January 02, 2014

Sociology and Discomfort

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Over the last few weeks two professors’ job security has been shaken over students’ complaints after feeling uncomfortable by the content and presentation of course material. Both have made national headlines and raise serious questions about academic freedom. 

The first was Dr. Shannon Gibney, a Communications Professor who was reprimanded by the Minneapolis Community and Technical College administration when three white students complained about a lesson on structural racism.

The second is Patti Adler, a well-regarded tenured sociologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Twice a year for twenty years Dr. Adler used a role-play activity to get students to think about different forms of sex work. Undergraduate student volunteers would dress as different characters and students and Dr. Adler would ask questions about their lives and motivations. Now, the effectiveness of this dramatic exercise is debatable, but I know I would get a kick out of it as an undergrad.   Dr. Adler’s class was amazingly popular—but that’s not the real issue here. 

Although this latter case is evolving (news broke of it this week), the administration appears to be claiming that Adler’s skit violated the campus’ sexual harassment policy  by creating an unsafe environment for students and teaching assistants. Facebook groups and petitions of support have popped up quickly on behalf of Dr. Adler. But are uncomfortable topics really “harassment?”

Eighteen years ago, a Sociology of Gender course truly hit me like a ton of bricks, cracking open my brain with information on heteronormativity, polyamory, S&M culture, sex work and the like. Raised in a rather dull suburban, middle class home without the internet, this was all new to me. I remember really reflecting on my own privilege when confronted with unsettling facts of campus rape and sex-based violence. As I squirmed in my seat, my mind opened up to new paradigms, new perspectives. I was scandalized, uncomfortable, and completely hooked. I wasn’t harassed. That class, in fact, made me want to be a sociologist. (Thanks Kate!) 

Sometimes it’s said that sociology just teaches what we already know, but sociological ideas can shake you to your roots if you let them.

I suppose I cannot stress this enough: Sociology was, is, and always should be an unsettling field of research. My friends and colleagues research some very discomforting topics, and many work to humanize the dehumanized, normalize drug use and ”deviant” sexuality, question the powerful, give voice to those without a platform, and challenge the everyday assumptions that we all have held at one time or another.   Sharing research like this is often difficult, but education about uncomfortable issues is not “harassment.” 

Teaching about white privilege, racism, and deviance present a pedagogical challenge to everyone who teaches these topics,  and I won’t pretend to have a handle on it. And yet, these things should not to be avoided because they are unsettling, they should be tackled because they are unsettling. Furthermore, I’ll suggest that sociology is exactly the place for it. Perhaps we don’t always get it right, but I’m pretty convinced that we have the tools to talk about those delicate issues.

Mark J. Miller, the University of Colorado Boulder’s spokesperson, initially told Inside Higher Ed that it is a “best practice” to have teaching exercises with student participation be reviewed by the Institutional Review Board. IRBs, as you might know, are set up to review any research conducted by faculty and staff with human subjects. Through this process researchers submit detailed accounts of their planned research methodology, their expected outcomes, and flag any potential dangers of the research. A panel of peers determines the appropriateness of the proposed research. 

The idea of proposing a classroom exercise to an IRB is a very strange statement. IRBs are for research, not classrooms conduct. (For more on what IRBs do, click here, and specifically at UC Boulder, here.) Would every discussion of a book, or Q&A need IRB approval? If a student asks a question, should it be run past a committee first? Miller retracted this position one day later.

This is not the worst of it, either. Dr. Adler (interviewed in the same article) states that the administration’s actions breed a “culture of fear.” Indeed, it is chilling to think that, as an untenured Assistant Professor, I could be reprimanded or even dismissed when I teach about sexuality or structural racism in my Intro course, or racial discrimination in my Urban Sociology class. Will someone be sufficiently troubled when I teach how religion is socially constructed in my Culture class? What will remain if we purge everything that “might” make our students “uncomfortable?” 

And what of an age when campus administrators view unhappy students as consumers who are always right and faculty are seen as potential lawsuits risks whose careers can be threatened without due process?

The Executive Officer of the American Sociological Association is, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “extremely concerned about this matter.” (And find out more on Academic Freedom, here.)

The question then for you, new sociologists, is this: Are you willing to be uncomfortable?


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What world(s) are we constructing? If discomfort & censorship become key is there a role for critical thinking? Is sociology instruction to pivot around undergrad opinions? I believe in participatory learning and student empowerment but in the case of fools (no offence meant, just normal distribution) aren't we providing "dangerous" tools?

Part of sociological investigation is understanding the experiences of various populations as well as the numerous theories presented by sociologists past and present. How can students learn and apply or refute these theories (toward more understanding of people and our world) without activity participation? I had felt uncomfortable in a communications class I took recentlyduring which we students conducted research and participated in various activities. I learned more from that class than any other because I was forced to think outside of my comfort zone about things I'd thought I understood but really didn't. Uncomfortability is a catalyst of learning.

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