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why intro is the most important course you may ever teach

Scatter has a great post on why we need to treat the Introduction to Sociology course with great importance by Nathan Palmer:

The 101 class is the public face of our discipline. Every year there are roughly a million students in the United States who take Soc 101, that is, if my publisher friends’ estimates are to be believed. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, 101 will be their only exposure to our discipline. Sure, they might hear about our research findings in the media, but chances are they’ll have no idea that it was a sociologist who produced the research.

…How do the faculty in your department think about 101? Is it something to be avoided like the plague? Is it a hazing ritual that you put newbs through so that senior faculty can get to teach their “real classes” (i.e. their upper division classes within their area of interest)?

And:

First, it matters because the introductory classes serve as the on ramp to the major. As reported by InsideHigherEd.com in their forth coming book How College Works, Chambliss and Takacs find that,

Undergraduates are significantly more likely to major in a field if they have an inspiring and caring faculty member in their introduction to the field. And they are equally likely to write off a field based on a single negative experience with a professor.

Second, it matters because of Krulak’s law which posits, “The closer you get to the front, the more power you have over the brand.”[2] Put simply, if the 101 class is the frontline of sociology, then the 101 teacher is the ambassador for us all.

Read the whole thing.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

January 30, 2014 at 12:09 am

42 Responses

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  1. Antisthenes famously refused to teach Diogenes philosophy. Diogenes stubbornly insisted, and finally let Antisthenes beat him with a stick. At that point Antisthenes took him on as a student. It’s a bit sad that the “viability” of academic disciplines today depends on recruiting people who need to be “inspired and cared for” from day one, and that people who don’t enter the profession because of “a single negative experience with a professor” are seen as a loss.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 30, 2014 at 7:16 am

  2. Thomas,

    Much as I enjoy the idea of replacing GREs, letters of recommendation, personal statements, etc, with the expedient of simply jumping in new grad students like a street gang, I think there’s a subtler problem with bad Soc 101. It’s not that it turns off all students but that it may turn off the right kind of students and attract the wrong kind of students. Bad soc 101 is not content neutral but tends to be focused on obsolete theory, bitching about (rather than analyzing) inequality, and did I blow your mind there-is-no-spoon-ism. The best kinds of students tend to be repelled by this but the worst kinds find it so magical that they’ll bring a switch to the DGS.

    Diogenes arguably exemplifies this. The kind of prospective student who requests a beating as admissions policy ultimately ends up getting placed not as a named chair at Harvard but as a creepy homeless dude sleeping in a bathtub and masturbating in the agora.

    Like

    gabrielrossman

    January 30, 2014 at 4:34 pm

  3. I think I’m misunderstanding your remark there, G, but it seems to me that one of the problems with modern sociology is that it’s populated by people with actual social ambitions, who recruit like-minded, similarly ambitious types, and who really do think that homelessness is “creepy”. And the understanding of social life that comes out of that sort of “discipline” is, well … you don’t need to be a sociologist to figure it out.

    Diogenes actually understood what was what.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 30, 2014 at 5:26 pm

  4. See Thomas, this is why social science can prove to be beneficial. It can help us avoid the kind of “seems to me” rationalizations that sometimes lead to blatant overgeneralizations like ” the problems with modern sociology is that it’s populated by people with actual social ambitions, who recruit like-minded, similarly ambitious types, and who really do think that homelessness is “creepy”.

    Like

    Scott Dolan

    January 30, 2014 at 6:24 pm

  5. @Scott Dolan: Go easy here. One typically does not invoke science in the threads of this blog that are about pop sociology.

    Like

    Randy

    January 30, 2014 at 7:13 pm

  6. I always find the censure of overgeneralization and subjective opinion in blog comment streams comical, Scott, but the only point I’m making is that sociology, in general and, yes, it seems to me, is much more a part of society than it is a fresh perspective on it. Instead of explaining social life to me in new and interesting ways it often merely exemplifies it, and thereby justifies the perennial injustices of social order.

