why teach undergraduate theory?

I’ve taken a while to respond to the really interesting theory conversations that sort of started on my Facebook wall but have been carried forward by Andrew and Fabio. They both raise excellent points, and I’m going to move the conversation forward in two different directions: the question I really want to get to (at least the question I’ve been thinking about a lot) is about what mean to teach undergraduate theory under the Trump presidency. But before I get to that, I want to talk a little bit about why and how I think theory should be taught (or at least why and how I teach theory) which can help frame my answer to the first question.

When I taught high school English, I printed out what I called the big questions in huge font, placing them in different sections of the classroom. What does a life have to have for us to call it good? Why is there suffering? How should we deal with people who are different from us? How should we think about death, or love, violence or art? Given the contingencies of how knowledge has developed in the Western tradition, these are often questions we would think of as philosophical. Yet, at least as I taught my English classes, they’re also questions we encounter in great works of literature. My favorite part about teaching The Picture of Dorian Gray or Gilgamesh was the opportunity to help students think through these questions on their own, relating them to their own lives and to the world around them. And so yes, of course I wanted my students to do better on the New York State Regents’ Exams, and I actually came around on those tests inasmuch as the skills they needed for them were things that were generally pretty important (listening, writing, reading for comprehension). But the tests were side projects from the real goal of my class, which was to encourage and empower my students to live as meaningful of a life as they could. Importantly I wanted that meaning to include literature, but even if the literature piece fell away, I hoped the literature in my class helped develop a sense of the requirements of citizenship and a love of the big questions.

Substitute sociology for literature and that’s basically how I think about teaching undergraduate theory. I had a very productive conversation with a graduate student when I got to UCLA and I realized that most of these undergrads aren’t going to be sociologists and even if they are, they’ll get the theory they really need in graduate school. That’s not to say I dropped all references to sociology–they’re very much there—but my goal is no longer what it would be with grad student theory, which is to give students all the tools they need to write articles and books that can survive peer review. Instead, my goal can be more expansive. It allows me to pull much more widely than just from sociology, to have a much more diverse range of voices, and to emphasize breadth rather than depth (I feature 19 different thinkers, one for each lecture day except the introduction). And my goal winds up being quite similar to my goal when I taught English: I want students to come away from my class feeling more aware of the complexity of these big questions, more excited about asking them of themselves and others, and more empowered to act as citizens, even as they are aware of the complexity of ideas like justice, community, and the self.

Race, gender, sexuality, and class obviously show up here: they dominate the second half of my syllabus, and for good reason. There’s a certain conservative complaint that social scientists are so obsessed with race, gender, and class that they forget why life is meaningful at all. I understand the argument, and in some contexts I even agree with it. It goes like this: if we all care about is fighting inequalities related to race, gender, sexuality, class, status, and location in reference to the colonizer,  sometimes we lose track of the reason life is itself worthwhile, or the kind of world we could have once, someday, when those equalities actually work themselves out. In other words, and more bluntly, why are we alive? Who and what are humans supposed to be? The focus on equality as as a means towards realizing those questions can sometimes be replaced by a focus on equality as an end in itself, forgetting those questions even exist, or narrowly answering them by saying the purpose of life is just whatever you want it to be, so that the goal is really just to make sure everyone has an equal chance to work things out on their own. The problem with some conservatives is they can then use this problem as a reason not to think about race/class/gender, writing these off as a distraction from the really important big questions. There’s obviously a lot wrong with that, not least that our sense of what makes a life meaningful is inevitably shaped by our location with various intersecting identities. Too often when someone says ask the big questions (like focus on character, or focus on wisdom) they mean bring back the dead white men. But I reject pretty categorically that the big questions will have to wait until we get a more just world. Art is part of the revolution, not the perks you get at its end. More importantly: Why is there suffering and inequality is one of the biggest questions there is, second only to what the hell are we going to do about it. It’s simply important to remember there are other questions too, with answers that make demands on us towards each other. Edward Said is a model for me on this, as he is for many things.

