Lessons from Stan Eitzen

Did you know Stan Eitzen? Stan passed away two years this summer, and I only knew him for a short time before that, but he’s one of those people you continue to have imaginary conversations with long after he’s gone.

I met Stan accidentally and under embarrassing circumstances: I had just taken my first post-PhD job, as a visiting assistant professor of sociology and history at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. 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, and others. I haven’t yet taught a student with Down Syndrome, but people with Down Syndrome do go to college—as do their siblings. And while In Conflict and Order didn’t list all the conditions that could be eliminated in the population via abortion, once you start that list, you tell people that they are unwelcome. If our textbook said that our society was better off without the birth of children with Edwards Syndrome, would my student born with cleft palate or club foot feel that our book was saying that our society would have been better off without them?

I write a careful email to Stan Eitzen, the lead author, 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 Stan Eitzen, a senior scholar in my field (This was the 13th edition of one of his half dozen or so 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, years before, he’d earned his undergraduate degree at Bethel. In fact, he’d been teaching the Intro to Soc course at Bethel for the previous year—using his textbook. He lived within walking distance of the college.

Though his email had been friendly enough, I was dreading our meeting. It was one thing to challenge a senior colleague via email, another thing to do it at Mojos, 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 had been one of Norm Yetman’s first students, and I’d been 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 (a tough year for Bethel all around) like Stan did, and he was able to help me think through it sociologically, with empathy for some of my more difficult students, and also affirm my experiences. 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. In the end, though, he 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 rightwing 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. As most Intro to Soc professors will tell you: I wish. 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 particular 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 in order to argue against it, was a useful exercise. And, just as importantly, he was willing to listen to an opposing perspective. While rightwing 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.

Stan and I continued to meet occasionally over the next two years, before I moved away from Newton. Then, we stayed in touch via email and would greet each other with a big hug at conferences. He sent me a manuscript he was working on—on gender in college mascots (Sports was a major area of work for him.); it sent me digging into my own experiences for more examples. What a treat it was to get to see a great mind still at work, despite retiring twice!

Anyway, Stan passed away, and that new edition of the textbook hadn’t been released by then. It’s in production now, and I’ve not yet checked to see if the revision Stan promised happened. I can’t be disappointed if it didn’t as I know it is hard work for his co-authors to continue. The new book includes a cover of original artwork by Stan, a lovely tribute to his multiple talents.

See the source image

I continue to teach In Conflict and Order (now, my 8th 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.


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