    Are there exceptions? Yes, of course. And that’s what they are: exceptions to the general rule exemplified by Nathan Palmer’s concern about sociology’s image and recruitment problems, which presumes that social science is basically telling the truth about society and it just sometimes has a messaging problem with undergraduates.

    I guess I could put that in more scientific terms, doing my best impression of Bourdieu, but this, like I say, is a blog.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 30, 2014 at 7:22 pm

  7. Let me ask a question, and maybe I am just dense. Is it ironic to appeal to subjectivity, opinion, “just a blog comment,” while you are also trying to convince/persuade others regarding the veracity of your claim?

    Like

    Scott Dolan

    January 30, 2014 at 7:46 pm

  8. I don’t think anyone really expects to persuade in this medium. Just to stimulate each other into thinking and, I guess, to see what our own thoughts look like in public.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 30, 2014 at 7:57 pm

  9. And if you had said, “sociology needs to do a better job of using its tools to think about ways of circumventing or providing solutions to the perennial injustices of social order. It can do so by doing x, y, or z. Or by doing this differently,” then most likely, I would be more inclined to think deeply about what you were saying.

    Rather, you said this “it’s populated by people with actual social ambitions, who recruit like-minded, similarly ambitious types, and who really do think that homelessness is “creepy.”

    To me, that seems more like a pot shot that someone who is attempting to “stimulate me into thinking” more deeply. I take what you said less seriously because of how you framed it.

    But heck, maybe I’m not your audience. Because, I tend to agree that sociologists need to consider how their research might reify the phenomenon it is attempting to explain. Though, I think if you talked to more sociologists about what they actually think, you’d find that you are preaching to the choir on that particular point.

    Like

    Scott Dolan

    January 30, 2014 at 8:13 pm

  10. One man’s pot shot is another man’s playful jab back at Gabriel Rossman’s twist on my invocation of Diogenes. Anyway, I’m sorry our moods and humors are not on the same frequency today. I wasn’t trying to be profound, just a bit disillusioned, “cynical”, if you will.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 30, 2014 at 8:47 pm

  11. Now I feel like a jerk. Maybe my response was just evidence of my own disillusionment with disillusion. But I do stand by what I am saying.

    Like

    Scott Dolan

    January 30, 2014 at 9:22 pm

  12. So Thomas, in your original post you are basically saying that we shouldn’t try to offer the best Soc 101 possible? Or, in other words: Young impressionable people will make the right decision no matter what information and marketing they are exposed to? The term silly doesn’t really cover it.

    Like

    Anonymous

    January 30, 2014 at 9:53 pm

  13. I so did not understand this argument. There was some beating with a stick, some meta-analysis of disillusion, and something about Greek philosophy.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 30, 2014 at 10:04 pm

  14. We could throw in some critical realism, to make your day complete.

    Like

    krippendorf

    January 31, 2014 at 12:16 am

  15. “bitching about (rather than analyzing) inequality”

    For real? Of the three intro classes I have observed, each at different institutions, I never saw this. All three not only discussed but analyzed social inequality. I am speaking from a limited experience but I wonder where you get this impression from?

    Also, the ‘for real’ is for the use of “bitching” and its implied opposite “analyzing.” That a highly gendered verb is equated with lack of substance is something to (re)consider…

    Like

    Aaron

    January 31, 2014 at 2:02 am

  16. @Anon: I guess what saddens me is the idea that the future of sociology depends on its ability to impress young people.

