Teaching Social Problems, Pandemic Edition

This post is narrowly focused on my Social Problems course, which I revamped substantially last year in the face of COVID to provide students with more examples of social problems being ameliorated, something we did via service learning pre-COVID that wasn’t possible now. During a time of continual crisis, I found that my students benefited from learning about people exercising agency and shaping their social worlds for good. Here’s how I did it. 

Social Problems is a lower-level sociology course typically required of sociology and social work students but also popular with students seeking a general education requirement. Many variations of the course take a “problem-a-week” approach, applying the theories of Intro to Soc to real-world problems.

I teach my course using the same approach, covering 7 topics, plus an introduction to the course and a final project, which gives us two weeks per social problem: 

  • Poverty and economic inequality (including why economic inequality, even apart from poverty, is harmful)
  • Healthcare and healthcare inequality
  • Alcohol and other drugs
  • Climate change and other environmental threats
  • War and terrorism
  • A social problem students choose for their small group

The choice of social problems in the course is the first lesson, because not everyone–including not all my students–will see each of these as a problem. I have taught this class in two very different settings (Arkansas State University and Weber State University. located in Utah), with very different student populations. In my experience, more affluent populations are more likely to object to defining inequality as a social problem, seeing it as a “natural” or even desirable result of differences in human talent, ambition, or effort. The religious beliefs and practices of both groups of students, too, shaped what they saw as a problem, including drug and alcohol use. A few students were deniers of climate change, while others accepted that it is occurring but don’t see it as a problem but as a phenomenon unrelated to human behavior, and others agreed that it is happening but don’t see it as a major threat. This meant that to group it with “and other environmental threats” framed climate change in a way that they didn’t agree with. Finally, to lump “war and terrorism” together suggested, for some students, that members of the US military were being lumped together with terrorists.  All of these choices were an effort on my part to push students to think first about how different stakeholders and people with different perspectives see even the concept of social problems differently. Navigating this becomes the challenge of the last module, which requires students to select a social problem that we’ve not yet discussed in class.

We begin the course by investigating the process of how a social phenomenon comes to be considered a problem. Who has the power to define it? Who opposes that definition? Who benefits from the problem and how? Who is harmed by it and how? Why do different societies label the same behavior as a problem or not a problem? We then repeat this as the first step of investigating each problem: Who benefits from poverty? From healthcare inequality? From addiction? From climate change? From war? Often, this is the first time that students have considered the way that some actors in a society may have an incentive to maintain social problems. We then begin a two-week study of each social problem, following the same pattern:

  • Identifying stakeholders
  • Identifying profit from social problems
  • Defining the problem and examining different definitions of the problem–including how different definitions and ways of measuring the problem produce different understandings of the problem
  • The scope of the problem
  • Causes of the problem
  • Consequences of the problem

During this time, in addition to readings from our textbook, a brief (1500-2000 word) introduction from me, and about 5-8 short supplemental readings on the topic, students begin to apply what they’re learning to a city they have, with a small group, chosen to study. Often, students choose a city of personal significance to them. For example, groups with an international student in them will often choose the international student’s home city. During Summer 2020, a group with a student whose plans to study abroad in Paris were canceled chose that city. Another group chose Mexico City, where a student’s parents had emigrated from. 

For each module, students locate, read, analyze, and, with their small group, discuss a peer-reviewed article about the social problem in the city they are focusing on. In an online class, they can meet via Zoom for the discussion. This means 8 total 45-60 minute sessions (one to plan, then one about each social problem, including one problem of the group’s choice) to discuss what they’ve read. (Additionally, they typically will meet further to work on their final project.) Each person brings an article, so, in a group of 4 students, by the end of the course, they’ve collected and discussed 28 peer-reviewed articles. They earn credit for this work by submitting notes reflecting their discussion as well as a video or audio recording of their meeting, which I check for attendance and participation. The written notes help me see if students are able to locate high-quality articles and identify key information in them. With a little coaching at the start, students are able to consistently engage in robust discussions about the scholarship. The biweekly practice also gives them a peer group to connect with and helps them prepare for the final project. And I learn up-to-date research on social problems in cities around the world, which enlivens my teaching! 