It might seem obvious but too often it’s not:you really don’ have to choose between a class about fighting to end inequality and a class about what makes life meaningful. That’s why I’m especially excited about a week in which I teach Rawls the first lecture and then Carole Pateman the second. Or exposing students to the concept of intersectionality through the work of Patrica Hill Collins, which from experience (see above), I know many of them find incredibly helpful. Encountering thinkers like Pateman and Collins, along with Arendt, Fanon, and Spivak, help students to become aware of both the problems of inequality and the real challenges of a life, which includes navigating between the demands of citizenship and the cultivation of one’s one talents and passions.

Which gets us to Trump. It’s hard for me to think of a more important role for theorists right now than to educate our citizens about issues of inequality, social interactions, and the basis of critique. So when I’m teaching Arendt or Habermas or Garfinkel, it’s not to teach the history of social theory for the purpose of social history: it’s to open folks up to new ways of viewing the world, raising questions that will, I hope, possibly make their lives more meaningful and, I also hope, give them the tools they need to recognize inequalities and injustices as they are happening. I want my class to give students tools for both their public and private lives. All the authors I’m teaching are still relevant in contemporary academic debates. They’re all people that academics should know. But I’m not teaching academics: I’m teaching human beings and citizens, and my goal is to help empower them to live as fully as possibly, alongside recognizing a responsibility to help others live fully as well. What the hell does it mean to live fully? I’m honestly not always sure. It’s a big question.

Written by jeffguhin

February 5, 2017 at 4:17 pm

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , , ,

14 Responses

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  1. I’ll preface this by saying I don’t think there is a right way to teach theory to undergraduates. However, I think this quote gets at a problem I have with theory at the undergrad level: “the purpose of social history: it’s to open folks up to new ways of viewing the world, raising questions that will, I hope, possibly make their lives more meaningful and, I also hope, give them the tools they need to recognize inequalities and injustices as they are happening”

    I see the above as, mostly, the role of introductory classes, as well as other required courses (e.g. strat). Theory, along with methods and research design courses train them to be sociologists. Sure, most of them won’t become sociologists, but they’re majoring in sociology – I can’t imagine changing a chemistry or biology instruction because most of the undergraduates won’t become chemists or biologists (science-for-non-scientists courses aside; I don’t think those are a good idea, either). They chose to stick with the discipline long enough to end up in my classroom, and I expect they’ve already had whatever revelations a sociology course will give them before they see me.

    That said, I don’t think we have anything that really qualifies as canonical works in sociology, so I focus more on theoretical thinking than history at the undergrad level (though, sure, they get a dose of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim). I think I could replace them with other works, but if I’m continuing the conceit that I’m training them to be sociologists, they might benefit from a passing familiarity with those three. And, while I don’t always assign a textbooky-textbook, when I have done so, avoiding those three is difficult. I try to move past the classic works by the middle of a course, at least when there is only one course for undergraduates. I see this as correcting for deficiencies in what they learned in intro. Afterwards, I work on theorizing. I want them evaluating theories, thinking about logical implications, and adjudicating between competing ideas for reasons other than simply aesthetic ones. To do this, I push a simplified version of Reynold’s theory construction (I use the real thing at the graduate level). As I see it, I’m not there to help them to live in any particular way, nor am I there to sway their politics. What I am there to do is get them to reason critically, and to think about the social in a scientific way. Beyond that, I’m not there to change their particular values or valuations. I also use the juxtaposition of Marx and Weber to think about the issue of where the social comes from, and whether or not they can make scientific statements if they consider themselves historical idealists. So, I suppose I’m pushing them in a particular direction as far as that goes, but if they come out of it with an understanding of the difference between a causal account and a causal narrative I’m quite happy. If they still end up preferring causal narratives, changing their minds isn’t my job.

    One person’s injustice could be another person’s just hierarchy, and I don’t really desire to have that discussion in my classroom, as there isn’t much I can contribute – hypothetical students on either side would have their underlying ideas about what is good and true, and other than realizing that other people have different ideas about same, little good would come of it. I assume they already know that there are different ideas about what is good in our society. Similarly, I assume students in my statistics course can do basic algebra.

