The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Are Social Work Educators Bullies? Perceptions of Sociopolitical Discourse in the Social Work Classroom

Saturday, January 18, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Gretchen E. Ely, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY
Christopher Flaherty, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY
Background: Social work as a profession has been criticized by outsiders because of its social justice oriented professional mission. Some groups and political commentators have gone so far as to accuse social work programs of placing a primary educational emphasis on political indoctrination. The accusations, however, have been based on anecdotal case studies and not grounded in science. Furthermore, the actual perceptions of social work students were not taken into account.

Purpose: Thus, the purpose of the current study was to examine social work students’ perceptions of political debate in the classroom. An additional purpose was to examine whether students believed that colleagues who hold certain sociopolitical beliefs should be prohibited from receiving a social work degree.

Methods: A convenience sample of 497 undergraduate and graduate social work students from ten universities were electronically surveyed through their social work student listservs. Efforts were made to ensure representation from various geographic areas and public versus private institutions. Survey questions were developed specifically for the study and were designed in an attempt to measure the concepts that arose in the public criticisms of the profession.

Results: Bivariate and multivariate statistical analyses were used identify important correlates of perceived discrimination, and to build a predictive model, identifying student characteristics most strongly associated with negative classroom experiences. Results indicate that a majority of respondents are comfortable with the discussion of sociopolitical content in the classroom. However, when controlling for age, program year, and gender, students who self-identify as politically conservative are more likely to report that they perceive the classroom environment as less conducive to debate. Additionally, overt racism was identified as the only attitude that should prohibit someone from receiving a social work degree.

Implications and Conclusions: The results from this study suggest that students who self-identify as more conservative or more religiously involved are more likely to report feeling that the social work classroom is less open to debate and less of a safe space for sharing ideas that may conflict with the understood definition of social justice, particularly in courses where political perspectives and ideology are the subjects of discussion. Such results suggests that social work educators need to be mindful of creating a “safe space” in their classrooms that encourage differing perspectives and debate so all students are given the opportunity to adequately develop their critical thinking skills. Future research efforts should focus on ways to create safe space in the social work classroom and should measure the effects of such efforts on social work students.