Courses 2012-2013 [last year]
The aim off art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. Aristotle
Knowing is not enough; we must apply.
Being willing is not enough; we must do.
Leonardo da Vinci
My philosophy of teaching and learning arises from my understanding of the sociological imagination, my background in experiential education, and my recognition of the increasing importance of digital literacy in helping students become full contributors to contemporary civil society. At the most fundamental level I hope to inspire students who can take a critical and scientific eye towards the world, who can create with competence, and can share with confidence. I want them to start creating now because experience is a powerful teacher and I believe that we will need them to create great things.
Using the sociological imagination to cultivate independence of thought and social scientific progress
Aristotle’s quotation refers to art, but it could just as easily apply to the opportunities that we enjoy in the social sciences: empowering people to cultivate their capacity to distinguish outward appearances of things from their inward significance. The first part of this capacity comes from the awareness that everyday events often have underlying dimensions of social significance. Sociologists call this the “sociological imagination” –the capacity to see how social outcomes result from the intersection of social context, the attributes of social actors and the structure of interaction. I encourage students to apply their sociological imagination to their own lives through the use of individually relevant illustrations and assignments. An example described in my learning innovations involves using a web application that visualizes the geographic distribution of particular surnames across the globe. In the assignment students track the distribution of names from family members and ancestors. Sometimes, seeing the migration patterns of your family name highlights how your family moved to escape famine or poverty in the home country. Others learn that they lost their original family name generations ago upon arrival to North America. Still others see similar patterns in much more recent events for their family. In this process students gain a new perspective on how their family history is partly their biography, and partly the product of larger social forces that also shape the lives of others. For individual students, the experience of peeling back the curtain on the social world can become a valuable source of critical perspective and independent thought. However, I emphasize how awareness of the potential for seeing inward significance is just the first step, we also need to build understanding of concepts, models, and strategies of data analysis that allow us to investigate the underlying currents of our social worlds. All of us have the potential to contribute to the processes of social research, and by learning the concepts and practices we can improve our understanding of public events and processes in our own lives. This involvement in the practices of sociological research can start with small things, like fact checking the political claims that come across Facebook. Or it can start with big things, like starting a local organization to help feed the hungry. The collective enterprise of sociological research can iteratively improve our understanding of the inner significance of social life, clarifying the contribution of things like stratification systems, norms, and social institutions. Combined, the individual and collective dimensions of the sociological imagination represent the major contributions that I try to bring forward for students of sociology as members of the Arts and Sciences community at Ohio University.
Practicing the path of doing
I employ experiential learning as a core feature of all of my sociology courses, but especially in my upper level courses. I give students practice doing the same things that sociologists do because we need our students to become competent doers of great things. We must ask them to do real work, trust them to try, and support them so that they can learn and improve. They need to practice the tasks themselves and practice the feeling of taking on real tasks. While basic assignments are required of all students, I try to leave room for different types of learners to contribute to the course in ways that challenge them. I also find that students find the tasks of of normal research are challenging enough that they can keep striving for higher levels of quality, and my task becomes more like that of a coach who needs to support the students to do their best. Students benefit from the difficulty and the real world application of the assignments whether it be writing a research proposal, abstracting a summary from published research article, or producing an entertaining and informative short film. Similarly, students in my undergraduate research methods course collect qualitative data through participant observation, design survey questions, and collaboratively analyze archival data. Students in my group processes course (Soc 419/519) read and construct analytic abstracts of published research and then share that work with their colleagues, and in the process develop a digital repository of shared article reviews. This assignment also results in a tangible collective good, and the students can see their efforts benefiting their fellow students, and the efforts of those students helping them as well.
In general, assignments based on real research tasks helps students build confidence in their own abilities as well as develop an appreciation for the difficulty of performing careful research. Many of my methods courses move back and forth from introduction of foundational concepts to concrete applications. I try to make course projects personal while also practicing the same skills and procedures that academic sociologists use themselves. This culminates with opportunities to share that work with peers and the wider community. My hope is that students will make the cognitive shift from student to author, and that they will stop seeing assignments and start seeing opportunities where they can build and contribute as independent thinkers and scholars. This same cognitive shift is what they will need in their future careers, whether they are reviewing precedent for their first legal case, or evaluating applicants for an entry level position at their business. Critical thinkers are not enough. We need competent doers.
With ubiquitous smart phones and laptops it is easy to presume that new cohorts of Ohio University students are digitally savvy. In fact, their skills vary widely and most of them require a great deal of support in order to overcome their deficit in digital literacy. They will need much more as students, workers and citizens. Students need to be able to focus their attention, rather than chasing an endless string of new texts and tweets. They also need to critically evaluate information and claims, and leverage the many social systems that can magnify the reach of their insights and bring valuable new resources to their attention. Students also need to learn how to contribute to the participatory culture that is growing and thriving around all of us. In short, they need to escape the shallows of the digital age, and swim in the deep end where innovative people are building the new resources and systems of our social world. Whether our students are involved in sociology, journalism, advertising, education, law, business, politics, or just about anything else there are resources and opportunities that they will only have access to if they can connect and collaborate with others through digital systems.
In “The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in the Digital Age” Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall emphasize that educators need to become life-long learners who engage students in a shared process of learning new skills and capacities. Our work and social worlds are rapidly changing, and as educators we need to demonstrate leadership in the skills necessary to thrive in those environments. Since beginning my role as a teacher at Ohio University I have worked hard to learn and master new digital skills to create new opportunities for my students. My first blog, my first discussion post, and my first instructional videos on YouTube, are all the direct results of my efforts to expand the learning opportunities of my courses. And while I lead by example, I also invite my students to collaborate and teach me new skills. Through a variety of assignments my students create instructional and educational videos, they build socially relevant groups on Facebook, they write blogs and personal pages that promote their accomplishments and interests, and develop their own voice through which they evaluate and curate the resources in their digital environment. While technology can be used to educate, I see a much more fundamental role as a form of literacy that students can take with them in a way that reinforces their ability to understand the world and their ability to accomplish great things.
Conclusion: Connecting beyond the Ohio University Mission
The mission of Ohio University holds the intellectual and personal growth of the individual as a central purpose. It establishes programmatic goals in broadening perspectives, enriching awareness, deepening understanding, establishing habits of thought, and preparing for meaningful careers. Ultimately the mission seeks to develop “individuals who are informed, responsible, productive citizens” (Ohio University Undergraduate Catalog). As an educator I work to support these goals through the cultivation of the sociological imagination, an emphasis on experiential learning, and an expanded range of skills and literacies. However, as a sociologist feel we must reach beyond these goals in two key ways.
The first extra dimension is relational. Building sociability, relationships and communities have always been key contributors to the development of university graduates. But now, more than ever before, the skills our students need to fulfill the university mission are formed both within Ohio University and extend beyond to include the learning communities and organizations that those students create and join in their larger social environment. This is why I see the digital literacies as so crucial—they are new tools that create opportunities for the cultivation of relationships and building communities. It is through these relationships and communities that we become informed and inform others. It is through these relations that we have opportunity to act responsibly and to be productive. My mission is also to help students cultivate community.
The second extra dimension is collective. Cultivation of attributes in an individual is important, but our potential as a society depends on those skills becoming widespread through the population. It is certainly a good thing when a single person has the critical thinking skills to fact check and critique a political claim, but the political environment changes when the capacity to enact critical thinking becomes widespread. In a similar fashion the emancipatory potential of the new participatory institutions depends on the widespread adoption of the necessary skills. My mission is also to reduce barriers to participation and help all of my students increase their capacities to evaluate, communicate, contribute and collaborate.