    Real education, said Ezra Pound, should be left to people who “insist on knowing”. An academic discipline should not see its image in the minds of “impressionable young people” as an existential issue. The social sciences, at the moment, would be better served worrying about its methodology than its marketing. It’s not the state of the textbooks that is undermining social science, it’s the state of the literature.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 31, 2014 at 6:44 am

  17. Thomas, it is absolutely the ‘state of the textbooks’ and undergraduate education in sociology that is undermining its standing. The overwhelming majority of the public has no idea that there even is a sociological literature, much less whether or not it is methodologically rigorous. Most people’s understanding of sociology is based on what they encounter in their intro classes and, in my experience, the content of these courses bears little resemblance to the actual debates occurring in the field. The public doesn’t recognize sociology as a science because we don’t teach it as a science in our intro classes. These courses usually focus on discussing social problems in a way that makes it difficult for students to differentiate between opinion and empirical findings. This is what needs to change.

    More broadly, though, I think it’s strange that you think there is something wrong with trying to make students interested in sociology. Most students arrive at college with no experience in the subject and are only dimly aware that it is something they can pursue when they arrive on campus.

    Like

    JD

    January 31, 2014 at 7:23 am

  18. I’m less certain that sociology is a science and that it’s methodology is rigorous. Blaming the public perception of sociology on the state of introductory education (both in the textbook and the classroom) is a way of diverting attention from foundational issues. It’s like when a political party thinks the problem is “messaging” rather than the actual policy it is proposing.

    One thing to keep is mind is that if the natural sciences don’t have this problem it’s because they are taught, as sciences, from elementary school. That is, the natural sciences are presented under the overarching theme of “science” from an early age, and the pedagogical question is just when to introduce particular domains of nature and degrees of detail.

    I think it’s basically true that social science is invented in the 101 classroom. But that says less about the education of social scientists than it does about the state of sociology as a discipline.

    I didn’t say there was something wrong with getting students interested in sociology. I said that it is telling that sociologists see this as an existential issue. If physicists started to worry too much about what the public (and undergraduates) thinks, I’d say they’re losing grip on reality too. There’s a difference between wanting to tell people what one knows, and thinking it is very important that people come to understand and believe those things. (There’s a sense, actually, in which this kind of panic can be felt in climate science and evolutionary biology, perhaps also in some corners of medicine. In all cases, however, the worry about public and undergraduate opinion, the “missionary” or “evangelic” dimension of science, if you will, strikes me as an indication that the discipline is less scientific in its foundations than it claims.)

    Like

    Thomas

    January 31, 2014 at 7:47 am

  19. Thomas,

    Diogenes was inarguably creepy, and homeless, and a guy. I said nothing about whether these traits necessarily or probabilistically go together either in 4th c BC Greece or 21st c AD America. I would add though that telling a possible donor to get out of your sun is not going to enamor you to the university’s development officers.

    Aaron,

    Well, “kvetching” means the same thing but that’s not a word familiar to most English speakers. “Polemicizing” has a similar meaning but lacks the connotations of futility since one can polemicize effectively but one can not bitch effectively. Regardless, etymology is not meaning and so any particular usage is not necessarily gendered and I assure you that the bitching speaker of my imagination had an ambiguous void in the place of genitals. Overall, you should really expand on your comment, it has the seeds of the kind of Soc 101 lecture that could really inspire a lot of students. (Whether they are the kinds of students who will move the discipline in a scientifically productive analytical direction is an exercise left to the reader).

    Like

    gabrielrossman

    January 31, 2014 at 4:39 pm

  20. I still don’t get it, Gabriel. Are you saying that we should enamor those development officers and/or that that’s part of the job of being a sociologist? Diogenes was only arguably creepy, and just as arguably a mofo.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 31, 2014 at 8:31 pm

  21. To set joking aside, this argument is so confusing because it’s mixing many issues and terms together.

    (1) Should sociologists pay more attention to intro? At the four places I’ve been and seen intro up close, it is often taught as an afterthought, and syllabi were/are updated roughly once every 15 years, as new people teach it or professors decide to update their materials.

    (2) What version of sociology should be taught? That which displays or primes its “scientifically productive analytical direction” or (insert your favorite bugaboo inversion of these terms: “interpretivist,” “activist,” “social justice,” “hopelessly outdated,” etc.)

