Learning From My Students

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by Oliver Wang Before I tap out this last post, I just wanted to reiterate how much I've enjoyed the experience. Not only is it such a honor to guest for Mr. Coates given how much I'm in awe of what he does on this site every day, but I—like most—am so intensely jealous of how productive the dialogues in the comments are. I don't think I ran into a single troll this entire week and I owe that either to 1) good moderation, 2) blind luck, or 3) really boring posts (or some combo therein) but as someone who literally gets depressed when I read the comments of other news sites (the LA Times comments sections are almost always despair inducing), I find the community here to be an absolute gem and it is such a pleasure to write for you. Seriously.


Almost every semester, I teach a course on social issues/problems and even though I initially took it on as something I was asked to teach, it's become my favorite course. Partially, it's because teaching a social problems course totally taps into my tendency to want to deconstruct and explain things (an obnoxious habit in other ways but quite useful when you're lecturing 30+ times a semester). However, teaching social problems is also invigorating because I get to learn through my students, both directly through their papers but I also use the topics they gravitate towards as incentive to bone up on those subjects myself as I revise each new syllabus.

Case in point, I never had that much interest in marriage/divorce issues but quite a few of my students would write about this every semester and when Andrew Cherlin's The Marriage-Go-Round came out, it seemed like a good time to research a few lectures on the topic. Now it's one of my favorite topics, partially because it's so timely given the current gay marriage debates, but also because marriage and divorce rates are these fascinating windows into all kinds of larger social changes, not just culturally, but also politically and economically.

Without getting too deep into the topic, the one thing I think it's important to remember about marriage in America (and something Cherlin's book does an exemplary job of documenting) is that it's an evolving institution and always has been. To try to fall back on claims of "tradition" doesn't work so well when you show how the purpose/function/perception of marriage has changed fairly rapidly through the years. How we do things now isn't how we did them in the past and it's hard to argue why they need to stay the same as we move into the future.

Likewise, I began to read up on obesity after it became, by far, the most popular paper topic students choose for themselves. I don't know if it's because the topic is in the news so often or if it just reflects some kind of zeitgeist but there's a grip of students every semester who want to write about obesity (usually related to children). Most of them do a decent job but I do find that they fixate on the same medical issues (Type 2 Diabetes gets namechecked practically every time) and a few of the economic costs but they some times overlook the moral dimensions of the obesity debate, which is really, to me, what much of this is about. The economic costs, in other words, are a red herring, allowing people to excoriate the fat but couch it in less scathingly personal terms.

Besides, the incredibly challenging thing about trying to discuss obesity as an issue is that, when it comes to causation, there's a tendency to treat it through starkly binary terms: either it's all about personal accountability ("people don't eat right") or it's all about the food industry ("it's McDonalds' fault) but attempts at suggesting some kind of middle ground get lost easily in the yelling match between these two fronts. On that note, if you didn't already read this earlier in the year, Marc Ambinder's cover story on obesity for this magazine was, I felt, really exemplary and a great primer on understanding just how damn complex the issue really is.

Teenage pregnancy, especially in the Latina community, is another common topic. Notably (and probably not surprisingly), almost all my students assume teen pregnancy rates are higher now compared to 20 years ago even though the opposite is true. Just goes to show one of the classic tenets of social problems work: perception often matters more than any objective reality to define the severity of a problem.

In terms of vaguely recent writing on the topic in the popular press, I enjoyed Margaret Talbot's "Red Sex, Blue Sex" from the New Yorker, especially her discussion of "middle class morality" which is an intriguing thesis. I need to do more work to find an essay of equal quality on teenage pregnancy in the Latina community however. (Recommendations welcome!)

Surprisingly, illegal immigration has not been a big topic but what is surprising is that the majority of my students who write about illegal immigration as a social problem are Asian American and presumably, either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. Moreover, there's invariably at least one or two papers that use familiar boilerplate such as "illegal immigration is bankrupting the state" even though when I actually covered immigration, earlier in the semester, I specifically try to defuse overheated talking points such as these.

In any case, these papers by Asian American students have been a curious phenom; I've seen it happen now at least three semester in a row but I don't have a great explanation for it besides some half-hearted theory about it being some internalized model minority mentality. This is one of those, "this topic requires more research" moments.

Lastly, I'm always surprised at how many students write about texting as a social problem. I guess that just reflects my superficial assumption that all young people love technology (or maybe it's my bias as a tech geek myself). Nonetheless, more than a few papers every semester are about how texting is dangerous from a safety p.o.v. but often times, their main argument really is a critique of what they see as technology's threat to our ability to communicate to one another face to face (or at leasts voice to voice). In the beginning, I was more apt to be read their concern as being Luddite-an but I've been trying to be more open-minded about it. I guess my own bias is that texting seems like a relative innocuous social problem compared to what else is out there but hey, who I am I dictate what's a serious problem or not? I'm just the teacher ;)

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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