Thinking about how you will teach Introduction to Sociology is a good time to consider how you feel about teaching in general. What kind of a professor do you want to be? How do you want to appear to your students since you are not that much older? Are you going to be a standard formal lecturer or more relaxed around your students? Are you more comfortable with power point lectures, using different media, or are you more of the ‘chalk and talk’ kind of person? Students learn in different ways and your teaching should address as many of those different ways of learning as possible. You might also wonder, what is most important to teach to your students? Should you get in as many lectures/topics as possible or is it about exploring a few sociological concepts in depth and making sure students have enough time to absorb it all? Introduction to Sociology covers a lot of topics and it’s almost impossible to teach them all in one semester. You will pick and choose to some extent.
There is no one way to teach and there is no ‘proper’ way – do not let anyone tell you differently. As sociologists, we question societal structures and the institution of education is not beyond our critique. Data and experience show there are profound inequalities in our educational systems and you will be placed right in the thick of it all. The students you will encounter in CUNY schools will not come from privileged backgrounds. They are diverse racially and ethnically and many graduated from schools that failed to prepare them for college. They take many classes while working and/or parenting and face additional struggles as immigrants and as poor persons. Regardless of our own financial situations or backgrounds, we are in positions of power and need to take an honest look at societal factors affecting our students. And, of course, you will need to consider your own training, biases and advantages you bring into the classroom.
You should figure out if you belong (and forgive this binary, it still holds weight) to the school of thought that believes sociologists cannot separate their values from their work (which includes teaching) or to the school that believes there is a detached, objective way we can treat our work. Where you stand will affect how you teach. Are you there to provide knowledge ‘from above’ or are you there as an activist who learns along with the students? Is it your business to get involved with your students and how their education is going or does your job end at lectures and grading? Of course, it doesn’t have to be one or the other but keep it in mind.
These are ongoing questions and the more you teach, the more you will realize you need to address some gaps in what sociology textbooks (that are often sanitized to avoid controversy) expect your students to learn. Consider this example: sociology textbooks rarely teach sexuality in any comprehensive way but students are eager to understand their own sexual selves and the changing landscape of sexuality in the U.S. If you want to provide them with relevant information, you’ll have to supplement that lecture. How you do that also depends on your own views around sexuality. If you are not particularly well-versed in LGBT identities, for example, you are likely to omit that which is usually erased from curriculums. Consider another example: if you have never studied race and ethnicity, you might teach a lecture from the textbook that maintains particular stereotypes that are hurtful to your students, many of whom are of color and are affected by racist and prejudiced practices every day.
There are dozens of other instances that will make you wonder about your own life and experiences and how you want to present particular information to students. There are lectures you will be more comfortable teaching. If you are not comfortable teaching a particular lecture, it’s good to think about why that is and how you can improve. I think sociologists should be able to teach any topic that applies to society and do so in a way that explains numerous perspectives. When in doubt, stick to what the canons (The Canon: Marx, Weber and Durkheim and other canons which include people of color and women sociologists) state on the subject. Another solution is to bring in speakers (consider your peers) for your lectures that know a topic better than you. For example, one of my colleagues has me teach his Sex, Gender and Sexuality lectures because that is my area of expertise.
I address some of these issues by telling my students about my teaching ideas upfront. I provide a kind of meta-analysis of what I want my classes to be and how I will teach them. I tell them my class is a kind of Safe Zone where racism, sexism and homophobia will not be tolerated. Of course, that comes from a particular background and I explain that as well. I consider my classroom a transformative place where social justice takes place and students become empowered. As I learn more about how to support others, I bring that into my lectures. For example, as I learn more about disability and disability studies, I talk with my students about how students with disabilities are largely absent from the classroom and why that would be so. Or, the more I learn about migrant and immigrant issues, the more I can relate my immigrant story to those of my students, who might be scared to discuss some of those matters openly.
I state that I will be their professor and their mentor and their friend, if they are in trouble. I provide them with my personal cell phone and, in many other ways, go against protocol or what the department expects. I have dealt with pregnancies, domestic violence and deaths. I have addressed impending arranged marriages and gender identity struggles. My students know I will not judge them and therefore I am invited into their lives. I have developed long-standing mentor/friend relationships with some students because I know that having an adult teach them how ‘the system’ works can make all the difference. My students and their well-being are more important to me than following rules. Your mileage will vary. Talk to as many peers as possible about their own approaches before finding your own. I know that other professors do not believe teaching should include any of what I listed. That opinion is just as valid.
Finally, people fear teaching because they fear that students will ask tough questions and that there will be tension in the classroom for whatever reason. Of course, both things are true and avoiding this will not help. I try to create an environment where students feel comfortable speaking. I explain, however, why some of what they say is a problem and how to be better allies. Do not avoid conflict; it’s completely normal in a sociology classroom. As a professor, your call on the matter can be the last call in some instances but discussions amongst your students are priceless. Allow them to deal with difficult matters because sociology is about life and life doesn’t end when they leave the classroom. In a way, even the way you teach should be questioned by you and your students because it’s an ongoing dialectic of sorts. You won’t get anywhere if your students feel they do not have a stake in the conversation or a place in your world. Ideally, you should imagine them all achieving their highest educational hopes and therefore they are scholars, just like you. What students feel and say matters as much as what the textbook says, if not more and I take that pretty seriously. My next post will address the substance of an Introduction of Sociology course, more specifically. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.