I have several years of teaching experience assisting with and instructing numerous sociology courses at a variety of institutions. In 2016, I was honored to receive an Outstanding Teaching award from Syracuse University, presented to graduate students “who have made distinguished contributions to the college by demonstrating excellence in significant instructional capacities.” As a first-generation college graduate, I am passionate not only about teaching, but mentoring undergraduate students, especially those who come from marginalized backgrounds. Reflecting on my own academic journey, I recall specific professors who challenged me, encouraged me, and set the example of what a mentor is. Today, I pay it forward by providing my students with the knowledge, tools, direction, and support they need to achieve their career goals and aspirations.
My primary tasks for each course I instruct are to educate students in sociology’s core concepts and perspectives, teach the logic and application of sociological research and analysis, strengthen students’ ability to effectively communicate ideas and findings to a wide audience, and apply these skills in their careers and everyday lives. Put simply, my job is to assist students in acquiring new tools with which to evaluate the social world. I place strong emphasis on the everyday applications of sociology and train students to critically question the links between the personal (micro) and the public (macro). As C. Wright Mills (1959) famously writes, “The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and its promise.” My lectures, readings, assignments, and classroom activities are designed to help fulfill this promise and guide students in the progressive development of their own sociological “lens.” Hopefully, they will continue to cultivate and rely upon it for the rest of their lives.
To educate students in sociology’s core concepts and perspectives, my lectures are vitally grounded in course readings. By closely linking lectures and readings, students learn to syphon out the main points and ideas from academic writing. I strive to make classroom lectures more interactive by intermittently posing open-ended questions, showing video clips, or pausing for brief “thinking exercises.” For example, Syracuse University Undergraduate Student Dia Matthews writes of my Social Problems course: “Another great aspect was her effective facilitating. She made sure the discussions in class were always relevant and in gear with the readings and lectures… I always felt that the instruction was clear and that the tone of the class stayed pertinent and well-structured—a quality I happened to love in comparison to some professors.” Engaging students during my lectures, while keeping them on topic, maintains a fresh learning environment, encourages participation, and importantly, allows me to gauge their depth of understanding. A learner-centered environment is of the utmost importance to me. As brilliant as a professor may be, barreling onward through course material is futile if you abandon many students in the wake.
Teaching students the logic and application of sociological research and analysis involves work both inside and out of the classroom. I accomplish this by designing a series of activities for them to collectively engage with throughout the semester. This challenges students to not merely think about, but actively “do” sociology. Often, implementation of these exercises works best in small groups. For example, when teaching about economic inequality, I have grouped students into small teams to first conduct their own research on a specific topic (welfare reform, minimum wage vs. a living wage, income taxation, etc..), then facilitate a series of classroom debates and debriefings. A few other examples of classroom exercises that I have used include cultural artifacts scavenger hunt, asking students make collages out of magazine pictures to teach about gender norms, or showing a powerful film that deals with the sensitive topic of racism and using it to anchor our discussion. These kinds of interactive approaches to learning gives students a visceral experience of leaning while empowering them to speak more confidently and openly about sociological topics in other courses, with friends/on social media, or even at the family dinner table.
The next level of “learning sociology by doing” is through writing. Each student’s analytical lens is developed and finely tuned by assigning a series of take-home assignments throughout the semester, which typically build to a final research paper and presentation at the end of the semester. Writing assignments and final research papers challenge students to work out their own deeper understandings of sociological topics, apply concepts to their own lives and interests, and hone their communication skills. For example, student Lilly Brown discusses in her recommendation letter how these assignments “reflect the course material very well, and add a personal aspect to the issues [such as class, race, and gender]. The fact that I could examine my own experiences and compare them to what we learned in class made me look forward to writing these essays.”
It’s important to note that as students’ eyes adjust to their new sociological lens, they tend to experience personal “revelations” or “growing pains.” In these moments, students’ inner struggle and discomfort may present challenges for me as an instructor. However, I have learned to welcome these moments as a sign of transformation, signifying a turning point for students. For example, student Autum Blood, writes. “She challenges her students to be open minded and see matters she is teaching with a broader scope. I found this very difficult because of some of my own beliefs and experiences she often tested. For example, she had us write on many subjects, but the one that most challenged me was on White Privilege. I had to step outside of my comforts and even some stereotypes and write from an entirely foreign prospective. Ultimately this allowed me an opportunity to grow personally.” Autum’s comment exemplifies a reoccurring pattern in my courses; that the very students who may appear to resist or push back during sensitive/difficult topics have the potential to grow the most, both academically and personally, by the end of the semester.
As a young instructor, I also continue to experience my own “growing pains” while navigating various obstacles and challenges each semester. Trying to convince students to read academic literature, long 3-hour classes that meet only once a week, teaching students who need my class as an elective, but come from very diverse majors (and political orientations) — these are only a few examples. To navigate each new challenge, I often turn to the cornucopia of teaching advice and literature available in academic journals and online websites, looking for applicable solutions. Having a network of colleagues who I can talk with about teaching and seek advice from is also an invaluable resource. Asking for feedback from students mid-semester and providing them with other opportunities to voice their concerns also helps me to adjust the rudder, if needed, and redirect the course in a more fruitful direction. Sociological courses always present the potential for growth and learning on both sides of the lectern, certainly for students, but also for instructors. I believe it is important to recognize and work through those inevitable moments of discomfort because therein lies the key to expanding the borders of our worldview in pursuit of growth and understanding.
In closing, my ultimate objective as a sociology instructor is to convince students to hold on to their sociological imagination once they exit my classroom for the last time. One of the most satisfying rewards for me is when students begin to recognize the long-term benefits that thinking sociologically offers in their careers and personal lives. By balancing the analytical, experiential, interactive, and reflexive approaches to learning sociology, I provide students the opportunity to engage in an immersive academic experience of learning, which they often enjoy. I hope that my passion for, and desire to share, both foundational and new sociological insights ignites students’ own enthusiasm for the discipline. I encourage you to please view my online Teaching Portfolio. It includes a section titled Evidence of Teaching Effectiveness, where you can view my collection of university teaching evaluations and Quantitative Summary Table.