    (3) To whom should we try to appeal? The kinds of students who we are losing to (XXXX? I’m not sure where we are losing these people we really want. Econ? Political science? Linguistics? Anthropology? Anyone with high SAT scores? Answering this question seems to me to imply a stance on #2) or the students we “inspire” now.

    (4) How much should intro follow an “advertising” model for majors? To what extent should it be organized around trying to attract (rather than repel) “the best kind of students”?

    My sense (looking at the various comments here and over at scatter) is that there’s a lot of enthusiasm for #1–why NOT pay a lot of attention to people’s initial contact with an intellectual perspective?–but a large divergence over 2-4. In fact, Thomas and Gabriel are taking (as far as I can tell) diametrically opposed viewpoints.

    So here’s a (genuine) question: is there a rigorous model of intro that could showcase the field’s vibrant debates about substantive findings but also about how best to investigate social life, while still showing that it’s a productive, exciting place to do research?

    Like

    Bellerophon

    January 31, 2014 at 9:08 pm

  22. One way to put my objection to Nathan Palmer’s original post is to say that the question “How can we show that sociology is a productive, exciting place to do research?” presumes that the question “How can we ensure that it’s a productive, exciting place to do research?” is not, at the moment, a very pressing one. And that, I’m saying, is what motivates concern about Soc 101. It draws attention away from the truly desperate state of the foundations of social science. (Yes, “in general”, with all kinds of present company excepted.)

    Like

    Thomas

    January 31, 2014 at 9:28 pm

  23. Thomas,
    Looks like somebody is never going to be an institution builder who brings together thought leaders from different sectors to develop disruptive innovations that will inspire solutions to the problems of the new millennium.

    Like

    gabrielrossman

    January 31, 2014 at 9:29 pm

  24. Sounds fun though…uh….?

    Like

    Thomas

    January 31, 2014 at 9:35 pm

  25. Thomas: Serious comment here – We can all agree that philosophy of science or social science is hard. But the issue is that what we call science would literally come to a halt if we waited around until someone came up with a satisfactory solution to all our philosophical problems.

    Instead, science (or research or whatever – please don’t hung up on terms) usually progresses in a pragmatic manner where people just say: “Here’s our assumption and this is what we can do with them.” In other words, you don’t need a perfect philosophy of math to effectively solve engineering problems or read a Plath poem. In working science or scholarship, we just admit we aren’t great philosophers, we say “good enough,” black box philosophy and move on.

    Palmer is making a good point here. We simply need an intro course that effectively explains good modern sociology. And that’s a good starting point. Going to foundations isn’t going to help.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 31, 2014 at 9:40 pm

  26. You keep insisting that sociology will fail if we don’t fix the intro course. And I keep saying that, if that’s true (and I suspect it is true), that’s pretty embarrassing for sociology. I’m not articulating any really high “philosophical” standard for sociology, I’m just saying if you are trying to save a discipline by selling it to freshmen you’re in bad shape. I’m saying that if 101 is “the most important course you may ever teach” you’re in a pretty sad discipline.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 31, 2014 at 10:04 pm

  27. Thomas: Personally, I don’t think sociology is failing but we are making things way harder than they have to be with our chaotic intro course that is handed off to adjunct and grad students.

    For example, the AMC recently announced that med students would have to learn sociology and it will be on the MCAT. You know what they included on the topic list? Functionalism!!! Seriously. Why? It was on all the syllabi that they read. I think it’s bad that the MD’s of the future will think that sociology is “conflict theory vs. consensus” – because nobody does sociology like that!

    It’s like if all biology courses spent a month on Lamarckianism or other per-Darwin biology. Sure, maybe a lecture so people had some history of the field, but that’s not the core of biology.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    January 31, 2014 at 10:08 pm

  28. Indeed, it’s not that we need to “spice up” intro or something, it’s that we need to make it reflect what actually goes on in the field.

