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14 August 2012

Saccharine Sociology and the Classroom

I haven't done a systematic analysis of these, but at the beginning of every semester, I ask my students to send me an email with their name, age, and hometown along with a sentence or two explaining why they're taking the course for which they have me. The answers to that last question are always quite interesting from my Intro to Soc students. They tend to be underclasspersons with little to no exposure to sociology so I get a lot of responses along the lines of "I'm interested in other people's opinions," "I like psychology," "I like history," "I want to understand interpersonal relationships." While all of those statements would certainly fall under the purview of sociology--at least in some way--none of them, to my estimation, comes close to demonstrating an understanding of what sociology is and does.

On the one hand, this is wonderful! Because the typical intro-level student is ignorant to sociology, every idea and concept that I present to them is going to be novel and, thus, captivating. There are ample opportunities for "aha moments." On the other hand, this points to a dearth of sociological education at the secondary level. Sociology simply isn't on the curricula in most school districts. That said, there is a real risk to the way that sociology is often taught at the high school level where it is on the curriculum. First, there is a tendency to avoid the hot-button issues and the radical (i.e. getting at the root cause) explanations to appease nervous administrators and to placate politically-primed parents. There really is, however, no way to teach sociology without engaging controversy. Second, because few sociologist teach at the high school level, sociology classes there are often taught by people who focus on other things like psychology, history, or "social studies." These classes then tend to focus more on the social psychological and cultural than on the institutional or structural. So, while it would be nice to have sociology taught more often and more prominently at the secondary level, it must be a faithful rendering of sociology and not sociology lite.


  1. After reading this entry, I experimented today with my two sections of my GC2Y class today. In the first, I asked them in class to tell me why they took the class, after telling them that it was ok to admit that they are taking it just to fulfill the Area B requirement. About 75% of them said because it sounded "interesting". In the next section, I asked them to send me an email like you have your students do, and they were much more explicit and detailed about what drew them to the class. So thanks for the idea! I had no idea that students would be much more forthcoming in an email.