Wednesday, February 22, 2006

As heard in class, redux

Many of you enjoyed the "Black people were bred to be better athletes" story, so now I've got a follow-up story, featuring the same student.

A few weeks ago we were studying European immigrants to the United States in the early twentieth century. As part of their assignment, the students looked at some Jacob Riis photographs. (Riis was a famous photographer and reformer who went into the tenements to document immigrants' living conditions.) Not surprisingly, many of the photos showed dirty and crowded apartments, some of which were used by family members who operated sweatshops out of the apartments.

During class discussion students shared their impressions of the photos, which usually included surprise about the "bad" living conditions and being somewhat impressed with immigrants' fortitude. Then the student in question raised his hand and asked why these families continued to have so many kids if they were already poor and crowded into these small apartments. Fair enough question. And one that I'm actually fairly well-prepared to answer. So I launched in what seemed like an endless answer, including the following points:

*Many immigrants arrived with large families, something that might have been necessary back in the farming areas of Europe
*Some people considered children to be economic assets, i.e. to either work on the farm or work in factories to provide additional income, as well as to provide care for their parents in their old age
*Higher rates of infant mortality encouraged higher birth rates

I also went into the issue of birth control and why it was not available and/or utilized:
*Most poor women did not have access to knowledge about birth control, and would not have been able to afford it, even if they had known about it
*Birth control was illegal at the time, and in fact, it was even illegal to mail information about birth control

Then I told the class a bit about Margaret Sanger, who agitated for birth control during this period, and when she opened a clinic in a working-class neighborhood, it was deluged with women who were desperate for some information. Sanger's personal "epiphany," in fact, was when a young woman died from repeated pregnancies that she could not avoid. When this young woman asked how to avoid pregnancy, an insensitive doctor told her to tell her husband to "sleep on the roof." So I also pointed out to students:
*It's likely that most people back then had little to no understanding of the female reproductive cycle and would not have known about the timing of "safer" periods
*And even if they did, traditional gender roles did not usually empower women to refuse sex with their husbands. Which is why Sanger wanted to find some sort of female-controlled contraception.

So... that seemed like a pretty complete explanation, but he refused to buy it. He kept asking things like, "So, you're saying they're too stupid to know that sex results in children?" and: "Can't they read?"

So I reiterated most of what I had already said about the lack of knowledge, power, and access that these families experienced, and how most immigrant families either chose to have larger families or were simply unable to avoid pregnancy. It didn't take. So finally, I asked him simply, "So what you're saying is that poor people shouldn't have sex."

He looked a bit perplexed, and then denied that's what he was saying. I believe, however, that that is exactly what he was saying. The "punishment" for being poor and unable to access birth control should be denying yourself sex. And this is not the first time the question has come up -- it is more likely to be raised when we discuss Anne Moody's book about being part of the Civil Rights Movements. Anne's mother (an impoverished sharecropper in Mississippi) continues to have children throughout the book, which puts an economic strain on the family. Most students are quite critical of the mother for this, and don't understand why she doesn't just "stop having kids."

Any thoughts??


At 11:11 AM, Blogger admin said...

hmm, interesting. Makes me wish I taught a subject that could get into that type of discussion...

there seems to be a disconnect with students and the past--even the recent past of their parents time. I'll admit, that it was reading that I've done that helped me understand my mom's generation better than anyone else.

Consider the fact that they take knowledge and birth control for granted. For how many years has education been mandetory and enforced? Do they even know the history of birth control and how women we view in general? The concept of large families is lost--do any of them have more tahn 3 sibs?

I'm not sure that answers your question. But that's my thoughts

At 11:28 AM, Blogger aelis said...

This is not the subject I teach, but I'm hoping it comes up in class one day so that I can crib your response. It is a beautiful and well-thought out response to this question (which I'm sure, arises not so infrequently). And I think your response, handing him his class discrimination a**, was brilliant.
Students do need to work to understand how access to knowledge and power impacts child-bearing (and statistics of diminishing birth-rates in post-industrial countries is the most obvious illustration). But it's also helpful for them to realize that these issues--access to knowledge and power regarding sex, birthcontrol and female autonomy, are as troubled today. Perhaps a discussion about contemporary sexual power dynamics might help.

At 5:24 PM, Blogger KJ said...

Can you find out if that guy is single, sounds like a good catch! (Just kidding, obviously)

I'd just like to know what reading has to do with possessing knowledge about reproduction in the late 19th century. Did he not hear the part where you explained it was illegal to mail information about birth control? And does he mean read in English, or their native language?

There's a good episode of the PBS show The History Detectives where a woman finds what she believes is a contraceptive device. Turns out it probably was, but the whole discussion of birth control at that time was really interesting.

At 3:13 AM, Blogger Elle said...

Lord, I "do" 20th century U.S. history. Are you saying I have this to look forward to?

At 12:22 PM, Anonymous Jessica said...

This all sounds really familiar to me. The students at my university are much the same. Kids that come from privledged situations have a really hard time understanding the trials of the poor or outcast. I once had a teacher that did "role playing" in this situation (although I think normally it's sort of cheesy). But in this case she had the student put himself in the shoes of the woman, and the kid would say things like "well, i'll just refuse to have sex" and the professor would say "we'll then you'll get raped or beaten, then what?". Finally the student backed himself into a corner, realized he couldn't defend himself, and got really frustrated. The professor told him this frustration is what it's like to be powerless. Who knows how much of it the students absorbed, but it was an effective tactic for some of them, at least for a moment.

I've found that a lot of teaching history is teaching compassion. Something that I don't necessarily feel like i'm qualified to do.

At 10:30 AM, Blogger Kristiface said...

Wow-- I've taught US history discussions, and we've had heated debates but something like this has never come up-- I've been so fortunate! Normally, I would have stopped answering his questions after the first explanation and then start asking him. This has worked for me in the past-- but I'm not sure if someone as dense as that student would fall into the "trap" or just write on evaluations "THey always answered with a question-- why can't they just answer??" ;)

At 7:35 AM, Blogger academic coach said...


At 8:21 PM, Blogger Quinn said...

Like Elle, I "do" 20th C and one point that really brought it home -- I talked to my students about what types of birth control actually existed and were accessible prior to Sanger and her work: Coitus Interruptus (not favored among men and not reliable)
abstinence (not favored among men -- or many women), and -- the clincher -- the condom. Mention that at the time, they're horribly exensive, so much so that they were (wait for it) REUSABLE! That got the "ew" factor from my students, but it made the point sink it with something that they're familiar with.

At 9:05 AM, Blogger Quinn said...

Thought I was adding some "juicy" (ew) details to your material, but then I re-read your message and the major point -- the classist assumptions about sex and punishment -- just kills me. Mostly because it is still around today. Argh!

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