the purpose of teaching sociology

I have been asked to write a short piece on the topic of teaching social theory. My answer will have three parts. On the blog, I will post initial thoughts:

  1. What is the point of teaching sociology at all?
  2. What are the different goals and reasons we teach social theory?
  3. Why did I move to the mechanism oriented approach that I advocate in Theory for the Working Sociologist.

Why teach sociology?

I begin this brief essay with a simple question – why teach sociology? I respond with a simple answer: there are many reasons to teach sociology. We might teach sociology because it is a body of scientific and humanistic knowledge about the social world. Another reason to teach sociology is that we want people to think carefully about their social world. We might also teach simply to broaden a students knowledge. If nothing else, teaching is a variety of public sociology, where we bring our discipline to the public via the classroom.

You can also answer this question in reference to the student. Most students have a tangential interesting in sociology, only a handful will want academic careers. Thus, we teach because we want the public to have basic familiarity with sociology.

If you buy these answers, then it guides you toward a general attitude toward teaching. Most of our time we should focus on the basic facts of the social world and the ideas we can use to analyze them. We should only occasionally used oddball ideas or examples. The instructor should boil down their discipline to core ideas that will be easy to remember and relentlessly focus on them in class. It also draws toward the idea of respect for students. We care what they think and we want them to have a positive view of the field.

What do you think about teaching sociology? Use the comments.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 1, 2017 at 5:01 am

4 Responses

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  1. I’ve come to believe that much of our teaching, especially the lower-level service courses, is best thought of as teaching for citizenship. We play an important role on all campuses in educating non-majors to understand the social systems around them and how the choices people make in creating and maintaining or challenging these systems influences daily life. We give students tools for thinking about themselves and their lives and choices in the context of the broader world they live in. This means that I do agree with you that most of what we talk about and do in the classroom should be focused on “real life” issues. Although sometimes we have to do the work to show them that something that they think has nothing to do with them actually does. And we always, always need to remember that those student are never homogeneous and that what is deeply personal for one of them is more abstract for another. Our teaching practice should embody what we are trying to teach, that people are not all alike, and that hierarchical systems and inequalities permeate everyday life.

    For majors we need to think about how our more advanced courses give students tools for either obtaining further training that will allow them to be social researchers (which includes business as well as the broad range of academic and nonacademic “research” jobs) or that provides an intellectual underpinnings for bringing systemic social thinking into any arena.

    Liked by 2 people


    December 1, 2017 at 3:10 pm

  2. Also, I’ve learned that much of our teaching focuses on structures and we often fail to call attention to agency and the ways people actively either recreate or challenge structures. Some students find sociology depressing: I’ve had students ask how we can actually do that day after day and not be suicidal. I think the antidote is to teach agency as well as structure.

    Liked by 1 person


    December 1, 2017 at 3:14 pm

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    Xmas Wishes 2017

    December 1, 2017 at 10:08 pm

  4. I teach a multi-disciplinary intro to social science course that is heavy in sociology but also draws upon sister disciplines a fair amount. We emphasize that part of our goal is to give students a shared vocabulary to talk about and explain social phenomena. We also have increasingly tried to balance out the structure/agency balance of the course. We used to be way too heavy on structure but now try to include theoretical and empirical pieces on individual agency in the face of overwhelming structural constraints, both near the beginning and end of the course. Deviance and Crime, and Social Protest are great ways to highlight this interplay. And next year, we’re going to experiment with assigning one of Sewell’s classic pieces on individual agency in combination with a Peter Berger chapter on social structure. Berger is always good for explaining structure and students really enjoy his writing, but I think marrying him with Sewell could give us more balance and students more hope for themselves.

    Liked by 1 person


    December 14, 2017 at 1:08 am

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