Saturday, January 12, 2013

Teaching at Texas A&M | The WUW? 6 Suggestions for Teaching Contemporary Social Theory

Every time I tell someone that I am teaching Sociology, I get the same response... "sociology was my favorite class in undergrad." This response makes sense because sociology is the study of the most elemental experiences of social life. Unfortunately, the discipline has come to be seen as something interesting or as a good elective but not a major that will lead to a high salaried job. This perspective occupies a central spot in the questions of social theory. Throughout the modern transition to industrial capitalism, man has increasingly come to be understood as an economic unit, not an actual human. Thus, the study of mankind is determined significant only in the context of business, marketing, and politics. Homo economicus is the object of statistical focus determined to be understood as a means of manipulating him to purchase goods or vote in elections.

Social theory, more concerned with uncovering those hidden ideologies of manipulation instead of discovering new opportunities to manipulate, has even become marginalized in the academic industrial complex. The study or writing of theory does not bring in research grants or lead to easy statistical measurements, that are easily understood, and easily published in the top academic journals. If the discipline has marginalized the importance of theory then how can we expect students to get excited about a theory class? Moreover, if graduate students develop the same disdain for theory, how can we expect them to teach theory in a way that sparks the sociological imagination of their students? How are we supposed to lead our students to the same deeper level of societal understanding that led to the great works of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Adorno, Foucault, Derrida, and Mills? We have been discussing these questions around the WUW? office lately and have come up with a few suggestions for those of you interested in man and society beyond his economic utility value.

The WUW? 6 Suggestions for
Teaching Contemporary Social Theory

ONE: Meet Your Students Where They Are

Start with your students lived experience and then connect them to the ideas of the author.

We have to take the opportunity to understand where our students are coming from. I often hear my associates complain about how their students are lazy, don't care, are too conservative, too Christian, too white, can't write, etc. etc. etc. It is interesting how fast we forget what we were like during our undergrad and how much we expect students to act like graduate students. I teach at Texas A&M University and it is very conservative, very white, and very Christian and although these views do not line up with mine, it does not mean that there is a deficiency in my students.

As sociologists, we should understand that individuals are the culmination of their lived experiences - family, gender, race, neighborhood, wealth, education, and religion. It seems to me that there is nothing gained from complaining about students, rather, it is our job to understand their subject positions and teach them in a way that is uplifting - not demeaning. Our goal should not be to make them not Christian, conservative, wealthy, or white - rather it should be to understand where they are coming from, help them understand how their subject position is located in general history and their personal history. From their, as C. Wright Mills explained, they can begin to develop their sociological imagination.

After we take the time to understand where our students are coming from, we can construct our syllabus and lectures in a way that connects them, as they are, to the theorists.

What has worked: 
Although, I am not a Christian, I recognize that many of my students are and that their faith is fundamental to who they are. Because of this, I selected a book, by a theologian, that explains postmodernity within an evangelical context. I have not attempted to change their beliefs, or held their beliefs against them, rather I attempted to meet them where they were and provide a reading that would help them understand Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, and Baudrillard within their own subject position. Our reading of A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren was one of the most fruitful readings of the entire semester - even though it is not a traditional sociological text.

TWO: Expect the Best

Don't assume that your students can't comprehend big ideas and tough readings.

Similar to my first point, your expectations will structure the performance of your students. What you expect is what you will get. College students are not just superficial kids interested only in fun and popularity. They think about and discuss the deeper meanings of life all the time. It is we (their teachers, parents, and pastors) that assume they are not interested in the hard to understand ideas. We present water downed versions of theory in an attempt to entertain instead of educate. Thus, with no one presenting the opportunity to go deeper, how can we expecte them to move beneath the surface. Give them tough readings and then discuss and help them wrestle through the ideas. You will be amazed at what you get back!

