Wednesday, April 09, 2008

How should sociology be taught?

I feel as if I have spent the last few days being battered from all sides by the "nattering nabobs of negativity" (credit to William Safire for the quote -- uttered publicly by Spiro T. Agnew).
I don't really have any idea what a nabob is. N.A.B.O.B. is the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters; another definition I found on-line is "nabob -- a wealthy man (especially one who made his fortune in the Orient)." Certainly ole Spiro T. didn't mean either of these; if memory serves he was complaining about the "liberal" media who was criticizing the Nixon administration.
Actually I can't really say that the folks nattering negatively at me these last few days are "nabobs" in any sense -- what they are is sociologists, and as sociologists they have valid concerns about plans by the Kentucky Community and Technical College system to carve up Introductory Sociology into "bite sized" modules of academic content.

David Nickell, sociologist at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, said:
"as a teacher who has spent years trying to get students to think in terms of larger social systems and structures, I’m very concerned about trying to treat the subject matter as a collection of discrete and isolatable [sic] parts. For instance, how can you really get at the concepts of stratification, inequality, deviance—or any of those core components—without first having an understanding of the role culture plays in shaping our social landscape? How can you cover culture without addressing socialization? Or socialization without stratification, inequality and deviance?
So, my question is how the fractionalization can be handled without losing the sense that the fractions are components within a larger whole. How do you take pieces from a hermeneutic system and not lose their essence?"
Leon Lane Jr., sociologist at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, followed up David's comment with the following:
"Introduction to Sociology is about helping students see the connections between social institutions and how this impacts their life. As such it should be taught as a single unit so they can see that human social life is about individuals, living in societies consisting of interrelated social institutions, made possible and governed by culture they learned through the process of socialization. If you separate it out into components then you lose the most important learning outcome of this class."
While I share David and Leon's view that sociology is at it's heart about the inter-connectivity of all social life, about the hermeneutic between individual, social group and society; I think those are principles that can be learned (or taught) in small pieces, as well as large chunks. David and Leon talk about the necessity of a "whole" course in Introductory Sociology to make the point of these interconnections. But what is a "whole" introductory sociology course?

I don't know any two sociologists who include all the same topics in their introductory course, or include them in the same order, or with the same emphasis. I have a whole unit on "the family," my husband John, also a sociologist does not (of course he talks about the family in other ways). Some sociologists have a special unit on deviance and crime, I don't; although deviance and crime are important themes in several other topics that I do cover (such as culture, socialization, and inequality). I always devote a day or two just to the topic of poverty; for other sociologist, this is a minor topic within the discussion of inequality in general. Some sociologists devote entire units to religion, medicine, and sport, others leave integrate some elements of those topics into others, or leave them out entirely.

There is no authority in sociology that dictates absolutely what must go into an introductory sociology class. Sociology lacks a single unifying paradigm, but is rather a multi-paradigmatic discipline. And those that teach sociology are quite adamant that they do not want some one else telling them what should and should not be included in their introductory sociology course.

And what's so magical about a 15 week (or 16 or 14 week) semester in teaching introductory sociology? I know at least one 4 year liberal arts college (Oberlin) where for many years "introduction to sociology" was a two credit course for half a semester, paired with a second two credit course of the student's choosing on one of the areas of specialization within sociology. On the other hand, the Virginia Community College system considers "introduction to sociology" to be two 3-credit courses that cover two semesters. As sociologists we should recognize that the semester and the "introductory sociology" course that we are accustomed to teaching are cultural products of a particular moment/place in human history, cultural products which apparently have become reified, or some might say "calcified."

Taking a traditional semester long sociology course, and breaking it into smaller learning units, does not automatically undermine the goals of helping students understand "the complex and perspectival nature of human situatedness." [That's my husband John's favorite quote from some post-modern theorist in religious studies.]

One of the very best introductory sociology "texts," that does everything an introductory course in sociology ought to, was a tiny little book (5" X 8" and only 160 pages) called The Forest For the Trees by Allan Johnson. Unfortunately it has long been out of print (because it didn't have the big profit margin that 500 page glossy textbooks do). I have yet to find any other source, of any length that did as good a job of getting across the "holism" and "connectedness" of sociology. It was a book that students could read in one week, and really grasp what sociology was truly about. It didn't cover everything in sociology, but it got key points across, far better than any traditional textbook. If one 160 page small paperback book can do all that, why can't two or three week units of sociology do the same thing -- if they are crafted with care and understanding?

You see, I am stuck with the task of creating a modular version of introductory sociology. It's not a task I asked for, it's not a task I particularly relish. I didn't sign a contract, but I agreed to do it and I think a person's word ought to mean something. I agreed to do it as a favor to my college's president, and because I care deeply about the same issues that David and Leon care about. I want to make sure that any sociology course offered by Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges provides students with a quality opportunity to learn about sociology.