Teaching

My teaching philosophy:

I have taught courses in a wide range of subjects. I have designed writing workshops when I taught the general survey of Sociology course, designed and wrote exams for the department’s social psychology course, and I have built from the ground up my own courses on Intro to Sociology, Race Relations in the U.S., Sociological methods at the introductory and advanced levels, Deciant Behavior, Juvenile delinquency, and Marriage & the Family. In these courses, I developed the entire content of the course, from the development of the syllabus to the content of the lectures to the assessment techniques and assignments. In addition, I was a member of the first co-taught methods course in Madison Sociology, and also developed the course content for my half of the course. The courses not only covered very different topics, but had very different enrollments and needs. As a teacher, I’ve had to adapt my style to these differing situations. But regardless of the class, three guiding principles have always served me well: flexibility, compassion, and innovation.

 

Flexibility

On my very first day of teaching, I was nervous, but was excited to begin. I had pages and pages of notes prepared. I was ready for anything. Except dead silence.

I was determined to make their time spent in my class worth their while; not just inside the classroom, but in their everyday lives. But my meticulously prepared notes were simply not eliciting the response that I had hoped for. So I stopped. And I set aside my notes.

“Okay, so we’re talking about causes of crime here,” I said. “These boys grew up to be criminals. But – and this is a key sociological question – why?” I asked everyone to think about their personal opinion on the topic. “Who here thinks the cause of the boys’ troubles in the book was familial?” Then I asked students to move to various sides of the room, depending on their personal stance. “Who thinks the causes were primarily school-based?” They got up and moved. “Who thinks it’s a combination?” And then, when they had moved, they talked – to each other, to me, to themselves. And only then was I able to make use of those meticulously prepared notes and questions, making sure they understood the material presented in lecture. When presenting ideas, articles, theories, even “facts” to classes, students are often asked to set aside their personal assessment. But the physicality of the exercise, the visual impact of seeing bodies pile up on either side of the room, allowed the students to (literally and figuratively) see that intelligent people can read the exact same thing and understand it differently. And that clear recognition of alternative viewpoints spurred discussion at a level far more sophisticated than I had expected.  It wasn’t a matter of “throwing out” my preparation in a huff, but rather the ability to adapt to changing situations. Nothing succeeds like good preparation, but sometimes nothing can replace the ability to be flexible to the demands of the students.

 

Compassion

I believe flexibility works best under an ethic of compassion. Logistically, this means understanding that some students live with parents; some have children of their own. They have jobs and health scares and financial worries and intellectual and emotional crises. My course is not the only thing in their lives (nor is it the only thing in mine!). In realistic terms, teachers encounter human weaknesses and limitations. When I encounter these limitations, I make sure not to attack or admonish students for being unprepared or performing poorly. I find it much more helpful and worthwhile to guide the student towards constructive behaviors like trying new learning techniques, or being upfront about emotional, intellectual, or logistical limitations. Here is an example: One semester, a student repeatedly missed short paper deadlines. I pulled her aside after class and told her that those late turn-ins were hurting her grade; instead of rebuking her, I told her that I could help her stay on track. The student hesitantly told me that she was dealing with a problematic pregnancy, and it was making her work much more slowly than usual. She was hesitant to tell me because she didn’t want to be seen as “asking for special treatment.” But under an ethic of compassion, students aren’t assumed to be gaming the system – and had I treated that student as if she were, she would have suffered largely in silence.

 

Innovation

And finally, I want my enthusiasm for my field to be communicated to my students. One way I do this is by innovating in the classroom. Innovation can mean different things in different settings, but for me, the goal is always to get students past simple intellectualizing the material. In providing an experience for the student, the material stays with them longer – and more strongly.

For example, when teaching an introductory, writing-intensive course, one of my tasks was to review the statement on academic misconduct, to ensure that students didn’t plagiarize. It was extremely important – and had the potential to be staggeringly dull. So, I devised a game: “Let’s Not Get Booted Out of College.” The game is an anti-plagiarism slide presentation, because I knew that citing sources incorrectly was the cause of a lot of inadvertent plagiarism. So I took excerpts from popular media sources and quoted/paraphrased them – sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly. Students could then compare the original source and the citation, and make a judgment as to whether it would get the student “booted” or not (this element of humor also kept the game fun). Each “mistake” was a different lesson in citing properly. This game became so popular that other TAs asked me for the materials – now, four years after devising it, the game has been nearly institutionalized in Sociology 210; most of the TAs who use it in that context then choose to use it in their own classes as well.

But innovation also works when words are simply not enough.  In my race relations class, we talk about Jim Crow laws and lynching. But simply speaking about lynching, I find, separates the horror from the events that actually occurred. In addition, when I teach about media, students are often discouraged and cynical about the role of media in exacerbating problems. So I decided to combine the two concerns into a slide presentation that I believe is really effective.  I explained the history of Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit,” how it was written by a Brooklyn school teacher as a protest against lynching, after seeing the famous photo of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith’s Indiana lynching. I described the American history of lynching, how it fit in to the larger structure of racism in the US at the time. I played “Strange Fruit” for the students, while those very slides faded in and out. When the presentation is over, I explain how the song galvanized the anti-lynching movement, and moved people enough to begin action. Students are also visibly moved; some tear up; some express anger that they had never seen these pictures before. Students have later told me that this knowledge stayed with them long after the class was over. In sharing that learning experience, students learned not only about the history of lynching in the U.S. and its horrors, but also about the transformative nature of media and the tradition of protest in the American spirit. These lessons are learned with emotions, not just intellect.

My goal is to teach “the whole person,” through a variety of techniques. I have been effective at this technique, which my teaching evaluations illustrate. My ideas for including undergraduates in my research reflect this ethic: A next step in my childhood obesity project includes a large-scale semi-structured interview project that will need interviewers, transcribers and data coders. I am excited at the possibility of including undergraduates in this research; my experience teaching methods will help me guide them through the process effectively. I believe this aligns well with my theoretical interest in embodiment and the practical feminist concern for empowerment. I feel that sociology is a uniquely valuable way of perceiving the world, and I strive to communicate its implications for revitalizing and revolutionizing institutions as well as individuals.  I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to be a teacher. I take it seriously, and enjoy it very much.

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