THREE: Speak in a language that your students can understand

Essential to this is to not overcomplicate class by attempting to cover every author or every text. Choose readings that that are manageable, challenging, and provide them the opportunity for reflection - then connect the readings to where the student is.
Don't get stuck in the graduate student pissing match that measures intelligence by the use of words that only 5% (probably less than) of the population uses. It is not that we shouldn't speak about epistemologies, existentialism, discourse, anomie, and domination - but we should continue to define these terms and place them within a context that enables comprehension. They will get it but we have to do our job as teachers to guide.

FOUR: Allow your students the opportunity to wrestle with new ideas

Our initial impulse is to immediately explain every reading and idea without allowing the time to process. Contemporary theory is a paradigm shifting class that is confusing and uncomfortable. When Derrida explains that there is no absolute truth and that everything is discourse - he is challenging the foundations of faith and society. He is calling out the invisible signifier that creates meaning and imposes truth on the rest of humanity. More often than not, at A&M, this white, europeanized, Christian, heterosexual, upper middle class male represents the exact center that is being deconstructed throughout the majority of postmodern theory. The invisible "center" that is so prominent at Texas A&M, if not given the opportunity to reflect and wrestle with these concepts, will immediately resist and shut down for the entire semester.

In sociology, we spend so much time deconstructing the center that we think it is common sense. We often discuss race, class, and gender so much that we forget that most of our students have not spent much time interrogating their subject position. We need to extend a little bit a grace and allow them the opportunity to step away from their subject position and observe the effects of not interrogating the projection of personal truth as absolute truth. After we give them this freedom, then we can begin to discuss ideas like white privilege, the evils of colonization, the disastrous effects of capitalism on the marginalized other, and the marginalization of women and homosexuals.

What has worked: 

One of the ways I have attempted to do this has been to have my students keep a weekly journal in which they reflect upon the readings and our discussion in class (an idea i stole from my masters thesis chair). This way they are able to flesh out what is going on in their heads and explore ideas that don't necessarily align with theirs. I grade, not based upon right answers, but upon a general understanding of the readings and the depth of their reflections. These journals are priceless to me as the teacher and to the students, as individuals wrestling with their personal world views.

FIVE: Take advice from Weber and Use Verstehen

Give your students the freedom to be wrong.

Create an environment where discussion is free and open. Necessary to the attempt to wrestle with new ideas is the opportunity to be wrong and to say it out loud. Sometimes we only become aware of our latent racism, sexism, and homophobia when we say something out loud - when we hear the words come out of our mouth and witness the reaction of others. The opportunity to be wrong necessitates the appropriate response. Instant condemnation will stifle any authentic conversation for the rest of the semester. This is a fragile situation in the classroom. What is the best way to respond? I am not completely sure, but I do think that it requires a little of Weber's verstehen, aka, empathy. If we have taken the time to understand the student's subject position, then we should not be surprised when something offensive is said - it is our response that transforms this into a teachable moment.

What has worked: 

The journals are incredibly helpful with this. When I read through them, I am able to ask questions and provide other points of view that are directly positioned to meet them where they are at.

Also, when an individual student provides an opinion that reflects racism or sexism, I reinterpret the statement in a general cultural way and comment on how society holds these beliefs, how they reflect the structural-cultural dimensions of racism, use it an an opportunity to discuss how opinions are formed and become cemented in culture as common sense. At the same time, we should not hesitate to call racism racism and sexism sexism. There is a lot of talk about what it mean to be white.

SIX: Teach Theory Holistically

Continue to discuss topics and theories even if you you think they have understood them.

It is easy to cover a topic or a reading and move on to the next one. However, simply covering the topic does not provide enough opportunity to reflect and wrestle with the ideas. It is important to keep revisiting terms and concepts and connect the reading together throughout the semester. In an attempt to create a holistic class experience, I decided not to teach by concept, rather we continued to read theorists from different perspectives throughout the semester. Each week we may read feminist, socialist, deconstructionists, ethnomethodoligists, postmodernists, race, capitalist. functionalists, and structuralists in conjunction with each other. This way, we don't just discuss economics one week, feminist theory the next, then race, then postmodernity, then globalization, and then religion. By continuing to take up the variety of subjects that cut to the core of our lived experience, each subject matter is placed in relation to the other. We are able to explore how economic and political structures interact with race and gender, media, culture, the historical development of philosophical ideas, and religion are continually interacting to construct our social realities - how those realities are cemented within our collective conscious - lead to invisible oppresive structures - and shape our individual identities and how we interpret truth from our unique positions.

