Sociology’s particular strength is its ability to reveal what appears normal and natural to be strange and constructed. My teaching is grounded in this strength and aims to “critically reorient students to society” (Shor & Freire 1987:40). This pedagogical approach, which I have honed while completing a Sociology Teaching Skills graduate certificate at the University of Oregon, has earned me high ratings on student evaluations as well as an award for excellence in undergraduate teaching.
A curious skepticism toward “common sense” undergirds the critical social inquiry necessary to transform structures of inequality and provides students with a set of transposable analytical skills that they can employ beyond my classroom as new practitioners of the sociological imagination. I facilitate surprising discussions designed to shake up students’ common-sense assumptions by “problematizing the obvious.” This is a particularly useful strategy at the introductory level, when my primary goal is to explode the knowledge that students come into class already possessing. For instance: I complicate students’ beliefs about the universality and timelessness of sexual identity categories like “gay” and “straight.” These categories did not exist prior to the professionalization of Western medicine, during which physicians were consumed with the project of categorizing humans into “types,” and contemporary research shows individuals’ desires frequently fall outside the commonly-accepted definitions of their identities, e.g., many heterosexuals desire same-sex sex.
Rather than just lecturing about this, I first prompt a discussion that does not mention “sexuality” at all: “Alex identifies as a vegetarian. Alex advocates for animal welfare and increased vegetarian options on campus. Most of the time, Alex eats vegetables, grains, fruits, and dairy. Every now and then, Alex eats a hamburger. Is Alex a vegetarian?” As students offer opinions, I tease out some underlying principles: the right to self-definition, the rigidity (or not) of identity categories, the links between identities and politics, the tensions between desires and practices, among others.
As a further wrinkle, I purposefully phrase the question without using gendered pronouns for Alex. During the ensuing discussion, I seize on an opportunity to ask which students gendered Alex as “he,” “she,” “they,” or something else, and we discuss the implications of Alex’s gender on students’ interpretations of Alex’s behavior and identity. Then, I reveal that I asked this question as a segue into a discussion of sexual identity. Sometimes, a few students have figured this out already, but the majority are surprised, and many are eager to discuss how this analogy holds up to the historical and social-scientific evidence I provide, as well as how it complicates their own beliefs about the naturalness of sexual identity categories.
I have had students come to my office hours and say they had never thought about sexuality in this way before, and that thinking through this exercise has prompted them to be more critical of how LGBTQ issues are framed and debated in our society. Students leave my classes “reoriented to society” – that is, better poised to dissect debates around not only sexuality (i.e., is same-sex marriage a useful strategy toward the elimination of sexual inequalities?) but also a broad range of topics we cover in class that intersect with it, including immigration and the prison-industrial complex. Most students in my classes will not become professional sociologists; thus, the purpose of my teaching is not just to impart sociological knowledge, but also, as a matter of public sociology, to cultivate students’ critical examination of social inequalities more broadly.