“Has feminism benefited American society?”
That was the question before a pair of student-debaters in Charles Post’s Social Problems course—Sociology 200—recently. From her seat, Lacey Anne Watson argued that the progress brought about by the feminist movement over the past four decades has trumped any downside.
“Women have made noticeable gains in occupations traditionally dominated by men,” she noted. “But education seems to be the only way we can continue to free ourselves.” Taking the opposing view, Medgely Sanon asserted that “feminism isn’t here to help our society but to hurt it. Mainly affecting low-income families, feminism is a blueprint for poverty.”
Both debaters quoted liberally from published writings on the issue and also referred to points they’d written on the blackboard. In the end, neither debater was judged the winner—but then winning was not the point. Rather, formal debates are a regular feature of the Social Problems curriculum as taught by Post, an Associate Professor of Sociology in the Social Sciences and Human Services Department.
Playing the devil’s advocate
“The course has three goals,” he explains. “The first is to help students deepen their understanding of how sociologists apply data to analyze key social problems. At the same time, the course should help students improve both their reading skills and their ability to make coherent, logical, fact-based arguments.”
Indeed, Post will sometimes ask debaters to take a devil’s advocate position, marshaling facts and logic to argue against their own views. Following the debate, the rest of the class is encouraged to offer comments and criticisms; Post himself will step in to advance the discussion and summarize key points during teachable moments.
Debaters draw supporting data from class readings and their own experience; all the students are also required to write three position papers in which they take an informed stand on a controversial topic.
Admittedly, the term “social problems” covers a lot of ground, but Post has pared down the course content to some 14 key issues most likely to engage students’ interest. As a result, classes are often marked by spirited discussions about same-sex marriage, immigration control, affirmative action, welfare reform, and the decriminalization of drug use, among other issues.
Understanding the societal implications of divorce
Before registering for Social Problems, students must take Introduction to Sociology (Sociology 100). “One of the things they take away from that course is a realization that many of the issues they might have viewed as strictly individual in their impact actually have a broader societal context,” Post says. A case in point: divorce. “Although divorce comes down to a matter of individual choice,” he explains, “it has wide-ranging social implications.”
A small minority of students who take Social Problems may consider the possibility of pursuing a Bachelor degree in Sociology. But for most, the course’s chief benefit is the preparation it provides for virtually any intellectual discipline.
“At the outset, I explain to the students that one of the functions of higher education is to train individuals for positions in the managerial and professional layers of society,” Post says. “If you want to get into the kind of job where you have to think creatively and critically, you need to develop higher-level reading, writing and thinking skills. Developing those skills is a central emphasis of all the courses I teach.”