how does one teach intro soc?

I’ve been teaching some kind of college course on and off since about 1994 and I can usually “get things right” after one or two tries, but there’s been one course that’s stumped me: Intro Soc. Here’s the issue in two parts:

  • Intro Soc is filled with all kinds of students. Green freshmen, bored seniors, people who think soc is for commies, majors, athletes, social activists, those seeking the easy A, etc.
  • No one can quite agree on what intro soc should be. It often appears as a jumble to students.

How does one do well in this kind of environment? Is this course engineered for low evals? Is there any coherent teaching strategy, aside from having a dazzling personlity? Please add your intro soc experiences here.

PS. The reason I can usually wing good evals is that most courses have a stable set of expectations and I can calibrate the material with the students. Intro soc stumps me precisely because there is no “Goffmanian” frame for me to work with as an instructor. I wasn’t a soc undergrad, so maybe I’m missing something crucial here…


Written by fabiorojas

August 12, 2008 at 3:45 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

11 Responses

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  1. I teach at a CC, so, needless to say, I teach a lot of intro soc sections and there is limited flexibility in the content I have to cover. I usually do it pretty successfully, I think, based on evals and informal discussions with the students although I have a reputation for giving a lot of written homework and being a tough grader. With that caveat, my big strategy is: take advantage of the diversity of content to teach and use it to give your self flexibility.

    Depending on the topics, I use different media, content, feature films, short Youtube clips, data (worldmapper), etc. I tend to not spend time on the topics that bore ME (*cough* family *cough*), and more on those that really interest me (politics, economics, globalization).

    Relax, show your sense of humor (or in my case, your infinite propensity for sarcasm) and then hit them hard with tough stuff (genocides, terrorism, etc.). Mix popular and more high-brow culture examples (this is college, dammit!).

    More than anything, keep it real. Show them how it is relevant to what’s going on in the world today but never pass an opportunity to show that commensense is very often misleading and that the media has a tendency to peddle BS. Be diverse in your examples. I often use examples from current events, sports, scif-fi, all at the same time.

    And never forget to infuse theory in everything you do.



    August 12, 2008 at 4:35 am

  2. I will second SocProf’s sound advice. I would add that I think *tempo* is the key. At irregular intervals throughout the semester, I have my intro students complete what I awkwardly call “Practica”, which are writing and research exercises, sometimes in groups, and sometimes alone. I often will devote a class session to bringing them to a “field site” of some kind, in groups or en masse. Rarely, I show a movie or have a guest visitor. Although students complain about the writing in my course, too, (they do about 30 pages, give or take, plus on-line, 25-item, multiple choice tests on every textbook chapter) I know these are one of the reasons the evals remain high for the course. I’m happy to share them with any/all interested parties. Anyway, my point is to get & keep them moving. The constant shifts between topical areas which characterizes Intro can be numbing…


    Jenn Lena

    August 12, 2008 at 12:16 pm

  3. I agree with SocProf. It’s like a meal of appetizers, which can be a really good thing (think Dim Sum or Tapas). You’re just whetting the appetite of the students for all these great subjects. It helps to present an orienting strategy (or a few) that the students can draw on throughout the semester. As tired as symbolic interaction, conflict theory, and functionalism might be, they worked well for me when I taught the course early in graduate school. I also stop to tell them about courses in the department that relate to various subjects, to show them that I am actually giving them a preview of all that the department has to offer.

    I really enjoyed the course. Of course, it was Intro to Soc my freshman year that made me switch majors so perhaps it’s sort of nostalgic for me. I actually requested to teach it next spring. We’ll see if I still love it 6 years later.



    August 12, 2008 at 12:21 pm

  4. I would add that it depends on what you want out of your Intro class. My own intro was a pretty focused class, by a guy who was pretty well-entrenched in the structural-functionalist tradition (H. G. O’Gorman). The course began with 4 elements of cultural, 3 elements of society, etc. Discussion of Whorf and Sapir’s language games, things like this. Not much of a smorgasbord of topical stuff that you see now. I loved loved loved it.

    At Northwestern, Charlie Moskos taught the Intro course and it was supposedly the can’t-miss course of the university. Someone ought to have a syllabus from that one someplace. It seemed to be in the more topical vein.

    And at Reed (which is the model I secretly aspire to), it is a combination sociology/research course. Effectively, per Lena, they stop every couple of weeks and ask ‘ok, if Weber/Marx/Durkheim is right, what would be evidence of it?’, and use GSS to set up some mini-research projects. Then do the same for 2 or 3 focused areas. It seems to be that this gets at the what is sociology/what do sociologists do dilemma pretty directly, but it also seems to require a fairly massive amount of advance prep.



