Sunday, May 02, 2004

Teaching and Public Sociology

My plan was to debate the military industrial complex in Iraq using David Barstow’s April 19, 2004 New York Times article “Security Companies: Shadow Soldiers in Iraq.” I sent the article home with my James Scholar section of “Introduction to Sociology” the week before, so they could read and be prepared to discuss in the next class meeting.

[A note on the James Scholar students: They are for the most part highly motivated and engaged. Also, many are from relatively privileged backgrounds. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a selective state school. Another article from the NY Times April 22, 2004 by David Leonhardt “As Wealthy Fill Top Colleges, Concerns Grow Over Fairness” references UIUC as one of the state schools with a large number of wealthy students.]

When it came time to discuss the privatization of the military, most students had read the article. However, they knew nothing else about the recent situation in Iraq. When I mentioned Falluja, they looked at me blankly. They did not know that April had already had the greatest number of deaths for the U.S., let alone the number of deaths for Iraqi’s. Nor did they have any sense of the political context of the recent battles. At this point, I asked if any of them knew anyone over in Iraq, not necessarily any family or close friends, just someone they knew. Three raised their hands out of the 25.

After I gave a quick and frustrated overview of the situation, one of my students asked, why Iraqi’s were fighting against the building of infrastructure, if it was going to help them have a better quality of life [this is before any reports of abuses on prisoners was out]. This started off a debate. Students left the classroom still debating and asking questions. Contrary to David Brady’s assertion that “By and large, it is very difficult for sociologists to get their students interested in, let alone passionate about, politics” (p. 6), all I did was bring up the discussion, get frustrated by the apathy and implicitly expose the privilege we had just discussed two weeks previous when we covered social stratification, which led to some opening that triggered debate that they were willing to stay after the bell to hear, and left still discussing.

This situation leads me to initially think 1) student apathy has a structural component beyond the obvious social privilege issues and not all students came from economic privilege, there is something to it in the structure of higher education that educators need to look at reflexively 2) once students see their privilege and how it affects their knowledge, even implicitly, they gain some sociological understanding of their privileged apathy. We are all interested in ourselves, so if we can relate our personal troubles/experiences to greater social issues, even the most apathetic among us can get interested – especially if that privilege ironically limits our “knowledge”.

So if my thoughts are in the right direction, how do we restructure our classes, as part of the education system that allows/expects apathy, to expect normatively that students be relatively informed on public issues - such as war - as part of being a responsible student? What are effective ways of exposing and underscoring the privilege that hinders their engagement? Am I making some poor assumptions here about privilege and the mutually constituted educational structures? Am I lacking reflexivity in deeming it important for them to be aware of the Occupation of Iraq, privilege, and the privatization of the military when we talk about globalization as a sociology teaching assistant?


At 1:31 PM, Blogger Goesh said...

- a random comment/observation: all throughout the halls of the academic world are those that seek high paying jobs via their education, outnumbering 'the others', however you want to classify or define those ' others' - perhaps the sheer numbers of this contradiction account for student apathy - the old cash vs. ideology syndrome - bludgeoning belief with hundred dollar bills - who the hell really knows what is going on in their minds

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