If we teach sociology to learn how to detect and analyze social phenomena, the the process of teaching sociology needs to link sociological theories with personal biographies of students, their immediate concerns, and future aspirations. Such level of intimacy between theory and the lived experience requires the instructor and students to trust each other, understand each other's expectations, and to have a collaborative and interactive relationship in the classroom. Implementation of all these needs a clear contract whose requirements are lucidly articulated and agreed upon. 

Mutual Understanding: Knowing each other, our expectations, and desired rules

I start my first day of the semester with drawing a mind map on the board to introduce myself. Mind maps are demonstrative thinking tools for note-taking and note-making used by geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci. Mind maps are visual representations of one’s thoughts. After introducing myself with my mind map, I distribute blank sheets among students and ask them to draw three mind maps of their own. On one side of the sheet, they are asked to draw a mind map to introduce themselves (Introduction Mind Map). On the other side, they are asked to draw two mind maps: one about their expectations from our class and one about their desired class rules. I collect the sheets and review them carefully, noting individual requests and general themes. This activity has multiple benefits. With the help of students’ Introduction Mind Map and photo roster, I get to know each student’s name, associate names with faces, and get to know them better as individuals. By quickly learning students’ names, I begin to call on them by their first names in the second session. This enables me to start forging a powerful personal connection to each student. Additionally, being called by their first names, makes students understand that they cannot remain one anonymous student among many. It makes them to feel the need to be accountable and responsible. I also carefully go over students’ expectations for the class and their desired class rules. This collaborative class management and its ownership results in a positive classroom climate. The success of this technique encouraged me to present and share this technique in USF’s Celebration of Teaching conference in 2016 (poster is attached) where I received lots of positive feedback.

 

Singing a Contract: Establishing a transparent relationship

Clearly defined and unanimously agreed rules are necessary for a successful classroom relationship. As such, on the first day of class I carefully go over the syllabus with students. This much attention to the syllabus sets the tone and gives students ample opportunity to understand the goals, objectives, and assessment strategies that are used in the course. I give them some time to discuss the syllabus among themselves. After inquiring about their possible questions or concerns, I elaborate on the important sections of the syllabus. I also assign them a homework exercise, asking them to read the syllabus thoroughly before our second meeting and make sure they have understood it all. In the meantime, I go over students’ Mind Maps on Rules and Expectations and produce a Power Point presentation in which I synthesize the main themes that have emerged from this exercise. In the second meeting, we go over the Power Point, and compare and contrast their expectations and rules with my syllabus. After discussing and finalizing the similarities and differences between the rules and expectations suggested by students and those stated on the syllabus, I ask students to sign and date the last page of the syllabus, detach it, and leave it on my desk before leaving the class (document attached). This technique has been very helpful to me and students. It turns our syllabus into an official and transparent contract around which we all gather and collaborate. At the end of the semester, I will pull up the same Power Point slides about rules and expectations to discuss and evaluate our collective progress (document attached). This reminds students of what they have achieved throughout the semester. 

 

Collaboration and reflexivity: Group work, group activities, and group exams

A collaborative class design and pedagogy is necessary if one wants to turn the traditional style of lecturing to a student-centered experience. One way of creating a collaborative class, for instance, is having group exams. As part of a cooperative assessment strategy in my Classical Sociological Theory class, students take two group exams. The group exams are designed to make students work together and nurture a teamwork spirit. For these exams, groups are solidified two weeks before the exam day so students have enough time to get to know each other better. One week before the exam day, I upload a pool of 14 questions on Canvas (document attached), out of which seven question will be assigned on the exam day. Students are required to choose three questions and answer them. Students are expected to work together consistently, share notes, and strive towards their group’s collective success (rubric attached).

In my Classical Sociological Theory class, in addition to two group exams, students produce three essays. In first two essays students are asked to link sociological theories to current events. For instance, they are asked to use Marx to analyze Fight for 15, or Durkheim to investigate mass incarceration in the US (rubric attached). Since I provide clear guidelines in rubrics and give extensive feedback on each assignment, in the third essay students are asked to choose their own topic and craft their own final essay (rubric attached). The final essay is also the result of some group deliberations and personal reflections. To help students with their final essay, we have a Discussion Session towards the end of the semester. In the Discussion Session students come to class with an outline, sit in groups and discuss their topic and their approach. While students are giving each other feedback, I join the groups one by one to monitor discussions, and answer any questions they might have.

