teaching sociology

Wrestling with C. Wright Mills

I am by no means an expert on C. Wright Mills. I’ve read a couple of the excellent biographies and treatises on his work. Like many sociologists I do find him inspirational, and I’d love if my writing had the same eloquent urgency as his best does. Still, it’s hard to read his work today and not see holes. There is little to nothing about race or gender in any of his writing. It’s so absent, it’s stunning. How could a self fashioned radical, so concerned with human freedom, have been so silent about people who were so oppressed and who’s movements were beginning to take shape even as he wrote. It’s glaring, and I struggle with it when I take him as a model.

Nonetheless, what I find in his work is a thoroughgoing call to take the perspective of the radical if you are to produce sociological understanding. You must be radical, he seems to say, even as you look at those things that you cherish. Also, his work is humane in a way that so many other sociologists’ work, then and now, simply isn’t. You can read a lot of sociology and reach the end wondering if the author ever wondered at all about the experience of being human. You must be humane, he seems to say, if your work is to be the least bit relevant.

You must be radical. You must be humane. It’s stunning how often those two things are one and the same.

Talking about mass killings, almost every semester

I’ve been teaching at Le Moyne since the fall of 2005. Minus one semester of sabbatical, that’s 15 semesters. If you count the recent Boston Bombings, I have led spontaneous sociological/criminological reflections on mass killings (usually shootings) that occurred during 10 of those 15 semesters. If you count conversation about Jared Loughner’s crime which happened immediately prior to the spring 2011 semester, then it’s 11 of 15 semesters. Most of those conversations were only a few minutes long because the shootings didn’t capture national attention like some others. Some semesters had more than one, or shootings which animated, unplanned conversations taking up an entire class. I recall that our conversations about Nidal Malik Hasan‘s shooting at Fort Hood lent itself to applying ideas we’d been discussing in Sociology of Religion, and that Seung-Hui Cho’s Virginia Tech shooting was particularly frightening for college students. I also note that we barely talked at all about Kurt Myers’ Herkimer shooting that took place just 70 or so miles from here, and that the ambush of firefighters in Webster (just 70 or so miles the other direction) happened in between semesters.

My approach to these discussions is usually to tell the students that they are educated adults and have a responsibility to think carefully about these events. I’ll tell them I don’t have any clear answers, but that together we can think of the right questions to consider if we want to achieve some understanding, and maybe work with others to end these sad events. They sometimes go a little like this post of mine after Newtown, CT. Tomorrow I’ll lead a less spontaneous, but hastily planned discussion about Boston. We’ll start the conversation with this essay comparing the bombings there with other crimes like Columbine. Maybe next time there is a mass shooting to talk about I’ll use this from the The Chronicle. But, I hope not because no matter how powerful these classroom experiences can sometimes be, I don’t want to continue having these spontaneous discussions.


Edit (4/25/2013): Add this to our discussion of Boston. A danger of the spontaneous conversations is the relatively high likelihood of ignoring the context of the high profile shootings, which includes our violent, racist, xenophobic, American culture.

Student Suggested Readings

On the role of sibling ties in the Boston bombing

Parents Deny Sons’ guilt and accuse U.S. of plot

Prosumption in Sociology 101

This upcoming fall I’ll be teaching Sociology 101 for the first time. I’ve been eager to teach the course, but at the same time it is a daunting task. How does one do justice to the discipline of sociology in 16 weeks? It’s not possible to cover the content completely, but that won’t be my primary goal. The primary goal will be to introduce the sociological perspective, and it looks like this is what most folks do with the class. One thing that I think might be different about my approach is that I want this to be a very active experience for the students. Instead of memorizing concepts and statistics, I’m hoping we’ll work together to generate content meant to illustrate basic sociological questions and answers. I’m using the idea of ‘prosumption‘ to guide the course plan. I’ve written up a funding proposal for the work I’ll do this summer to develop the course, and I thought I’d share it here to see if I could get any comments or suggestions (on the course design, not the funding proposal!).

Here it is: (more…)

Teaching Marx: The Creative Class and the Ikea Effect

This morning we discussed a selection of the Manifesto of the Communist Party in Social Theory (the selection in Peter Kivisto’s Social Theory: Roots and Branches, Vol 4). We spend about a week reading and discussing Marx, and it’s never enough. In general, I think the students get the basic argument about the bourgeoisie and proletariat because they are likely exposed to this in other sociology classes. As important as that argument is, I’ve personally always been a lot more interested in what Marx has to say about alienated labor, how his work can lead into a discussion of consumption, and his general claims about the political implications of revolutions of the system of production.

I’m always looking for good ways to make Marx’s writing relatable to students. Many have had, or are working, jobs that are unsatisfying because they don’t allow them to be creative. These are jobs that are a means to an end, just like Marx writes about. I’ll ask them to think about the value of various commodities like iPhones. Who made that iPhone, what is its use, and why is it valuable? I’ll talk a little about advertisements that encourage us to want things we don’t even know exist. They get this point too, I think.


Teaching the Regnerus Controversy

I’ve been thinking about how I might use the debate about Mark Regnerus’ article “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study” from Social Science Research to cover the research process, the social scientific community, and research ethics the next time I teach undergraduate Research Methods (and how it might be used in other courses). I won’t retrace the controversy, but here is a good rundown from fairly soon after the article was published. I’m assuming it’s not yet over as this very good blog from Neal Caren appeared just a few days ago at Scatterplot.

From a teaching standpoint, I think the ‘Regnerus Affair’ has a number of advantages over the examples often used to teach about ethics in social scientific research. I would guess that most who teach methods use common examples like the Stanford Prison Experiment, Tuskegee, Milgram, or the Tea Room Trade. I’ll continue to use these examples, even if just for shock value (get it!), but the Regnerus case has the advantage of being not only current, but also ongoing.


Texting in Class: What can we learn from Mead?

Over at the excellent Sociology Source, Nathan Palmer recently shared some thoughts about dealing with texting in class.  I’d be surprised if this reflection on classroom authority doesn’t resonate with most of us who think about how to effectively teach in the smart phone saturated college setting.  I’d never considered the Weberian take on the issue, but I do regularly talk to students about the meaning of cell phones in the classroom, especially when I teach Goffman (presentation of self), and Mills (cheerful robots).  However, the classical theorist that most informs my approach to limiting phone use during class is George Herbert Mead.  In particular, I tell students that in “The Fusion of the I and the Me in Social Activities,” from Mind, Self, & Society, Mead suggests that keeping the phone in your pocket could make class a ‘religious’ experience.

Self and Society in the classroom

Mead describes the self as a process in which the active “I” adjusts to the social control of the “me.” The “me” is our understanding of the expectations and attitudes of others that we take into account when we act in social situations.  To become a self in society, Mead argues, we learn to take the ‘role of the other’ so that we can successfully adjust our conduct according to social expectations.  When our gestures produce the same response from others as they do in ourselves, we can complete a successful act. (more…)