    Like

    JD

    January 31, 2014 at 10:20 pm

  29. I guess my view is that a solid, scientific discipline can be safely “introduced” by all manner of adjuncts, grad students, and popular hacks. It can be taught by ordinary school teachers in the third grade and suffer no harm. Nothing depends on what happens to a million undergraduates in a such field because it is possession of a real and valuable truth.

    Social science, by contrast, is the sort of thing that suffers a serious set-back when Malcolm Gladwell gets something wrong.

    Like

    Thomas

    January 31, 2014 at 10:21 pm

  30. More than 30 years ago, Doug Massey proposed that SOC 101 be centered around demography. (http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1316894?uid=3739832&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21103328525521)

    Like

    Mike

    February 1, 2014 at 2:03 am

  31. Soc 101 is important not because of some abstract “existential problem,” but because Sociology needs majors and people who understand what it is. That’s how it is for just about all disciplines.

    For many institutions, teaching is an afterthought, and teaching Soc 101 more so. I would disagree with the article on one key point though: it’s fine (though not desirable) to use less experienced teachers, but they need support in terms of time, resources, and “status gains.” There should be some departmental involvement rather than some chosen faculty member designing a syllabus.

    That also means making some decisions about what to keep and what to drop. Economics may actually be a model here–econ 101 concepts are simplistic but fairly easy to understand and give a sense of real-world applications. Sociology does, I think, have a few core concepts for any class: institutional sexism/racism; social construction; and materialism. If students get out of soc 101 understanding that there is more to power, reality, and race/class/gender than they thought going in that would be a big leap forward (at least at the institution where I am currently a grad student). I think those concepts are the core that could lead to some other readings: Michelle Lamont, Hochschild, Granovetter, Snow, DiMaggio, race/gender gaps etc.

    I think this sort of model makes much more sense than assigning the class to some lower-status member of the department, demanding that they fit it into their research schedule, and teaching one week on each social science concept.

    Like

    stayathome_grad

    February 2, 2014 at 4:55 pm

  32. One thing that makes teaching introductory sociology somewhat distinct is that very few students have had much exposure to sociology in grades K-12. Many students are drawn into these classes not because of past exposure to sociology or a particular interest in sociology, but because it fulfils a university requirement (along with other selected courses that they might instead take). Some students, like me many years ago, discover sociology in college and got excited about it. Others discover sociology and find that it isn’t for them. Given this, I think the most important thing about the 101 course is that it should give students a real feel for current sociological research (with its many varieties). That way, students will have a chance to make an informed choice about whether they should take more sociology courses and perhaps major in sociology. I find that intro textbooks and courses that are closely tied to intro textbooks do a poor job in terms of letting students get a clear view of what actually goes on in the discipline.

    Like

    Rory McVeigh

    February 2, 2014 at 5:11 pm

  33. A slight tangent here, but has anyone experimented with using “Sociology: A Very Short Introduction” as a 101 textbook, either by itself or along with other books?

    Like

    Chris M

    February 2, 2014 at 8:54 pm

  34. “I guess my view is that a solid, scientific discipline can be safely “introduced” by all manner of adjuncts, grad students, and popular hacks. It can be taught by ordinary school teachers in the third grade and suffer no harm. Nothing depends on what happens to a million undergraduates in a such field because it is possession of a real and valuable truth.”

    Yeah, no one is having problems explaining evolution, eh? No need to pay attention to who is teaching what and making sure the right message is getting across the room?
    Again, Thomas, you live in a very, very strange world of perfectly rational actors – no wonder you dont think social science is doing a good job.

    Like

    Anonymous

    February 3, 2014 at 9:52 am

  35. You are missing the point of the comparison, Anon. Teaching biology is both difficult and important, but, unlike a sociologist, a biologist would never take seriously the idea that “intro is the most important course you may ever teach”. That’s because the field inquiry is much healthier.

