This past week, a tenured professor at University of Colorado-Boulder, Patti Adler, was forced into early retirement after complaints about a teaching technique she has used for some 20 years in her popular Sociology of Deviance class. When the initial student newspaper article came out with few details, I was hoping that the story was blown way out of proportion, or maybe even a terrible misunderstanding. But, a student group on Facebook, a petition, and now a more detailed article and interview with Patti Adler, makes it sound like this is actually happened. So, based on what we know right now, a tenured professor was actually forced into retirement for a creative, engaging classroom activity.
For some reason this really hits me in the gut. I was even up during the night with Adler’s classroom activity gnawing at me. Her activity illustrated the different levels of status among people in a stigmatized group (prostitutes). I’ve had some interesting conversations online with others about this. Some feel strongly that her activity on prostitution further stigmatizes an already stigmatized group. Some believe that there are two issues– (1) the classroom activity on prostitution (2) how the university handled the complaints over this activity– and that we need to have a feminist conversation about both. I do agree we should have ongoing pedagogical conversations about privilege and marginalization in the classroom. As a white middle class woman, I am always thinking about how I teach material in a way that is real and engaging, and also respects students’ experiences, privileges, and disprivileges. I’m not perfect at this. I’m still a work in progress.
The truth is that Adler’s prostitution activity sounds like something I’d come up with to engage my students. I could see myself thinking of it in the shower (where I get all my good ideas) and running with it in the classroom. I am always thinking of ways to help students exercise their sociological imaginations– getting them to step into the shoes of others and to see from different standpoints. So when is it ok to ask students (in her case, TAs, but students are just as vulnerable to professor-student power relationships) to take on marginalized positions in order to teach them to expand their perspectives? These kinds of activities are so central to my teaching, and they’re the ones that students respond the best to and learn the most from.
I am Patti Adler.*
- I’ve had my students role play families in different marginalized positions, with different economic and institutional resources, and think through how they would navigate personal disasters like unemployment, illness etc.
- My students have role played high school kids (actually drawing on Patti’s work on peer pressure) acting out ingroup and outgroup dynamics in the most illustrative ways they can think of together. In this activity I’ve had students decided to call another student a “wetback,” another a “slut,” or another student “white trash.”
- My students have had to craft social movement framing and tactical strategies, assigning them a “side” they may not agree with on issues like: Marriage equality, access to abortion, affirmative action, immigration (undocumented immigration), feminism etc.
- My students have conducted multi-class period studies of the language and images used by “pro-life” activists and pro-choice activists. Often these are disturbing and offensive.
- I’ve had my students make campaign slogans and posters drawing on the collective identity of motherhood against the war on terrorism, and in support of the war on terrorism.
- My students bring to class examples of songs that describe living in poor urban neighborhoods. We watch the (quite racey and filled with terrible language) videos together and they analyze what words like “the ghetto” mean from various perspectives.
- My students have discussed institutional control of bodies by debating the issue of airlines charging more for passengers who weigh more.
- I break my students up into groups of “proletariats” and “capitalists” to form strategies about how to either improve their position or maintain their position.
- I’ve shown current rap and hip hop videos in class (again, suggested by students as I have no idea what’s popular) to facilitate discussion of how women are depicted as sexualized objects in pop culture. Some of these make even me uncomfortable!
- I use countless clips of The Daily Show– filled with stereotypes, humor, and a strong dose of liberal propaganda.
- I constantly use South Park– a show that makes no qualms about offending everyone– to talk about various social issues. My students have collectively laughed over the one Black kid named “Token.” They’ve laughed at, and deconstructed, Cartman’s stereotypes of Kenny’s poverty.
- Speaking of Cartman, I regularly show my students the episode where he starts a social movement against Gingers and have them analyze Cartman as an enigmatic movement leader.
- Heck, my students have even role played the Sandinista government, figuring out a media plan using the powerful identity of the spartan mother to sell the draft to weary Nicaraguans.
I am Patti Adler. I am a teacher who constantly tries to think of innovative ways to engage my students. There is no way I could teach without having students role play various disprivileged identities. I use these activities in the context of lessons that are focused on social justice, and include discussions of privilege and marginalization. I hope they make the connections I want them to make– the connections our classroom discussions hopefully lead them to make. But there is always the possibility someone will be offended. Someone could be offended by something any single day in any one of my classes. I mean, how many times have I lectured white guys about structural racism (although of course I’m able to do this from the privileged position of a white woman– which I address in class)? My goal is not to avoid potentially offending issues, but to engage them head on, and have the class figure out how we can understand them as sociologists. If my students are uncomfortable then I’m doing something right. That’s how I teach, and that’s why an attack on Patti Adler is an attack on me.
* Actually, I’m much more vulnerable as Patti Adler. I’m an Assistant Professor, and not even remotely as well published or as well known as she is.