% focused on diagnosing the problems our society faces and their social causes. Furthermore, we reify social problems when we disconnect them from everyday “real” world students live in. Should we really be surprised when students call the course Doom & Gloom 101? In a cruel irony, social problems taught this way [paralyzes students] with despair, mystifies the causes of social problems in our students’ lives, and subsequently reproduces or at least exacerbates the social problems the course was designed to tackle. Damn.
To fix social problems’ problems I’ve devised a semester long project that will empower your students to identify, analyze, and solve a social problem facing their community. Furthermore, this semester long project requires students to critically analyze empirical research, synthesize their analysis, and frame their findings in a way that is accessible to the public. Pairing this activity with a “social solutions” mindset inspires students to be activists in their community.
Nuts & Bolts of the Project
The semester long project is really five separate, but interlocking assignments. Two of the assignments are group projects and three of them are individual assignments. I break up the class into groups of five students. Students are then charged with finding a social problem they are all interested in learning more about. Students can pick any social problem they like, but it must be 1) social in nature and 2) they have to be willing to adopt a system-blame approach to the problem as opposed to a person-blame approach.1 After students settle on a topic I sit with them and help them develop their idea and supply them with any sociological jargon that may be helpful in their search for scholarly resources.
Students hate group work because of freeloaders, so these assignments are designed for students to be graded for their independent work before they are asked to use it in group work. For instance, students work together to create a group “fact sheet” based off of 10 peer reviewed sources. Before they start this group project each student must turn in a “Sources & Synopsis” assignment that asks them to find two peer reviewed sources and write a one page synopsis about it. That way when the five students meet to work on the fact sheet each student must have two sources in hand and be ready to share a synopsis of the article.
Overview of Assignments
Sources & Synopsis
This first assignment asks students to find two peer reviewed sources about their sociological topic. This assignment affords me the opportunity to teach students about the peer-review process, how to do scholarly research, and how to think about their social problem in sociological terms (i.e. the jargon & concepts used in sociological research).
Group Fact Sheet2
The second assignment has the five students pool their peer reviewed sources together and create a “fact sheet”. The fact sheet is designed to be accessible to the general public while maintaining a solid ASA citation form. Students are encouraged to include images and present their information in a visually appealing way. The fact sheets must include information about the social problem, debates or conflicting information within the scholarly community, and (most importantly) (Inter)National, State, and local resources so that a reader of the fact sheet could do something to mitigate the problem if they were so inspired by the fact sheet.
Social Institutions Analysis
Where does this social problem come from and what could be done about it at the macro level? These are the two base questions of this assignment. Students are expected to dive into their system-blame analysis and explain how our social institutions create, reinforce, and exacerbate their social problem. I ask students to think like a conflict theorist and identify the benefactors of their social problem and the oppressed. You could ask students to use any other theory, but I find that students in this low level class struggle with finding their own theory and seem to have the strongest grasp on conflict theory. What I like about this assignment is, for students to do well on this assignment they must have truly read their scholarly sources, understood them, and then drawn their own connections between them. This paper really tests their ability to synthesize and evaluate their sources.
Finding Local Solutions & Taking Action
Now that they understand the social and institutional causes of their social problem, students are asked to take action in reducing their social problem. They have to come up with a course of action independently, pitch it to me, and then carry it out by semester’s end. The social action needs to only satisfy two criteria. 1) it reduces their social problem in a meaningful way and 2) the action is verifiable. In the past students have led food drives, volunteered at domestic violence shelters, created a pamphlet on ways to avoid drinking and driving, and even carried out a letter writing campaign. Students then write a paper about their experiences and why they feel it made a positive impact.
The project wraps up with a group presentation where students inform their peers about their social problem. Students relay the information they collected for their fact sheet, their social institutions analysis, and they discuss the social action they took. I have students do this during finals week.
A Couple of Issues
This isn’t a paint-by-numbers assignment and despite all the pedagogical value assignments like this have, some students hate choose-your-own-adventure assignments. I implore my students to see that the world they will graduate into doesn’t need people who can follow directions, but leaders who can create their own directions. Most students passionately accept the challenge, some hate my guts. Such is life.
You should also be aware that students may inadvertently recreate the oppression they seek to ameliorate. If students fall into a person-blame approach it’s easy to take points away because they didn’t follow the directions, but sometimes it’s not that cut and dry. I had a group of students lead a letter writing campaign targeting the Georgia State lawyer responsible for prosecuting child support non-payments. On the surface it seems like a good thing; make dads accept the financial responsibility of parenthood. However, it also disproportionately vilifies low income men. Some men don’t pay child support because they are deadbeats, some don’t pay because they are unable to. I had my students address this issue in their papers and I asked them to present an argument from both sides of this issue. They did an excellent job and I think learned a great deal from it.
1. I tell my students during the first week of class that both a person-blame and a system-blame approach have value. That regardless of the social problem there are systemic causes and issues of personal responsibility. I argue that systemic causes are more significant than many students think they are. I also explain that this class is focused on Sociological analyses of social problems and therefore we will almost exclusively focus on system-blame approaches. I end by saying that there is no shortage of person-blame in the media, politics, and the news, so they should have no problem finding a venue for their person-blame energies.