    In short: what do they need to know? I agree it isn’t a list of classic works, but those works are as good as any to present a handful of ideas, and for them to practice evaluating those ideas.

    Liked by 2 people


    February 5, 2017 at 6:00 pm

  2. Thank you for this, Jeff. Next time I teach undergrad theory (which I do often) I may take some of your thoughts and suggestions! I do think much of this conversation is getting into the questions Gabi Abend asks in “The Meaning of Theory” (see ). I do think that complexity, in and of itself, is an important value and one that is undervalued in many curricula (including sociology).

    Liked by 1 person


    February 6, 2017 at 1:55 pm

  3. I like this approach very much. I’m not teaching theory now but it is how I’d love my undergrads to be prepared when I ask them to formulate responses to readings in any soc area — I think of soc as being about understanding inequality but if we want students not already committed to that goal to understand why we think it matters so much, they NEED to connect it with their own understanding of good societies and moral action..And I would like them to challenge the narrow versions of that they have most likely acquired in test focused pre-college education as well as in many of their other courses.

    Liked by 1 person


    February 6, 2017 at 9:14 pm

  4. This is interesting. I am part of b-school, so we don’t really go into theory development or its nuts-n-bolts. Certainly not at Under graduate level. But such debates about “meaningful life” and “meaningful work” do happen. And some faculties do come up with relevant courses. These are not typical business/management courses nor behavior or philosophy courses. In fact it is difficult to decide the domain. Even critics also say that “are we here to talk about existential questions?”. But over the period we, who are are attempting this realized that students appreciate this lot.

    For instance, I remember reading on Harvard university course
    Or here

    One of my colleague who developed a similar course. It is “unstructured”, they talk first about “10 fundamental questions” and they short-list and then they discuss one question across multiple classes. Often the discussions move into sociological, psychological realms.

    What I am saying, may be very different than what is being discussed as “theory”, but it is very relevant.
    I would like to see more responses on the thread from other faculties.


    Santosh Sali

    February 7, 2017 at 3:43 am

  5. Thank you for openly admitting that you’re purposely abusing your position – and the tax payers’ money – to commit political indoctrination in the classroom. I hope that the UCLA authorities are taking notice of your subversive and immoral activities. What I don’t understand is how your colleagues put up with people of your kind, who intentionally and systematically undermining the academic status of sociology as a scientific discipline.

    Liked by 1 person

    value free science

    February 7, 2017 at 7:15 pm

  6. That trolling attempt gets a 3.5/10.

    Liked by 1 person


    February 7, 2017 at 8:55 pm

  7. “value free science” is a political position.



    February 7, 2017 at 9:56 pm

  8. I beg to differ. Scientific curiosity makes you far more open to new information than partisanship.

    Being a partisan and embracing it (as so many sociologists do) weds ideology to their identities and dictates what can and can’t be studied, what can and can’t be discovered. That’s unbelievably restrictive if you’re trying to develop a science of society.

    It also torpedoes any chance that the public will listen to sociologists. Overall, we’re far to the left of the country at large. If they think we’re just here to promote radical leftism, rather than give them the best understanding of society and its problems, they’re liable to just shut us out.



    February 9, 2017 at 3:36 pm

  9. Sociologists are also far better than the country at large at analyzing and interpreting data. Does it follow that we shouldn’t promote sound data analysis and interpretation?



    February 9, 2017 at 4:22 pm

  10. Haha certainly not

    Promoting sound data analysis and interpretation helps social scientists develop more rigorous methods for testing theories.

    Promoting leftism in our professional lives signals that we wear ideological blinders, that our commitment is to political ideology first and science second.

    If that’s the public perception, they won’t care about our ability to analyze or interpret data.