    August 12, 2008 at 1:41 pm

  5. FWIW I tend to use the smorgasbord approach and my evals are fine. (Not that I necessarily think good evals are the right metric, but that’s another question.) I’m pretty conservative, pedagogically speaking: I lecture a fair amount and require that they pay attention to the real texts. I don’t over-stress personal experiences but I do let them talk about them if relevant. I try to change up readings each time I teach it. Most importantly, I drill into their heads that the whole point of the course is to evaluate critically the proposition that “The Fundamental Unit of Human Behavior is the Group.” They need not agree with it but they need to be able to think with it as an approach.

    Also FWIW my syllabi are all at



    August 12, 2008 at 2:45 pm

  6. I was a TA for a great lecturer who also used the smorgasbord approach, though I think that he did it in a really interesting way. He started the semester by lecturing and having students do readings about our local area and talked about racial segregation (it’s a Midwestern city, so it’s pretty stark and easy for most students to pick up on — those not from the area could probably pick up on it, too, as well as giving them a sense of major social issues in their new community). Then, every week he went through a major topic in sociological theory (race, gender, class, social movements, globalization, etc.) and set up a debate between two major theorists in the field (e.g. Massey vs. Wilson for racial segregation, Weber vs. Marx for class). We used actual texts, not readers. Because there were only two theories, it was easier to expect undergrads to engage with the actual texts. It made being a TA really fun and interesting because you got to talk about real debates in a way that was digestible in two one-hour lectures and one two-hour discussion.

    I thought that it was a great way to teach the class and will probably emulate it when I teach Intro in the future.



    August 12, 2008 at 6:04 pm

  7. Forgive me if this morphs into a different topic, but it’s got me thinking. One of my ongoing pet peeves is that the curriculum for your average intro soc class is so wildly different from what sociologists actually do and publish on a regular basis. I’ve worked to make the items on my smorgasbord be, as much as possible, by sociologists and convincing or inspiring to current sociological audiences, but it’s not easy. One thought I’ve had is to make intro soc a departmental team effort in which each member of our department contributes one relatively accessible piece he/she has written to the syllabus, thereby directly linking intro to the dimensions of the sociologists here at UNC.



    August 12, 2008 at 6:26 pm

  8. It depends on where you are and how you can pull it off. The first time I taught intro at Vanderbilt I tried a typical mass course approach, and it sucked. Students hated it. I retooled with a course with no textbook, primary readings from Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Homans, Marcuse.. followed by substantive articles from ASR and Social Forces (AJS was too expensive for the coursepack…something to think about). My classes were among the most popular at Vanderbilt, and I charted perfect 5.0 teaching evaluations for the final section I taught, and won a major teaching award voted on by students (not research-inactive faculty members who attend committee meetings). My courses at Vanderbilt were very tough, and GPA’s were signifcantly lower than for other courses. It isn’t that grades; it’s the reason why the kids got the grades. Unfortunately, that often means that you can’t use TA’s to do grading. Now, at SIU, a big open enrollment state University, I have to use a textbook and stuff. But, keeping the bar high while helping the struggling is a solid strategy. You can be an asshole, you just have to be the right kind of asshole.



    August 13, 2008 at 1:28 am

  9. […] all of a sudden, but for the moment I’ll run with it. I was reading the comments to a recent orgtheory post about teaching intro soc* when something in Andrew Perrin’s comment reminded me of a saying of Vonnegut’s. […]


  10. Big questions.

    Big problems.

    Good examples.

    Critical thinking.

    An emphasis on writing.



    Chauncey DeVega

    August 15, 2008 at 9:02 am

  11. My intro syllabus is here:

    I teach an enormous range of material. I don’t care about coherence. I see my job as giving them a sense of the range of work in sociology. And I often try to teach the work of my colleagues, so as to promote them for future classes. So when I taught this class at Wisconsin it was with more Wisconsin folks.

    I stole this structure from Jerry Marwell. They idea is to teach a couple articles from major areas of sociology (for me they were, Culture, Strat, Demography, Political, and Social Psychology). I do this for the first 6 weeks. And I spend the rest of the class reading a book from each of these areas. It demands a lot of you, but my students have found it rewarding.

    I also reward showing up and doing the reading. So no tests or big papers. Just a quiz each week on the lectures and a response to the readings every week. Show up and do the work and you get an A! It’s amazing how students will simply distribute themselves under this system.



    August 21, 2008 at 7:14 pm

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