As a sociologist, my primary aim in teaching is to help students learn how to critically and thoughtfully analyze the social world around them. In order to do this, I guide students through the process of constructing and defending arguments using a sociological vocabulary, introduce them to the construction of sociological knowledge, and help them understand the myriad ways that they can interpret and understand social behaviors and events. I employ a wide variety of methods in my classes to keep students engaged and include them in a community of learning, while also providing opportunities for every student to demonstrate their growing knowledge and skills.
At Brown, I have served as a primary instructor for an upper-level seminar, as a teaching assistant for three courses over six semesters, as a writing tutor in the Writing Center, and undergone training with the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. Through my teaching experiences, I have come to value teaching and learning as central to all university work, both in the classroom and in the field.
My teaching is heavily informed by my first experiences in graduate school, where I was, by necessity, learning the material only a few weeks ahead of my students. I was learning the material for the first time with them, and in our discussion sections I learned as much about the material from them as I did from our readings. I thus view teaching not as the imparting of knowledge from instructor to instructed, but instead as creating an inclusive space where students and instructors are co-creators of knowledge (Freire 2007). To create this learning environment, my teaching practice emphasizes three interrelated elements: (1) inclusivity, (2) critical thinking, (3) developing the sociological imagination.
My first goal in any course I teach is to create an environment in which students feel confident in their learning and comfortable enough to speak their thoughts and find their own voice. I do this through ensuring that diverse scholarly voices are included in my syllabi, by introducing diverse perspectives in class sessions, and by encouraging students to develop their own understanding of and stakes in the course.
In my syllabi, I make sure to include authors of diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and highlight the contributions of groups that have been historically underrepresented in sociology. I emphasize that the field of sociology is an academic conversation, and invite students to participate in that discussion. Students in my classes and discussion sections learn from the diverse perspectives that their classmates bring to the classroom through frequent small groupwork and think-pair-share activities. These activities form the core of student learning in my classes, as they not only learn from one another but also develop bonds with one another. On more than one occasion, I have witnessed new friendships made through small group discussions, and students appreciate the chance to develop ideas about course material with one another before discussing it in a larger group. Small group-work is the foundation of the learning communities that develop in my classrooms, where students come to realize that they can, and should, create their own understandings of the material through conversations with one another. Small group-work also includes students who are normally wary of speaking up in larger classes for various reasons, and even the least talkative students become animated and engaged through small discussions around questions or examples I pose. In a seminar I taught in 2017 on revolutions, I also had students participate in online discussions about the readings leading up to our meeting, which furthered a sense of community among them; frequently, students would come to class and immediately strike up conversations with their classmates about what they had said online.
Students in my classes also develop their own stake in the course. In all of my classes – discussion sections and seminars – I always push students to connect what they are learning back to their personal lives (by developing and engaging their sociological imaginations, discussed below) and past experiences, encouraging them to find out why the course matters to them as an individual. To encourage this, students engage in a wide variety of learning activities, including the small-groupwork discussed above, analysis of real-world and fictional examples of social processes, short lectures, and social simulations. I also give students room in assignments to explore their own voices, allowing them to choose their own topics to analyze using course material. In my revolutions course, the final assignment allowed students to analyze any part of any revolution using sociological theories, and they could do this either through a research paper or short story. Students selected both options, and said they appreciated the choices offered to them.
Critical thinking is, perhaps, the most common learning objective in the social sciences, and rightfully so. Students in my courses learn critical thinking through analyzing and evaluating the arguments put forward in course readings, and by constructing and defending their own arguments in their assignments and discussions. No discussion of scholarly work is complete without a discussion of the process by which that work was produced, including method, argumentation, and the dynamics of power that impact the development and adoption of ideas into the sociological mainstream. These discussions help students understand how to both critique and build arguments, but also illustrates how race, gender, and other systems of power affect whose voices get heard and whose are silenced.
Students in my classes learn to critique and evaluate arguments through discussions with one another, where they can use their diverse perspectives to see things about the arguments they would not have otherwise seen, and where they can encourage one another to question arguments, theories, and concepts, rather than accept what is presented to them as undeniably “true.” I believe that students are co-creators of knowledge in the classroom, and thus view their critiques and evaluations as contributing to their and my own knowledge about the material; their voices are just as important as mine in the classroom, and thus I give them a stake in the classroom while encouraging the development of their critical thinking skills.
Students primarily demonstrate their critical thinking through writing assignments and in-class presentations on courses material. In discussions, students evaluate both the strengths and weaknesses of arguments and theories. In my revolutions seminar, students engaged in online discussions where they were explicitly asked to critique assigned readings, and all students presented the readings for one week of the course by synthesizing, comparing, and evaluating them. Similarly, in my final assignment for the revolutions seminar, students demonstrated their abilities to construct a strong argument through their final papers (or short stories), and the impact of our discussions was very clear in the ways that the papers addressed other scholarly work, especially when compared to their earlier outlines.
Developing the Sociological Imagination
C. Wright Mills defined the sociological imagination as the ability to understand the connection between biography and history (1959). The sociological imagination underlies all research, learning, and teaching in sociology, and is the unique contribution that sociology has to offer students. While other disciplines can empower student voices and help them develop critical thinking skills, only sociology can help them connect their own experiences and knowledge with the larger social world and its myriad structures and processes. To help students develop and engage their sociological imaginations, my courses always revolve around applying the abstract theories and concepts from sociology to concrete case studies. When working as a teaching assistant in organizational sociology courses, I spent most of my time in discussion sections helping students use sociological theories to understand the activities and behaviors of real-world organizations, from Enron to the United States government. When designing courses, I always tie the discussions of sociological concepts to concrete cases. In my course on revolutions and social change, for example, every class centered around applying the readings to a particular set of revolutions.
I also, wherever possible, allow students to select their own topics for assignments at all levels. In introductory courses, I ask them to reflect on their own experiences or apply concepts to those topics that they find most interesting or relevant to their own lives. In larger papers, I work with students to help select those topics that will allow them to develop and demonstrate their sociological imagination the best.
The development of the sociological imagination is also a key part of being able to think critically. A well-developed sociological imagination will allow students to see the ways in which the social world around them shapes their everyday lives, and will allow them to reflect critically on how their own actions not only maintain social structures, but also how they can change these same structures.
Freire, Paulo. 2007. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. London: Oxford University Press.