What has worked:
1. Instead of teaching the basic schools of theory, I framed the class within the modern/ postmodern debate. We started and ended with a discussion about the characteristics of modernity and postmodernity. This gave us a structure to discuss political economy, race, class, gender, religion, and media culture in a way that acknowledged the interdependency of culture and theory.

2. I chose texts that would continue to weave the various concepts and theories together throughout the semester. Our main text was a reader, Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, edited by Charles Lemert. We read excerpts of works by Horkheimer and Adorno, Max Weber, Karl Marx, Emile Durkeim, C. Wright Mills, W.E.B. Du Bois, Gunnar Myrdal, C.L.R. James, Virginia Woolf, Cornel West, Jurgen Habermas, Dorothy Smith, Michele Foucault, Zygmunt Bauman, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and others. Like I said earlier, we did not read them in a topical order, rather we read them together throughout the semester.

3. The two secondary books I chose were Speeding Up Fast Capitalism by Ben Agger and Postmodernism is Not What You Think by Charles Lemert. We would read a chapter out of one of these books each week. These two books helped me teach holistically because they continually adressed theorists and theories that encompassed the fullness of social reality.

Thus, we continued to revisit ideas and theorists throughout the entire semester. As I have learned in my students journals, this method successfully helped them to connect the dots between history, theory, and their everyday life.

Teaching is not easy in general and teaching contemporary social theory is even tougher. Postmodernism is a theoretical perpective without consensus and gender, race, religion, and politics are sensitive subject that can lead to anger, frustration, and general uneasiness (especially at Texas A&M). But, as teachers, we should embrace this puzzle by meeting our students where they are, not making assumptions, speaking an understandable language, employing empathy, giving the opportunity to struggle with the big ideas and to be wrong, and teaching holistically.

The ultimate question of philosophy is - what is the good society? I believe that teaching is a form of social activism - not in a way that seeks to change religious and political beliefs - but in a way that creates a deeper understanding of how culture, language, ideas, experiences, religions, and economics shapes who we are, what we understand to be true, and how we interact with the world to make it a better or a worse place to live. A key tenet of postmodern theory is that there is no one truth that should be privileged over another. This does not mean that there is no such thing as "truth" but that there is no such thing as an "absolute truth" that applies to every person, in every culture, and in every historical time. This is the value of postmodern theory - if we can understand the ways in which our notions of truth are shaped and reshaped, we can let go of our insistence that my truth is the best for you. In this, we are freed to understand and value the differences that exist in the world. We can stop stigmatizing and marginalizing races, religions, cultures, genders, forms of government, economic structures, and sexual orientations.

However, this is as hard for many liberals and sociologists as it is for Christians and conservatives to accept. If we live in a world of many possible truths and realities - then we should not condemn Christians simply for being Christian or Republicans for being conservative. Rather, we should interrogate and continually reevaluate our subject positions - always asking the questions about whether we are contributing to a better world, whether or not we are taking the time to consider and understand the subject position of those we disagree with. Many evils have been committed in the name of religion and free markets but many evils have also been committed in the name of equality and freedom of expression. No one person or group is bad or good in their nature. We are all people, attempting to live each day with imperfect information, irrational emotions, incomplete experiences, and with the desire to love and be loved.

Empathy makes for a better world and a better classroom,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting (as an aerospace an engineer). Thanks for the diversion from Bayesian filters. :) I found the concept of the center of a society interesting (I had not really been exposed to that before). I wonder, do you think though that you will be of the last generation of instructors at Texas A&M to grapple with the challenge of the "center" here? As even though it seems very prominent today, I think in reality it is receding and its end is in sight. (Which is not to say that your ideas for teaching would not remain relevant!)