Through years of teaching diverse students in the universities of New York City, I have developed teaching methods that start with students’ own experiences in order to engage them to sophisticated social analysis. While students are excited by the subject matter of sociology, the challenge lies in moving them beyond anecdotes to better see the social forces that shape daily life. By leaving sufficient space in my curriculum for student-led inquiry, students eagerly adopt sociological methods to understand the social problems that matter to them. In past courses this has opened up semester long discussions of topics such as street harassment, “normcore,” and beauty labor.
I design assignments that push students to do sociology as much as study it. One of my main pedagogical goals is to provide students both theories and methods to deconstruct dominant cultural narratives. To this aim, I incorporate opportunities for original research in all of my courses. For example, I prompt my introductory sociology students to anonymously write about a current social problem on a shared online site, such as a Google Doc. These writings allow students to conduct narrative analyses by identifying themes and patterns in their classmates’ contributions. Every semester, without fail, the similarities surprise us all. I weave our findings into the content of the entire semester. For example, when studying research methods, we think about the demographic characteristics of our class and about the limitations of our research design. From such student-led inquiry, I am able to capitalize on students’ interests. One semester students expressed concern with street harassment. I tailored my lectures to help them link their personal observations to rape culture, racial profiling, and institutional inequalities. By the end of the semester, students connected street harassment to sophisticated theorizing about a racialized, neoliberal ideology. Women, they discovered, must struggle to occupy public spaces, from the street all the way to the corporate office.
Providing students with the opportunity to practice sociology allows them to find social patterns in the personal stories, artifacts, and cultural creations of those we study as well as our own. For example, in my sociology of the family courses, we study family forms as arrangements based on the confluence of economic, racial, and legal power. The final project is to design public spaces that address the realities facing modern-day families such as an aging population or women-led households. Students draw from historical, legal, and sociological research for this project. Before students begin designing, we view films about the coterminous development of the suburbs and the Civil Rights movement to consider how the physical environment constrains social relationships.
From my training in instructional technology, I incorporate a digital learning component into my courses to foster students’ abilities to enter public conversations and learn transferable, technical skills. Not only do I create assignments that use various digital tools, I also dedicate curriculum to teach students to think critically about our increasingly digital world. For example, in my teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology, I have developed a sociological curriculum on the global labor of fashion. Both sociology and modern society started with the advent of the textile industry, and one of main routes to modernization for developing countries is to invest in textile and garment production. After establishing the labor practices and social rearrangements set in motion by the textile industries, I have students read about the service economy in post-industrial countries. We tudy the ways digital platforms reorganize the fashion industry, such that bloggers now command larger audiences than do magazines. Finally, I have students read about the free labor that floats the industry: from models walking catwalks for exposure, to bloggers writing reviews, and to the everyday use of Instagram that turns followers into paid work. As an example of an assignment for this course, students create a fashion archive that explores global networks of labor embedded within fashion objects of their choosing. This curriculum concretizes global shifts by connecting them to the everyday lives and practices of students.
Finally, while I experiment with digital technologies in my teaching, and encourage students to do the same, I keep our time in the classroom relatively lo-tech. I write notes on the chalkboard as discussion unfolds, orally question students on the readings, and provide time for them to work together. One of my most tried and true teaching techniques is the use of pen-to-paper, in class-writing exercises. I provide a prompt, let the students write, and then we discuss our responses together. This tool, above all others, always facilitates an open, safe, and lively discussion. Further, it allows quieter students to voice their ideas in a non-threatening manner. While digital tools greatly assist in engaging students, I find that class time is more effectively spent “unplugged.”