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 over a telephone. The 20-year-old psychology major said a girlfriend recently became nearly hysterical because Whiteman used a telephone that had been answered by a male homosexual.
"She told me to hang up or I'd get AIDS," Whiteman, a heterosexual, 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 CSULB class designed to provide just such a background. The class, which carries three units of academic credit, is called AIDS and Society. And organizers say 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 instructor Carole Campbell, a lecturer in sociology who says 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," Campbell said.
Although 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 characterize the advent of the course as 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 funded by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta to develop educational materials relating to AIDS. Elevating the disease to the status of a subject worthy of serious consideration in a university course, he said, "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 covered are the history and 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 in January--will discuss such ethical issues as the confidentiality of testing and treatment and a 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."