    February 9, 2017 at 4:46 pm

  11. FWIW and I don’t teach theory, I personally operate out of a fairly simple Weberian perspective drawn from Science as a Vocation and Politics as a Vocation in which I distinguish between evidence & evidence supported facts on the one hand and value commitments and interests on the other. And I try to convey this distinction to students as tools for working their way through political disagreements. My value commitments are unapologetically “left” but I do my best to respect the evidence even when I don’t like it. And I recognize that value commitments shape what questions we ask and how we interpret the evidence, trying to stress the difference between what actually is or happened and the interpretation or meaning we attach to what is or happened. I do recognize that there has been a ton of philosophical and social theory critique of this standpoint, and recognize that in a deep way what we “know” from science isn’t cognitively any different from what we “know” from religion or popular culture or the public discourses we swim in, but I still think that this standpoint is the best one from which to do social science. Also, my value commitments require me to respect the humanity of other people and treat them with dignity even when I profoundly disagree with their value commitments and think their views of factual evidence are delusional. I do not always adhere to this personal value in my life as a whole (in real life, I do think some people are just evil), but especially when teaching I feel ethically bound to treat all my students as independent thinkers whose dignity should be respected. In most cases, the Weberian stance of a distinction between factual claims (which can legitimately be called right or wrong if there is evidence) and values & interests permits me to retain legitimacy as a respecter of evidence and keeps students in the conversation and thinking.

    One of the things I point out in teaching is how difficult it actually is to acknowledge that other people have different values and interests, and that from their point of view they are advocating good. There are many people for whom it is deeply upsetting to be asked to even consider conflicts of interest or values. There is a very strong tendency in all of us to characterize those we disagreement as either having evil motives or having no coherent thought at all.



    February 9, 2017 at 5:17 pm

  12. In truth, my ethics and practice are similar to OW’s. But analytically, I agree with Jeff’s point that the commitment to “value-neutral” science is itself a political position. My view is that students who are good at evidence, argument, analysis, and interpretation will more often than not end up also adopting my political positions, because I believe them to be more compatible with the evidence than my opponents’ positions are. Hence my general approach, which is to teach theory and sociology as about careful, critical interpretation of the world, not as political position.



    February 9, 2017 at 5:31 pm

  13. Hey all, I should be clear here: despite how I describe my motives in teaching my class, the way I teach it winds up looking a lot like what Andrew Perrin and oldermwoman describe. I teach Arendt, after all, and with great sympathy, and that is someone with very different politics than mine. When I teach the classics next year, I’ll probably teach Burke as the concept of tradition is a really important one for me in general and burke is an essential scholar for modern Americans to know.

    All of which is to say, and I cannot highlight this enough: my goal in teaching theory is not at all to turn students into liberal or leftists. My goal is simply to expose them to big questions, many of which are political, and many of which relate to issues of race. It’s interesting that people are interpreting me as being too political, because my imagined interlocutor as I was writing the above post was someone who thought I was not political *enough*: that talking about big questions like the nature of social interaction or the question of what it means to “know” something distracts from the “real” missions of correcting inequalities of race/class/gender.

    If anything, I’m worried I come off as too conservative (in a particular sense of the word) because I insist that we can ask big questions besides questions about inequality.

    My goal, to repeat, is not at all to make activists, and it’s certainly not to make liberals or leftists either. I try as hard as I can to represent each thinker with integrity, and that often means representing people who are not typically perceived as liberal or leftist, or who are at least widely criticized from within those groups. I just want my students to be a bit more thoughtful and to be more aware of some hard questions about social life.

    I also take Micah’s point about teaching how to theorize: I take this quite seriously too, and it shows up in my class.

    The most important goal I have in this class is to share the very exciting animating questions of 19 key thinkers. And through that, to get the students thinking about how those questions might affect or animate their lives both in public and in private. If my students are super thoughtful about those questions and think the best way they can live those questions out is through being conservative Republicans, I would be thrilled. My problem, in terms of this class, is never with conservatives; my problem is with apathy and the idea that social theory can be separated from the key questions of private and public life.

    I’m sorry that wasn’t more clear. I wholeheartedly agree with some of the comments above that sociologists shouldn’t be in the business of reproducing the left. My goal isn’t that all: I want to produce civically and politically engaged thoughtful intellectuals. How they engage is up to them.



    February 9, 2017 at 5:45 pm

  14. […] Why teach theory? (by Jeff) […]


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