But, by now, students may be feeling a little discouraged. I am particularly concerned for students from marginalized populations. For example, if you are a Black student, to hear, week after week, that all of these problems are worse–higher rates of poverty, higher rates of disease, higher rates of drug-related incarceration, environmental racism, etc.–for people like you may be disheartened or even retraumatizing. No matter how many times I say This is because of racism, I risk reinforcing negative stereotypes of Black people or reminding students of struggles they or their loved ones have faced or are facing and may not even survive. 

This is why, after a few years of teaching the course and finding that students felt depressed and discouraged, I added an end-of-module activity that now informs the final project for the course: What’s Working? posts.

What’s Working? posts are discussion board posts that highlight examples of organizations and individuals successfully addressing that module’s social problem. Students choose an example from their chosen city, and they typically share a news story about what the group is doing, often one published in the local newspaper. (They can select a non-English language story but need to write about it in English so all their classmates can understand it.) Their post has to briefly summarize the story, then offer some insight, drawing from class content, to explain it. Why is a women’s shelter that welcomes pets more successful than one that doesn’t? Why does simply giving people who are homeless money work better than so many other attempts at reducing homelessness?

Students share these posts with the whole class, not just their groupmates, and discuss them, offering comparisons (Why is a pet-friendly shelter working in one city but couldn’t be imagined in another?) and asking questions. They see people exercising agency. Sometimes, they discover an effort they want to support financially or through volunteer work. They also begin to see patterns in what kind of projects appeal to the public and to donors, and they ask critical questions about pity, inspiraporn, charity, and solidarity.

Finally, students, as a group, write a paper about their city. Here is the prompt:

Imagine that an election is coming up for the key leadership position in the city you have been studying all semester. (For most cities, this will be the mayoral position, but the position might have a different name. You are responsible for using the correct name for this role.) A leading candidate has hired your small group as consultants to help them understand social problems in the city.

Select a social problem facing your city and write a 2500-3000 word background statement on it, explaining its scope, causes, and impact. Finally, write a 1500-2000 word plan to address it. Identify stakeholders who will support the effort as well as people who may oppose it. Note if your plan seeks to ameliorate or eradicate the problem. Be sure that you anticipate unintended consequences of solving the problem (whether in whole or in part).

Your paper is a group effort, and you may divide the work however you like. However, EVERY member of your group must submit an identical final draft.

Your essay should include APA style citations and a bibliography of at least 8 sources, at least 4 of which must be peer-reviewed academic sources.

The course includes a self- and peer-evaluation, which gives me additional information about how to grade the paper. As with all group assignments, I assign individual grades. And because group work tends to be an area of complaint for students, I keep the value of the easy part of it (the group discussions) high (25% of the course grade) and the value of the more rigorously evaluated work (the paper) lower.

By the time they reach the final paper, students have a good idea of the social problem most of interest to them, at least one scholarly resource per person already on hand, and at least one example of an organization addressing the problem. Much of the writing, then, is a synthesis of what they’ve already been thinking about and discussing. The harder new work is considering how local government can solve the problem, since that work hasn’t yet been assigned (though is often something they’ve learned about along the way).

I’ve been really happy with the course so far. It’s focused, with a quick turnaround between reading/discussing and identifying real-world applications. Because students are preparing all semester for the final paper (which I tell them repeatedly without telling them exactly what the prompt is until near the end of the course), the final paper is typically of high quality. 

If you have questions about the syllabus or other course materials, please let me know. And if you have a way of teaching Social Problems that you love, please share it!

Above, nurses in London protest low wages in the National Health Service during the COVID pandemic. Such examples of action raise questions about healthcare, the role of government, gender, economics, labor, and epidemiology. Note that another protestor carries a Black Lives Matter sign. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

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