    Like

    Thomas

    February 3, 2014 at 9:03 pm

  36. I have actually heard Dawkins say that a broad evolution course might be the most important course one could take – you are simply mistaken. Sorry.

    Like

    Anonymous

    February 3, 2014 at 10:47 pm

  37. Now we have to buy into Dawkins’ self-image as the messenger of evolution? Dawkins is primarily an ideologue, not a scientist. His rage to get everyone to believe in (as distinct from know about or understand) evolution is very similar to a sociologist’s rage to get everyone to see their social relations from a “scientific” point of view. The point is that, in biology, much less actually depends on Dawkins’ demagoguery than he thinks. In sociology, however, which is essentially ideological, sociologists are, in a sense, rightly thankful for the likes of Malcolm Gladwell.

    Like

    Thomas

    February 4, 2014 at 5:52 am

  38. Ah, so I found someone who contradicted your statement, and now new rules are set up: “No biologist (meaning those people that I define as being a proper biologist) would ever….” Can never lose an argument in that way :).

    Like

    Anonymous

    February 4, 2014 at 7:48 am

  39. No, you’ve mainly found someone who agrees with you and disagrees with me. You have arguably (but only just arguably) found an exception to the general rule about “all” biologists that I proposed (i.e., that they don’t seriously worry about how intro is taught, certainly not as a foundational issue for the whole discipline). And I’ve explained why on this point of doctrine he should not be taken as representative. It’s sort of like me making a general point about republican policy and you telling me something you heard Chris Christie say.

    I don’t make rules of argument. I’m just engaging in a bit of informal banter to develop my position. It’s weird. This is the second time in this thread that my not being knocked down by a quick jab has caused someone to go all meta on me and object to the way I debate.

    What would you have me do with with your invocations of Dawkins, friend? Should I say: “Oh yes, this same weirdly obsessive concern about how impressionable young minds are addressed by our discipline (what I’ve called an eagerness to impress young minds) can also be found among some physicists and biologists and, since sociologists rightly envy these “real” scientists, they are free to behave similarly?” Come on!

    Try to deal with the actual point. For sociology, I’m saying, intro really is important and foundational. A great deal hinges on convincing young people that it’s important. If there is no faith in sociology, there’s no sociological knowledge. (In that sense it’s very much a “social construction”.) That’s just not the case for biology. Try this: what sociological theory would you compare to the theory of evolution in terms of its epistemic credibility, its brute debatability in the classroom, and its suitability to being presented as “true” to, say, third graders?

    I don’t dispute the importance of Soc 101. I think it’s importance is telling about the state of sociology as a discipline.

    Like

    Thomas

    February 4, 2014 at 8:20 am

  40. Quick bonus logic lessson:

    I said: A biologist would never take seriously the idea that intro is the most important course you may ever teach.

    Anon: Dawkins says that a broad evolution course might be the most important course one could take.

    Clearly, Dawkins’ statement about the great importance to the student of learning evolution does not contradict my statement about the lesser importance to the discipline of teaching it.

    Like

    Thomas

    February 4, 2014 at 8:29 am

  41. I apologize for showing you were wrong about your “all biologist” statement, but I do appreciate your attempt to save face. Feel free to write 50 lines the next time :).

    The fact just is what you are arguing is plain and simply wrong as I have already stated. “That’s just not the case for biology” – do you know how few americans believe in evolution, even people that have attended college? So yes, “a great deal hinges on convincing young people that it’s important” (evolution that is).

    I am not trying to make an “epistemic credibility” case, you are. As already argued, not relevant for my argument at all. Which is also why your take-teach example fails. You are trying to tell me what opinion everyone should have, i am just stating that a certain position makes sense. A lot more difficult to maintain your position.

    Like

    Anonymous

    February 4, 2014 at 9:46 am

  42. :-)

    Like

    Thomas

    February 4, 2014 at 11:18 am


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