Winter 2008: Of Note
Courtesy Michael McQuaide
Oxford students get close-up view of social ills with an eye toward solving them
By Mary J. Loftus
For some students in Oxford College’s Social Problems in Contemporary Society course, the most enlightening experience was the ride-along with an Atlanta police officer for an eight-hour shift. “We saw a lot of action that night. There were few instances where we weren’t in a high-stress situation. I was pleasantly surprised by how fairly and reasonably the officer dealt with each person and situation,” said Beverly Garrett 07OX 09C.
Others were most touched by the residents in the Alzheimer’s ward of Presbyterian Village, a long-term care facility in Austell, as they swayed along to old-style Methodist hymns.
Courtesy Michael McQuaide
For John Bottley 07OX 09C, the most powerful moment was listening to the angelic singing of Georgia’s Metro State Prison women’s choir.
“I was moved to tears as I listened to the great amount of talent that many of the women had,” says Bottley, who is now a political science major at Emory College. “Many of them had the potential to do great things with their voices. I was humbled when I thought about how anyone can get into a lot of trouble regardless of the potential that they possess.”
After the performance, Bottley and other class members sat and talked with the female prisoners.
“I will never forget what they said about the hardships they faced trying to assimilate back into society,” he said. “It made me question the prison system’s goal of rehabilitation. Something needs to be done to help make the transition better, so that maybe some inmates will not return.”
This desire to improve the system—and reinforce the social safety net—is the primary message Professor Michael McQuaide hopes all students will gain from the Social Problems course.
The academic portion of the course is taught during the fall semester. The students—usually a small group of about sixteen—meet Monday nights from 5:30 to 7:30 for lectures, discussions, and readings.
In early January, McQuaide and the students travel to downtown Atlanta in the college van and begin a week of interactions with people in a variety of intense settings—from a maximum-security prison’s lethal injection chamber to the back room of a funeral home.
They also talk about environmental problems like air and water pollution and visit a wastewater treatment plant.
“I take a glass and fill it from the discharged waste water—the gray water as it is when it goes back into the watershed—and ask if any of my students would like to drink it. All will decline,” says McQuaide. “Then I ask, ‘Why would we expect people downstream in Columbus to drink it when you won’t?’ We graphically observe the adage that we are all downstream from someone.”
Students spend much of the week examining problems related to aging, crime, addiction, and homelessness. They observe a court case and visit Grady Memorial Hospital’s emergency department. They speak to workers and administrators within the system as well as the residents.
“We have an uncensored look at every nook and cranny,” McQuaide says. “In the evenings, after dinner, we all get together in the hotel and talk about what we saw that day. These are some of the most vital, intellectually informed, and emotionally charged discussions I have ever witnessed as a teacher.”
The intent, says Oxford Dean Stephen Bowen, is to learn not only the objective data that describe social issues and the programs intended to address them, but also to meet real persons who are caught up in these issues and to see the conditions of their lives. “Students find the program to be transformative,” Bowen says. “It’s an experience that thirty-second segments on the evening news do not prepare you for.”
McQuaide, who has been teaching Social Problems at Oxford since 1979, inherited the class from its founder, Professor Emeritus Hoyt Oliver, who taught religion at Oxford for more than forty years. “This class was designed to look at the meta-issues that surround social problems,” McQuaide says. “We look at personal decisions that have public consequences.”
Students are asked to consider what remedies they would propose for dealing with issues like methamphetamine addiction, prison overcrowding, or domestic violence—as well as possible barriers to their proposed solutions.
“Every spot in this class is valuable and none should be wasted—it’s perfect for those with an open mind, who don’t mind having questions answered with more questions,” says Garrett, a sociology major at Emory College. “I still think about this class daily, and it hurts to remember certain individuals and their situations—there are no boundaries and no sugar coating. Social Problems is the real deal.”