LONG BEACH — For Timothy Slope, learning about AIDS is almost a professional responsibility. As president of the Gay and Lesbian Students' Union at California State University, Long Beach, "a lot of people come to me with questions," he says. Christine Lori Whiteman, on the other hand, became interested in the deadly acquired immune deficiency syndrome through an argument about a telephone. The 20-year-old psychology major said a girlfriend recently became nearly hysterical because Whiteman picked up a telephone that had been used by a male homosexual.
"She told me to hang up or I'd get AIDS," Whiteman recalls. "We got into a big argument. I want a strong background with which to fight her."
Both Slope and Whiteman are enrolled in a new sociology class at the university designed to provide just such a background. The class, which carries three units of academic credit, is called AIDS and Society. And organizers say that it is among the first of its kind in the nation.
"We've got a disease on our hands that has the potential for killing large numbers of people," said course instructor Carole Campbell, a lecturer in sociology, who said that she knows of only two similar college courses--one in Arizona and one in New York.
"What I hope is that the students leave . . . with a better awareness of the societal implications of this disease."
In fact, though some educators question the validity of teaching about a subject for which information is changing as rapidly as it is for AIDS, others involved in the fight against the disease say the course is the beginning of a new level of response to the AIDS crisis.
"It institutionalizes AIDS education," said Rich Wolitski, coordinator of the campus AIDS Education Project, which has been given funds by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to develop educational materials relating to AIDS. If the disease is worthy of serious consideration in a university course, he said, it "raises it to a level of credibility."
The course grew out of Campbell's experience in teaching classes on sexuality and, later, in helping document the spread of AIDS by prostitutes in Las Vegas. Among the topics to be covered are the history and geographical distribution of the disease, its possible causes and modes of transmission and its effect on the life styles of various groups. In addition, says Campbell, students in the course--which began last month--will discuss such ethical issues as the confidentiality of testing and treatment, and will look at possible long-term social and cultural effects of AIDS.
But one of the most important things they will do, she said, is evaluate potential educational programs aimed at stemming the spread of AIDS. It was this task that took up much of last week's class, in fact, as the students--18 out of 24 of whom are women and most of whom are heterosexual--observed National Condom Week by watching slides of various posters promoting the use of condoms, then discussing which poster they considered most effective.
Their favorite: an ad depicting an array of brightly colored condoms dubbed "Smart Sportswear for the Active Man."
"Awesome," said one female class member when asked to evaluate the ad's effectiveness.
To be sure, there are those who doubt the effectiveness of the course itself. Although it may have some usefulness, said Michael Brown, coordinator of services for The Center, an anti-AIDS project in Long Beach, the course will be difficult to structure "because of the rapidly changing information and estimates about the virus and its transmission."
Campbell says she keeps current by using material published only within the past year and by working closely with the university's AIDS Task Force, which has access to the latest information on the disease.
And students in the class say they appreciate the opportunity to learn about something that until recently was relatively inaccessible.
"I'm educating all my friends," said Sophia Honore, 21, a journalism major. "I'm always leaving messages on their answering machines to have safe sex."