A Classroom Discussion on the Week’s Events
Class started with a moment of silence. Someone dimmed the lights, and the standing-room only crowd—700-plus strong—in 100 Thomas Building for Sam Richards’ SOC 119 class paid tribute to victims of sexual abuse. And not only the alleged victims of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
“We want to honor what they’ve been through and how they are a part of this and how they have been forgotten,” said sociologist Laurie Mulvey ’94g, Richards’ wife, who teaches the class with him. “And we also want to recognize the people in this room who are victims. There are plenty of you in here.”
So began another afternoon in the classroom of one of Penn State’s more outspoken faculty members. The title of the course is Race and Ethnic Relations, but that’s just a jumping off point sometimes. Richards had tweeted the day before that he couldn’t see sticking to the syllabus during such a momentous week on campus.
“We really thought a lot about whether we were going to do this class,” Richards said Thursday afternoon, introducing the discussion. “We decided the value of speaking today was greater than the value of staying silent.”
Added Mulvey, “We want to let you know from the outset that we are definitely not here to give answers. At best, we’re here to give you guidance about how to walk through this difficult moment and think through this difficult moment. “
Richards started by asking the students to complete this sentence: “I feel …”
Here’s a list of the answers:
Pretty good list, I’d say, for anyone who’s connected to Penn State.
And over the next hour, in a presentation titled “Group Think, Personal Responsibility and the Breakdown of a Moral Order: The Crisis at Penn State,” Richards and Mulvey delved into the complexities of the events—How do decent people make such bad decisions? How could so many students take to the streets to support Joe Paterno? What keeps people silent in the face of abuse or violence?
They stressed that they were not doing so to absolve anyone from blame, but to show that there’s a big grey area in how and why humans behave the way they do.
Take this provocative question: If your sister or brother or best friend were accused of a horrific crime, and were guilty of it, where would you sit in the courtroom during the trial? Given the choices of (a) on the accused’s side, (b) on the victim’s side, or (c) not attend, nearly 80 percent of the students (voting anonymously with clickers) chose the first option. Why? One student said it haltingly, but eloquently: “They are family … whatever comes out … your family is always your family, and you have to be there.”
But not everyone would make that choice. And it depends on the situation. And the factors that go into the decision are complex, very complex. In some situations, you offer support. In other situations, you don’t.
“You have to live in the middle of this contradiction,” Richards said. “You have to live in this zone where both [situations] can be true, and it’s very, very, very difficult. But part of becoming a thinker is to sit with two contradictory thoughts in your head and see them both as being true. And not go crazy. And not immediately try to resolve them. And so we’re offering that to you. Sit with that. Because this is big. That’s big.”
Yes, it is, which is why I can’t recount the entire class in this blog. I’m still sitting with it. But I’ll highlight one fascinating part of the lecture. Richards asked the class to respond to this statement: I think Joe Paterno has been treated poorly. About 80 percent of students chose “strongly agree” or agree.”
Then Richards and Mulvey dissected it. A few excerpts from their lecture:
“Human beings, college students, Penn Staters in particular, invest an extraordinary amount of personal energy into everything that is this school around them,” Richards said. “You all come here. This isn’t just Penn State. ‘This is my identity.’”
Mulvey noted that most of the people in the classroom were between the ages of 18 and 21, a time that psychologists have shown is devoted toward developing an identity.
“So you develop an identity around this thing called Penn State—it’s a huge, huge thing,” she said. “Some of what we’re dealing with, that loss and grief that some of you feel, is that sense that something deep has been taken away from you. Something has been taken away from your identity. Fundamentally, that’s how you understand who you are. And that happens when you come here. Partly because of this thing called Penn State, this spirit that’s bigger than all of us. But also because it’s the time in our lives when that’s going on.”
Richards said he wanted to speak to the “20 percent,” those who didn’t think Paterno has been mistreated. “Those of you maybe have been victims of abuse of one sort or another, you’re wondering, ‘How could my fellow students possibly think this?’ Because it’s identity. This is identity. When he’s pushed off the bus, part of you is getting pushed off the bus. It’s like Penn State will never, ever be what Penn State used to be. That’s frightening.”
And to the 80 percent? The ones who do think Paterno was treated badly? Richards estimated, based on consuming various media this week, that “98 percent of the people think that you 80 percent are out of your minds. And you’re not out of your minds. You’re not. That’s the complexity. We’re offering you a way to see that. Is that cool? You got that?
“You know what these people around the United States are asking you?” he continued. “They’re saying, ‘What kind of a person are you?’ Whoa. And now you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘What kind of person am I?’ That’s a big question. So don’t run from that. Stay with the questions.”
This kind of nuanced conversation lasted for about an hour. The class was filmed by WPSU, and I’m hoping the footage will be made available for viewing. You can get another sense of the conversation by checking out the “backchannel” conversation on Twitter, with the #soc119 hashtag.
Class ended most unexpectedly. “We’ve never done this before,” Richards said. “I think we need a ‘We are.’” His words were greeted by applause, and laughter when he added, “This is a race class, so the black and brown people, you’re gonna start.”
May I say that I don’t always love that cheer? It feels forced, sometimes, and like a lot of journalists, I’ve got a pretty well developed cynical side. So I was surprised that as the class cheered, I found myself tearing up.
Lori Shontz, senior editor