At the beginning of class, one of my students told us about her Friday night. She walked up an empty street in a dicey part of the city and saw a young man “just kind of standing there, hanging out.” She reconsidered her instinct to cross the street, having just read from Elijah Anderson’s ethnography describing how the master status of “young African-American male” influences street-crossing behavior. Deciding not to contribute to the reproduction of social structure, however subtle, she stayed on her direct route to the nightclub. The young man was not an unemployed troublemaker but someone who worked for the band. After talking, he handed her backstage tickets. Tying her experience back to Anderson’s work, she highlighted how ungrounded suspicion constrains interaction, harming individuals and reproducing inequality. And then she told us how much she enjoyed meeting the band.

This account from a student in my Social Psychology course at the University of Maryland highlights the sociological lens that I foster in my students, through which they see how we shape and are shaped by our interactions with others, institutions, and organizations. I provide students with the sociological tools—theoretical and methodological—to examine topics that interest them.

I bring my research into the classroom to introduce students to the research process and provide detailed descriptions of how we use sociological theory and methods to produce knowledge. Understanding this process provides the students with a stronger basis for digesting and critiquing the readings and encourages them to think about how to design research projects to better answer our questions about the social world. For example, students in my Social Perspectives on HIV/AIDS course at Brown University were curious about the uneven global spread of HIV (click here to see the course syllabus). After reading Epstein’s Invisible Cure they became interested in the possibility that concurrent sexual relations drive the epidemic. To nourish their interest, I suggested they focus their term papers on the sexual concurrency. Ultimately, five undergraduate students and I collaborated on a manuscript assessing how sexual concurrency is shaped by economic status, migration, and gendered dynamics in relationships using data from the Demographic and Health Surveys. I continue to work with these students—one received a Research at Brown Grant to present our work at the 2010 annual meeting of the Population Association of America (click here to see our presentation) and we are finalizing our manuscript for submission to
International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.

Beyond engaging students in research, I encourage students to think critically about their social world by situating the course concepts within research at the university. I begin every class meeting by highlighting the upcoming relevant talks on campus. In many of my courses attending and writing a review of an academic talk is required. These talks show students how faculty think about and critique research and enrich our class discussions. For example in my Population and Society course at Brown University, many of the students attended Ken Prewitt’s talk, “Counting America’s Races: Do We Still Want It? Do We Still Need It?” Students’ written reviews and contributions to the class discussion after attending this talk highlighted their understanding of the many factors—including politics and history—that led to the prominence of race in the 2010 US Census. Students valued attending these talks; some continued to attend talks after fulfilling the course requirements.

In order to engage diverse learners and situate course concepts within their broader social context, I encourage students to consider how popular culture addresses and reflects sociological concepts. I often introduce new concepts by showing video clips from movies, television shows, or commercials. For example, I show commercials of AT&T’s text-messaging grandmother or the E-Trade baby to launch discussions of how age is a status tied to specific behavioral expectations. These examples encourage students to think about why images grab their attention and how sociological concepts speak to these images. More often, however, the students refer to their personal experiences and how our readings affirm or contradict these experiences. I take advantage of these opportunities to situate individual experiences within broader social patterns. For example, after reading Rosenfeld and Kim’s (2005) article discussing the rise of interracial marriage, my students argued forcefully against the notion that race influences union formation in contemporary America. In our next class meeting I had students conduct an experiment where they randomly drew spouses from a hat. We compared our matrix of the races of husbands and wives to recent Census Bureau data: over half of our random marriages were interracial, compared with the estimated 7 percent of marriages in the US (click here to see the two matrices). I used our experiment to show how simulation studies draw attention to patterns that are not random. In relating course concepts—such as the role of race in marriage—to what students encounter outside of the classroom, I draw their attention to social patterns and encourage them to engage events and images in manners they had not prior to the course.

Students are my partners in the learning process, shaping and being shaped by their interactions in the classroom. I conduct early course evaluations every semester to engage the students and solicit feedback on what helps their learning and what changes we can make to improve the course. This feedback allows me to adapt the course to the knowledge and needs of the specific group of students. The students often have wonderful suggestions that I carry forward in future classes. For example, in the early evaluations from the first semester I taught Social Demography at the University of Maryland, students requested that I provide exam review sheets. Based on student feedback, I required the students to develop their own two-page exam reviews, which I graded and returned before the exam. When I returned their exam review sheets I also provided my exam review sheet. This mid-course change encouraged the students to review and describe the course material and allowed me an opportunity to clarify concepts prior the exam. [Early Course Evaluations (click here for link to example of the form and here to see an example of changes made based on these evaluations.)]

I believe that class discussions are exceptional tools for deepening students’ sociological imaginations. To prepare students to engage the course readings in class discussion, I have them begin to think about the readings through weekly one-page response blogs posted to our course webpage. These response blogs provide students not only the opportunity to think about their readings before we discuss them in the classroom but also, as many of the students are familiar with commenting on blogs, the opportunity to begin to debate the content of the readings online. Further, the blogs allow me to know what the students understand, find confusing, or would like to discuss during our class time. Additionally, after reading these response blogs, I feel comfortable prompting students during class discussions on topics they had already begun to engage. My second approach to fostering class discussions is to encourage students to discuss the readings in small groups, often as discussion leaders or groups debating a topic in the course. I use small group discussions to offer students the opportunity to reflect on the readings without feeling that they are being graded on their ideas. This two-pronged approach has been helpful in small and large classes. For example, in my eight-student Population and Society class at Brown University two students dominated the class discussion and two students only spoke when prompted. One of the quieter students made a connection between readings in a small group discussion that none of the other students had considered. The more talkative students in her small group encouraged her to raise this point in class, which lead to a rich discussion about the role of gendered differences in happiness and how this speaks to our more cognitively framed decisions of family planning and labor force participation.

To cultivate students’ writing and critical thinking skills, I use classroom activities that introduce students to sociological writing and the peer review process. Students review their peers’ papers and discuss how they each frame a thesis, describe the evidence that supports the thesis, review additional literature on the topic, and propose methods to collect additional evidence to support their thesis. By bringing the students’ work on course papers into the classroom, students not only master the course concepts but also think more deeply about the topics that interest them. I developed a rubric  (click here to view my grading rubric
that describes the elements that students will critique in their peers’ papers. Subsequently, I will use this rubric to provide the students structured feedback on their writing.

Ultimately, I help students construct their sociological lenses by situating concepts within academic research, popular culture, and their own experiences. Through writing, discussions, and thinking critically about their everyday lives, my students use these lenses to bring the social world into clearer focus.