Lessons from Stan Eitzen

Aug 28, 2019 by

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I only knew Stan Eitzen for a short time before he passed away two years ago. He’s one of those people you continue to have imaginary conversations with long after he’s gone, though, and each fall, as I head back into the sociology classroom, our conversations come back.

I met Stan accidentally and under embarrassing circumstances: I was a new visiting assistant professor of sociology and history at Bethel College. I was assigned a section of Introduction to Sociology, a course I’d never taught before. The book order had already been submitted for the class: In Conflict and Order, 13th edition by Stan, Maxine Baca Zinn, and Kelly Eitzen Smith. I loved the book; it was lively, and rather than pretending to be neutral, it staked a claim: our social world is characterized by a struggle for power (the conflict perspective) rather than cooperation, with everyone harmoniously accepting their function in the social order (the order perspective). Bethel, like all Mennonite colleges, has students who come from communities where structure, duty and cooperation are highly valued (and bring with them their negative counterparts of coercion and shame). It also has students whose radical tendencies are more disruptive, students who are most concerned about racism, sexism and other kinds of violence. So it was a good fit, and we were rolling along quite happily until . . .

We got to a unit on social control. A passage of the book described abortion in positive terms because, combined with prenatal testing, it has allowed for the termination of pregnancies that would result in the birth of babies with severe disabilities.

I couldn’t teach my students that. While it is true that the vast majority of women who find that the fetus they are carrying has a significant disability terminate those pregnancies, I couldn’t teach that as a positive for society as a whole, even if it was a decision that many women felt was the right one for them. Too many women I know who have made that choice wouldn’t say it was a “positive” — just what they felt was the least bad of several choices that were all sad. And, more to the issue of my classroom, I teach students who have significant disabilities, including the exact conditions that often justify abortion: spina bifida, trisomy conditions, Down Syndrome and others.

People with these conditions do go to college, as do people who love them. How could I teach some of my students that our society would have been better off without them?

I wrote a careful email to Dr. Eitzen, whose email address was associated with the University of Colorado, where he’d spent his career teaching. I was careful but firm: No matter what a person’s political views on abortion, it creates a hostile classroom experience for students with disabilities if we say that one of the benefits of abortion is that people like them are not born.

Stan wrote back, right away and kindly. He wanted to hear more. Perhaps over coffee?

No, of course I did not want to meet over coffee! I did not want to chat with an eminent scholar (This was the 13th edition of one of his many textbooks, after all!) when I didn’t even have a semester of being a professor under my belt.

But it was too late. I hadn’t done my research properly. Stan was not, as I thought when I found his email address, safely in Colorado. He’d retired and moved back to Newton, where he’d earned his undergraduate degree. In fact, he’d been teaching the Intro to Soc course at Bethel for the previous year — using his textbook. I was his replacement.

Though his email had been friendly enough, I dreaded meeting. It was one thing to challenge a senior colleague via email, another thing to do it at Mojo’s, the on-campus coffee shop.

But Stan put me at ease right away. Though he was almost two generations older than me, we had shared an advisor at the University of Kansas; Stan was one of his first students, and I was one of his last. We shared a bit about our mutual commitments to Mennonite higher ed — as well as our frustrations. No one understood the job I was doing that year like Stan did, and he was able to help me think through it. And, as for the passage that I’d had a concern about, he told me why the authors of the book had taken that approach — and he also saw my point. The next edition of the book was already too far in the publishing process to make a change, he said, but he would revise it in the one after that.

I was genuinely surprised. Academia is a defensive place, and people don’t like to change their minds, especially not publicly. Practically, Stan had no reason to do so; In Conflict and Order was going to sell well no matter what it said about eugenics.

What struck me most about the conversation is that Stan and I didn’t have to agree about the politics of abortion. In fact, we didn’t even talk about them. We talked about students and their learning and how the classroom could affirm the dignity of those present in it. Those conversations could have been hard to have, but Stan made them easy.

A few years later, In Conflict and Order came under attack from right-wing campus organizations that were upset about the authors’ unapologetic conflict perspective. Sociology professors began getting calls and emails asking them to comment on the book. The larger goal of the attack was to argue that college campuses are hotbeds of leftist thinking, which simply isn’t true. Groups like TurningPointUSA are full of little Joe McCarthys, on the lookout for evidence of socialism in the classroom, and they like to target individual professors for campaigns of harassment. Their goal isn’t fairness or critical thinking but bullying and censorship.

What I want to tell such groups is that they didn’t have anything to fear from Stan Eitzen’s work. Yes, his textbooks adopt a left-leaning perspective, but the books also welcome readers to hone their thinking against it. Stan knew that many students — and, in some times and places, most of them — wouldn’t come to class inclined toward this perspective. But thinking about it, even if one decided not to adopt it, is a useful exercise. And, just as importantly, he was willing to listen to an opposing perspective. While right-wing groups attacked his textbooks, they performed the close-mindedness that they accused him of — and demonstrated a lack of faith in students’ abilities to think critically about a challenging idea. Stan, in contrast, has given innumerable college students a chance to think hard about difficult things that matter.

Though I am no longer a professor at Bethel, I continue to teach In Conflict and Order (now, my eighth year of using some version of it!), and I tell students this story, about how I was probably too forward with my criticism and about how Stan listened to me anyway, with generosity I didn’t deserve, and took my ideas seriously. I want them to know that this is how civil dialogue works.

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas State University and blogs at sixoh6.com, where a version of this post originally appeared.

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