Checking Out

I have a novel idea for an intro to soc class – one that has been inside my head long enough that it is threatening to become brain crack.

I don’t really like the standard intro format.  I certainly understand it; when you cram a whole bunch of highly-specialized people into a department and then develop The One Course that (in the darkness) binds them, you’re going to end up with what is basically a hodgepodge of all of their interests.  But let me tell you: it sucks.  It sucked when I took it, and it blew when I taught it.  As I have seen, a good professor can make it work, but I just don’t think the structure is enough to build a really mind-blowing course.

I’m not sure why we do it this way, either.  My political science department offered an intro course for each of its specialties (your typical American Gov’t, International, Comparative, and Theory/Methods); econ has Micro and Macro, at least.  But sociology, along with psychology, offer introductory courses that are something like (to quote from the comments on a paper I turned in a couple years ago) “describing the leaves on trees from a jet at 40,000 feet and 500mph”.  All I came away with, and much of what I felt like I was teaching my students, were tidbits.

My idea, then, is to teach an intro course with a unifying theme.  Something that would be able to unify most of the specialties while being a smidge less abstract than the Big Three Perspectives.  Something classic but not dead.  Something eye-opening.

Something like… suicide.

Depressing, I know.  But every specialty has something to say about suicide, because it’s a sort of ultimate rejection of society.  The Big Three have their perspectives, of course.  I think that teaching methods would gain tremendously because there would be a single focus for each, allowing for a practical comparison of which method does what.  Then each of the usual sections – culture, deviance, family, religion, inequality, organizations, etc. – could all chip in.  An intro student from this class might not know as much about each, since the content would be suicide-focused, but they would know how to address a social (urgh) problem from beginning to end.

If prepared well enough, you could even let the students sort of “spontaneously” determine what to cover next.  This is essentially what I did on the first day of teaching intro discussion sections: I put up six charts of suicide rates (which you can see on the GRAPHIC page above), then put them into small groups to try to come up with theories to explain the variations.  From these initial theories, you could lead them through each of the possible causes, perhaps building a regression model as you go.  And you could incorporate lots of current events and up-to-date research.

There are, of course, some serious problems that could arise.  It is damn depressing, but hopefully that would become known after the first semester (and certainly after the first day), and it certainly wouldn’t be the only intro class available.  The Golden Child raised concerns about it filling out a full semester or getting boring after a month that I think are totally legitimate.

I’m curious about your experience, dear three readers who haven’t already talked to me about this.  Let me know what you think.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Checking Out

  1. Unifying theme: yes
    Suicide: no

    I would pick a television series or a movie (or perhaps movies in general) and use that as a theme.

    Each new topic can be addressed with a new movie or new episode.

  2. Huh, yeah. I don’t think I would take that one.

  3. Anonymous

    I took Intro to Soc at a well regarded midwestern university. Normally the class was taught by a “grand man” of the department. All the undergrads loved it! All my friends insisted that I take. Of course, when I registered for it, it was the session that he didn’t teach.

    Instead, we had a brand new junior faculty member. He organized the course around a unifying theme. He chose “class.” Now that I’m a sociology grad student that seems ridiculously broad for a unifying theme. But the class was awesome. We touched on all the grand theories and different subfields, but all through the lens of class. While the class wasn’t as entertaining as my friends all got. I learned tons and was turned on to sociology for life.

    So for what it’s worth, I think theming it is a good idea. If I’m ever forced to teach Intro (Goddess forbid!), I’ll definitely use a theme.

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