how do you deal with something like this?

I don’t want this to be an, “Ugh, my students suck” post. I’m actually curious how you all deal with students who write things, that, well, you might find upsetting. I had students read American Project. I also asked them to go see Venkatesh’s film, “Dislocation” and write a blurb about it. One student sent an essay that said something like this:

These poor people who get public housing don’t deserve it. They’re wasting our tax dollars. Here they are, driving around in cars with cell phones getting free housing with water, electricity. There are lots of people around the world who’d love to have what they have. The only people who deserve public assistance are those who work for it.

I don’t know how to respond. I feel like I should. But part of me thinks, “today is the last day of class. Let it go, and begin your summer.” Any general ideas for how to deal with things like this in a way that works?

13 thoughts on “how do you deal with something like this?”

  1. Posting student essays without their consent is most likely a violation of FERPA and, even if not, is ethically questionable in my view.


    1. Actually it isn’t a problem with ferpa, so long as there is no identifying disclosure. Ferpa is pretty clear about that, it says what qualifies as identifying disclosure and it is things like id numbers, etc. Second part of this is that at most universities in the u.s. these days, student work does not belong to students, check the student handbook to verify your policy, but copyright holder of student work is usually the university for a wide variety of reasons. Third part of this is that there is no evaluation of the work provided, which if tied to identification and disclosed would be a ferpa violation. if you don’t believe me, go read the law or talk to a lawyer that has. They made me take a test on this stuff at UWM…, so i did my research.


  2. I would estimate that 80% of the students that walk into my Intro Soc class hold these beliefs. Although I have the luxury of a whole semester to educate them about the flaws in their beliefs…my basic strategy is to get them to: (1) understand the concept of relative deprivation (this is especially important for those students who have done international service work); (2) give them some facts about how our welfare state operates (in particular, the fact that most people don’t want to, and don’t, stay on public assistance very long); (3) illuminate the cycle of poverty in which adverse events have catastrophic effects if you are living on or near the poverty line.
    You want a quick fix? Try one of the Frontline videos about the working poor. I’m sure other folks–especially those done with grading–will have more and better suggestions.


      1. I’ll just remind you of the adage about bringing horses to water…
        If it is one student from a class, that’s probably a mismatch between you and them or their refusal to learn. If it were all the students, then we can start talking about what you could have done differently.


  3. I’d be less likely to consider it a failure than a kind of resistance. I agree w/ Jenn: most intro soc students walk in with attitudes like these, and I don’t actually consider it my job to change those attitudes so much as to challenge them. What’s impressive about the blurb you posted originally is that the student seems entirely un-self-critical; I would give it low marks (as I would a similarly uncomplicated “liberal” view) simply for its unidimensionality.


  4. Why do you assume that everyone can be persuaded to see the world in a particular way? I’d guess that somewhere around 10% of any given class that I teach enters with their mind made up about these sorts of issues (I teach about crime and punishment). All you can do is fairly present the evidence and guide the students through the process of comparing situations and contexts. I push my students to try and assume the role of various situated actors. How does the world look from this perspective? Are certain behaviors sensible given those conditions? These exercises can be e effective for everyone (including both ultra conservative and ultra liberal students to consider new positions).

    A good fraction of the class reports at the end that this is useful, while another smaller fraction reports that the exercises are worthless manipulations of a liberal professor. (And it cracks my colleagues up to see students refer to me as a liberal). I don’t take it as a personal failure; hell how are you going to persuade someone to examine the world critically if all their information comes from certain media personalities on the Fox News Channel? All you can do is patiently offer them the tools for critical examination; it’s up to them to do something with it.


  5. What someone “deserves” is a matter of moral judgment, and I’m very reluctant to base a student’s grade on whether or not I find his or her moral judgments compatible with mine. So I try to teach my students to focus on empirical questions. I agree with Jenn @2 and Corey @4 — the social scientist’s task is to understand and explain.

    I don’t give assignments that ask for moral judgments. But I did ask for moral judgments, I’d have to expect to get some that I disagreed with and even found offensive.


  6. We have had good success with a paper assignment that requires students to research and analyze both sides of a controversial issue. They are required to use sources that genuinely advocate each side and are not allowed to construct and demolish straw men (or rather, get graded down for it). This provides an even-handed way to require people to read and give serious consideration to arguments they disagree with. We also give them conceptual tools to work with: factual claims, interests, values, rhetorical strategies [framing], and political capacity and resources.


  7. Oh PS, I once had a student write a comment predicated on the assumption that prison accommodations were as good as a 4 star hotel! When I told her that was a ridiculous and ignorant statement (in slightly nicer words), she told me that a former prisoner had said that. I told her, in reply, that her informant had clearly been speaking ironically, and must have meant to imply that his non-prison accommodations were not all that good. But she clearly had no basis for a reality check and was unable to detect irony.


  8. I make a point to tell students that they will not be graded on their opinions, but that all opinions expressed have to be backed up with credible evidence. (And I ask them to hold me to that standard, as well.) For grading, I typically provide a list of criteria that I will be using to assess student writings. For a short paper where a student is supposed to make an argument, the criteria are usually:

    – Argument (is it clearly articulated)
    – Evidence (is the argument supported by credible evidence AND did the student provide reasons to rule out alternative arguments)
    – Connections (did the student make connections between course readings or between the assigned reading and knowledge from outside the course)
    – Understanding (does the piece demonstrate understanding of course material)

    I find that even when students make arguments that I disagree with at a political or moral level, I can rely on these criteria to grade the essay fairly. More often than not, students who express views like the ones Shamus described don’t have credible evidence to support their arguments and fail to demonstrate understanding of course materials.

    Perhaps even more importantly, these criteria keep me from giving undeservedly good grades to students who simply express opinions that I share.


  9. I don’t see this is a moral judgment as much as someone who just has no clue about the history of public housing or as jenn noted welfare or cyclical poverty or the robert taylor homes, or the CHA…

    I guess I would have said that I agreed, that they did not deserve to live there–given the history of the FHA, redlining, residential segregation…how they were trapped there without schools, jobs, or any other way to access legitimate means that might guarantee some upward mobility. I would explain to the student how we refused to lend money to people in the inner-cities while we subsidized living in the suburbs–through the wasteful use of tax dollars– by building superhighways, public utilities, sewage treatment plants, etc. Or how 98% of all mortgage loans during this time period went to Whites and that when people were able to move out of public housing they often paid twice what the house was worth only to see it decline in value to a fraction of what it was originally worth.

    I am also surprised (or perhaps not if other comments are correct) that the student seized on a ten second clip and a situation, correct me if i’m wrong, where the occupants of that car had little luck if all at finding new housing…did they see chuck’s apartment?

    maybe suggest some summer reading, squires and kubrin’s privileged places, wacquant’s urban outcasts, and xavier’s the geo of opportunity…


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