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06 November 2015

Education as Conversion

In my teaching, I continually attempt to recreate a moment I had as an undergraduate in Introduction to Sociology many years ago. After having read an intriguing selection from Randall Collins the night before, I was listening to my professor explain Durkheim’s profound insight that “God is society.” Instantaneously, it was as if a light had been turned on in the recesses of my mind, illuminating a seemingly inexplicable set of lifelong observations and connecting a host of presumably independent phenomena. My sociological imagination had been ignited, and I set out energized to view the world through my new lens, a new frame.

As a sociologist of religion, I tend to see teaching and learning as more of a conversion experience than as an inculcation, as I think is demonstrated in my memory above. Primary and secondary education at present are typically (and I would argue unfortunately) more likely to involve an approach that sees this process as the gradual accretion of the knowledge of facts and the standardized testing for the student’s short-term retention of that information. The benefit of the conversion model is that it imagines the student as an actor with a distinct worldview instead of as a blank hard drive ready to be filled with data. The professor is a priest of sorts initiating the student-as-neophyte into a mystery, a previously hidden world.

A true conversion experience can be a frightening, even terrifying, experience as it jolts the initiate out of complacency and jars her previously held assumptions. It is understandable that many students are reluctant to embrace such experiences, which makes the professor’s role as guru all the more important. In addition, while conversion is often remembered as a moment of epiphany, it is more typically a gradual process of transformation. My own conversion experience was precipitated by a confluence of my previous education and a set of specific social structural trajectories. While I have no control over my students’ past experiences, I do have the institutional opportunity to expose them to particular academic stimuli.

As a practical matter, I take several steps in my courses to facilitate this type of conversion learning. First, I assign readings that demonstrate sociological research and thinking that has lead to non-obvious conclusions. The quintessential example of such readings is perhaps Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual among the Nacirema.” The sentiment may be abused, but it is apt: it makes the familiar strange. Second, I employ a kind of Socratic method in the classroom. By asking questions of the students, I help them to recognize their shared assumptions about the world and can then reveal data that belie their assumptions as irrational. A good example is asking students if they get at all anxious about flying (most do) and if they are afraid of driving (no one is) and then presenting them with statistics about transportation fatalities. Third, as much as is feasible, I center the graded portions of courses on written assignments. Writing necessarily forces students to engage in the kinds of evaluation, synthesis, and analysis that is much more difficult to encourage with tests and quizzes, which are typically more appropriate to engaging knowledge, comprehension, and application. The combination of these exercises and others ushers students into the liminal space between their common worldviews and the sociological.

In sum, I see sociology as more a way to view the world than a set of facts to be memorized. More broadly, a liberal arts education, of which sociology is an indispensable part, is a comprehensive way of reorienting students’ minds. Students will invariably forget the minutia that they are taught by rote, but if the conversion experience truly takes, the student’s new worldview is nearly impossible to undo. This is my duty and privilege as a sociology professor.

1 comment:

  1. Slot on. The whole LARP thing makes no sense. Why spend the time in the meetings unless there is a clearly defined process to implement. Seemed like a way to keep some people busy... Or justify their positions.