 

Interactivity: Documentaries, activities, and multimedia material

Sociology classes, however potentially exciting, can be alienating if they are all based on dry modes of knowledge delivery. They can also become divisive if sensitive issues are discussed without preparing students and providing substantiated explanations. To avoid these situations, I make extensive use of documentaries, activities, and multimedia material. I have, for instance, divided my Classical Sociological Theory class into four major chunks. At the end of each chunk we watch a documentary. After finishing classes on Karl Marx, for example, we watch a documentary called Dogtown Redemption and after Weber and Durkheim we watch Fixing the System. The screening times are also chosen carefully. These documentaries will be watched on the session right before the exam day. This timing allow students to refresh their minds and review the concepts and theories as we watch and discuss the documentary. Additionally, it gives students a day without reading to go over the already-covered material. On the screening day, I upload a viewing guide on Canvas which contains some general questions about the relevance of the documentary to class material, some questions about the information presented in the documentary, as well as some discussion questions (viewing guide attached).

Sociology as the study of social order and social action cannot only happen between the walls of the classroom. That’s why we do a lot of outdoor activities. For instance, for showing how social structures influence our lives, we do an outdoor activity called The Privilege Walk (document attached). In this walk eight volunteers, from different class backgrounds, races and ethnicities, religious affiliations, and sexual orientations, react to statements which are read aloud to them. Depending on the applicability of the statement to them or not, volunteers react by stepping forward, back, or standing still. The statements include facts which influence our lives beyond our choice. For instance, one of the statements is “If you were brought up in a family in which there were 50 or more books, step forward” (video).  This activity helps students to understand that a homeless person in poverty, for instance, is not homeless only because s/he has made wrong decisions. They learn that there are social facts and structures above and beyond our choice that have determining impacts on our lives.

I also make extensive use of engaged activities. On our session on gender roles, for instance, I ask two volunteers, one who identifies as “female” and one as “male,” to come to the front of the class and bring with them a folder or a notebook. I ask them to separately walk back and forth in front of the class. I ask other students to carefully observe them. Then I pose several questions about how their gait was different, how they held the folder, how big their steps were, etc. Students often associate confidence and freedom with the “male” walk and caution and confinement with the “female” walk. After writing students' points on the board, we look for sociological explanations of these differences. An interview here with a prominent feminist scholar, Judith Butler (video) would shed light on societal expectations that even affect our very “simple” act of movement in the society. I also use excerpts from movies (video) to explain complex concepts like excessive division of labor and alienation. Using multimedia material serves multiple purposes. In addition to being entertaining and adding visual aspects to our learning experience, they substantiate arguments by virtually bringing in different established scholars to the class.

 

Evaluation

As I teach sociology to inform our struggle for equality and justice, I try to exercise principles of fairness in my own class on a daily basis. Besides agreeing on class expectations and rules in the first and second sessions, signing our syllabus as our contract, and constant check-ins with students, I provide rubrics for every single activity, assignment, documentary screening, and presentation (rubric attached). They are all uploaded on Canvas and available to students to guide them as they complete assignments.

 

Delivering Hope: Discussion session

On the last day of class, before the deadline for the final essay, we will have a Discussion Session. Discussion Session is an opportunity for us to talk about students’ final essays and to wrap up the class. After one semester of talking about social problems the Discussions Session is a chance for me to focus on inducing courage in and delivering hope to my students. In the Discussion Session we talk about how we can remain hopeful in the face of chronic social problems and discuss possible ways of serving our professional community and the general public. 

Conclusion

All the measures explained above work together to serve one purpose: teach and train passionate scholars and caring individuals. They are meant to prepare students for using their knowledge for personal fulfillment as well as collective prosperity. From reflection on our own identities to seeing social phenomenon from each other’s perspective, we are constantly endeavoring to preserve and disseminate hope. My class is designed to create that hope, nurture that attitude, and empower us all.

Teaching reflection as the reflection of self