Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ethics in the Classroom

I'm teaching sociology of education this semester at an elite institution. An important component in all my classes is social inequality. This is no less the case in soc. of ed., but it's different this time.

Teaching race and ethnicity at the same institution last semester, I was not uncomfortable teaching about inequality - it comes with the turf in a class like that, and I had a lot of minority students in my class who already understood structural inequality from personal experience.

This semester is different. This semester I am teaching conflict theory to a room full of elites, and I think that is beginning to dawn on them. You can't read Collins' discussion of functionalism and conflict theory and miss his point that students who attend elite institutions often get elite jobs.

I know that I'm not teaching this material differently than I would have at my last institution (a large state school that was not academically elite, although you could make an argument about athletic elitism). However, I realize there's a change inside me. There's a part of me that really wants them to get that they are privileged. That yes, they worked hard to get where they are, but that 1) for many of them, they had significant advantages in getting here,* and 2) that their degrees are going to be valued to a much greater extent than the majority of college graduates.

I have never felt that my job in the classroom was to be an activist, and I certainly don't include activism in my courses, but that's what I feel like right now. And I'm wondering 1) if anyone else has felt the same way from time to time, and 2) what you've done about it.

*To help them get this, I pull out the "sociology of me," and mention that it is no great surprise that I have a Ph.D., given that my father is an M.D., and my mother has a B.S.


Mike3550 said...

I think that it is perfectly acceptable to point out your student's privilege. You don't have to hit them over the head with it. If your undergrad classes were anything like the ones I TAed, then eventually someone is going to say something to the effect of "Well, I worked hard to get where I am at, so I don't understand why I should be punished." Then, I think that you can help them think through the privileges that they might (or might not) have had and how that might set them up better for careers than others.

I also think that your "sociology of me" is a great idea.

Practicing Idealist said...

Thanks, Mike! I already had one student say that conflict theory should be renamed "conspiracy theory," which gets to the same point. I also mentioned to them that it can be difficult to face the critiques of conflict theory, especially if you have worked hard.