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Last year, LSA sophomore Lauren Schandevel and Sociology Prof. Dwight Lang had an informal discussion about the absence of social class in University of Michigan class curriculum.

Schandevel and Lang both noted that though the University has a Women’s Studies Department and a Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, which intersect with social class, there is no major that focuses solely on socioeconomic status. Fast forwarding to tjos uear, that conversation has motivated Schandevel to recruit a team of students and speak to other faculty about developing a potential new interdisciplinary major specifically for the study of social class.

Schandevel said though few programs on social class exist at other universities, the discipline is timely and needed because of the rise in income inequality over the past few decades. According to the Ecnomic Policy Institute, between 2009 and 2012, the the top 1 percent captured 95 percent of income growth in The United States.

“I think we’re at a state right now in America where income inequality is at an all-time high,” she said. “There’s really a concentration of wealth with a select few people who control all of the policies and we don’t really talk about class in America. Like, everyone is middle-class, you hear it in political rhetoric, we avoid class, and I feel like it’s time to give it the attention it deserves.”

Lang said, when he was in college, there were academic conversations on racial and gender inequality, due to the movements surrounding them, but socioeconomic inequity was not talked about in the same fashion.

“I think that’s primarily due to the civil rights movements and primarily also due to the women’s movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s,” he said. “So that was on the agenda, race and gender inequality, which were important topics at the time. But social class — or socioeconomic status as it’s called by some, I like to call it social class — wasn’t on the higher education agenda. Of course it was talked about in different departments, but it wasn’t a focus.”

However, Lang said he thinks the current election, among other personal experiences and issues important to students related to the political environment over the past few years, has piqued students’ interest on the topic of social class.

“I think the interest in social class studies relates to the political environment that we’ve seen, the political debates from both Republicans and Democrats, students’ lives as they’ve lived in different social classes before they’ve come here,” Lang said. “A lot of students who are here now grew up during the recession and they’ve probably heard a lot of different interesting conversations at home, stresses and strains, even that middle class parents and families experienced.”

Schandevel said she thought Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I–Vt.) speeches during his campaign in the Democratic primary that highlighted low corporate taxes and the economic power of Wall Street helped spark conversations on social class inequality. Additionally, she noted that the support Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump receives from working-class Americans continues to bring the issues in the political sphere.

“People have been kind of honing in on the demographic and trying to figure them out,” Schandevel said. “There are a lot of subliminal conversations about class that aren’t explicitly about class.”

So far, Schandevel said, student responses for her program have been generally positive. LSA Student Government is supporting the idea as well, and is sending out a survey next week to gauge interest in the discipline.

Schandevel said she and the team of other students working to create the major have primarily been meeting with faculty to discuss the new major this semester. Next semester, the team plans to focus on independent studies looking into the feasibility of the new curriculum.

“Three of us on the team are doing an independent study with our mentor at the School of Social Work, who is giving us credit to develop a proposal for the course, the capstone and then the proposal itself and throughout that process we’ll be working with faculty from across departments to develop these things,” Schandevel said. We’re going to write a letter and have faculty members sign it and so when we take it to the curriculum committee it’s a little bit more compelling.”

Ideally, Schandevel said the group would get a pilot course implemented by next year, which students in it would then evaluate at the end. She said they will conduct focus groups to see what the interest for a program is like to gain empirical data, and to determine if they have enough faculty support to introduce the proposal for implementation around 2018 or 2019.

Barry Checkoway, professor of social work and Schandevel’s mentor, said he met her after he wrote a “fan letter” to Schandevel for her column in The Michigan Daily on her initial impressions of social class at the University as a freshman.

The two have been discussing social class for the past year, and he supported the idea for the new program when she began speaking to him about it.

“I thought that social class is among the most important forces in American society, that there are almost no courses at the University of Michigan that focus on social class, and that if the University of Michigan is trying to recruit lower-income, first generation students, that there’s need for a course or courses that are responsive to them,” he said.

The program, according to the group, would potentially be housed in the Sociology Department. Lang said he thinks the Sociology Department would be a logical place for the program, though he said there has been discussion about housing it in the American Studies Department, too, or other departments.

“Historically, sociology has always studied social stratification and social class has always been part of that,” he said.

While it may be housed in the Sociology Department, Schandevel said ideally students could take related classes in any department because of the program’s interdisciplinary nature, noting many existing classes that touch on social class could be incorporated into the potential program. This would mean only an introductory course and a capstone project would have to be created to tie the disciplinary together.

Overall, Schandevel said she hopes the major can change students’ views on social class by studying the issue with more nuance.

“I grew up in a working-class background so I already have thought about these things and I want this to be available to students who haven’t thought about class in this way, so maybe students from an upper-middle class background could take these courses and go through this program and see the world in a different way,” she said.

 

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