Sociology enables us to look beyond individual experiences to appreciate the structural forces that shape our everyday lives. The cornerstone of my pedagogy is to help students become more sociologically-minded. This materializes into two interrelated teaching and learning objectives: (1) cultivating a “sociological imagination” and (2) fostering in-depth and critical thinking. I employ three strategies to aid students in achieving these objectives: (a) selecting readable and relatable texts, (b) diversifying teaching materials, and (c) emphasizing active learning and the collective production of knowledge.
My foremost goal in teaching undergraduate sociology is to help students cultivate their “sociological imagination”—the ability to grasp the relationship between personal biography and social structure. Being the fundamental promise of the discipline, this can be hard to get across to beginner students. Immersed in a culture that is increasingly obsessed with individuality and that celebrates personal achievement while divorcing personal failure from collective cause or remedy, the vast majority of my students arrive at university believing that their accomplishments result solely from individual effort and performance. Many have difficulty envisioning connections between individual outcomes and socio-historical forces. But unless students learn to connect the two realms by thinking sociologically, they will lack humility and compassion, they will intuitively praise the victor and blame the victim, and they will be oblivious to social injustice.
To prod students to think sociologically, I use readable and relatable texts to complement more classic sociological writings. For example, many students struggle to grasp C. Wright Mills’s original coinage of the “sociological imagination,” which is packed in an incisive but dense critique of the state of American sociology in the 1950s. To ease students into the concept, I assign Malcolm Gladwell’s New York Times bestseller Outliers to accompany Mills’s piece. We use the book’s delineation of successful people’s life trajectories to uncover the relations between the most intimate personal experiences and wider social forces that have previously gone unnoticed. Recognizing this individual-society link promotes a critical sensibility among the students: they learn to debunk the myth of the “self-made man”; they begin to appreciate the differences between and intertwinement of inequality of outcomes and inequality of opportunity; they gain a more grounded perspective about their own self and life chances, eager to seek out the public issues underlying their personal preoccupations.
I also use diverse teaching materials to facilitate understanding of difficult concepts. For instance, “hegemony” is an important concept in appreciating the complex nature of power, but for beginner students it can seem like an abstruse idea. To aid in comprehension, I use novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” which analogizes hegemonic ideas to dominant but reductionist narratives—most notably in politics and mainstream media—that oversimplify and essentialize complex human beings and situations. The video is a consistent crowd-pleaser and thought-provoker: it encourages critical reflection on how our consent to networks of power renders us in collusion in our own oppression. It is also a conversation starter, propelling vibrant class discussions about the intersections between the social production of knowledge and the perpetuation of power relations.
To equip students with the strategies and skills they need for in-depth and critical thinking, I push my students toward close reading—the kind of reading that requires careful evaluation and comparison of source materials. To facilitate close reading, each week I email my students a set of questions to guide them through the reading. The questions not only address key concepts and themes in the texts but also highlight compare-and-contrast across different readings. These “priming” questions push students to be more active, critical, and strategic readers, while also ensuring a common basis for class discussion. I have noticed increased class participation and more focused discussion since implementing this device.
At a deeper level, in-depth and critical thinking inspires academic pursuits that are morally and politically engaged. University life can pressure students to focus on coursework and exams at the cost of losing sight of the broader social relevance of getting an education. I want my students to be objective and contemplative, not apathetic and detached. I promote attentiveness by basing class discussions on real-life incidents and events. Sometimes these are mundane, such as when we use restroom etiquette to discuss the omnipresence and omnipotence of unwritten social norms. Other times I draw on extraordinary events, such as when we use the 2016 US presidential campaign to learn about racism, sexism, symbolic boundaries, and identity politics. Diverse class materials have again proven to be effective tools here. For instance, students respond positively to the award-winning Singaporean film Ilo Ilo, which I screen in class to demonstrate how structural arrangements imprint upon individual lives. Many students comment that the movie, in conjunction with the assigned reading, has alerted them to issues in their everyday lives that they never thought much of, such as the emotional labor involved in domestic work, the persistent gendered norms about prioritizing family or work, the increasing global inequality of access to care, and so on.
In summation, my goal of teaching sociology is not only to help students cultivate their sociological imagination and critical thinking abilities, but also to push them closer to the experience of being mature persons and complete citizens. I use readable and relatable texts, employ diverse materials, and advance active learning to help students lay a solid foundation in social sciences. Students frequently comment on my passion and enthusiasm in teaching. These are genuine sentiments, for I am excited to convey to my students the most rewarding lessons sociology has taught me: reflecting on the mundane, questioning the taken-for-granted, challenging the status quo, and above all, seeking truths and living an examined life.