My favorite college professor told me that the point of college is to “keep one foot in the library and one foot in the gutter.” In other words, one should learn from the ivory tower but not lose sight of reality. My pedagogy emphasizes critical thinking through fostering a community of learners that respect each other’s diversity while learning to actively work towards social change. Given that students learn in visual, auditory, and/or kinesthetic styles, my teaching method meets a variety of needs in order to help students link concrete examples to abstract concepts. To encourage social thinking I emphasize using a sociological imagination to challenge students to put themselves in other people’s position and link their personal experiences to larger social processes. In addition, I help students develop thinking, reading, writing, and speaking skills that confront dominant social myths. In turn, they come to grapple with structural causes, cultural contexts, and ideologies of human behavior and organization, across space and within major social institutions. By the semester’s end, my goal is to have students become informed citizens: critically minded and sharply aware of their agency.
I believe sociological learning begins when student opinions are challenged by theoretical, empirical, and ethnographic readings of the social world that are then investigated in the classroom. This learning evolves throughout the semester when at first, students are confused or challenged by sociological thinking, but end up integrating explanatory concepts such as agency or power into their writing and speaking. In addition, I encourage students to connect sociology to everyday life. Because students come from a variety of backgrounds and hold many different worldviews, I encourage safe spaces for intellectual debate. This debate allows for outside experiences to enter the classroom. Relatedly, because learning always extends beyond the classroom it is equally important for students to see how sociology is grounded in their lives and the lives of others.
I rely heavily on writing to measure the degree to which critical sociological thinking occurs. This pushes students to deliberate on their ideas, organize them in a coherent form, and articulate them with a sociological analysis that may challenge many of their preconceived notions. Through reflection papers, reading summaries, short evaluative essays requiring the use of course concepts and tools, and end of the semester research projects, I witness the development of students’ sociological voice. “Me” and “I” statements eventually give way to “we” and “us” statements. In short, students come to understand their positionality vis-à-vis others both in the lecture hall and out in the social arena.
I instruct my students with this motto in mind: “think structurally, act strategically.” It is imperative to challenge students to become not only knowledgeable about social conditions but also engaged, active citizens; truly library and gutter. Key to this process is a student-centered approach aimed at working with individual student needs. Assisting such ends are the variety of backgrounds and learning styles that enrich the terrain upon which the sociological imagination grows, which when recognized breaks down barriers and increases human empathy. When students leave my course, they are stronger writers and gain a new sociological foundation that equips them with the necessary tools to critically analyze social, political, and economic inequalities and creatively come up with solutions.