Julie Pelton, University of Nebraska Omaha.and TRAILS Editor
As I write, it has been a little over a week since the election. I suspect that my week has been similar to that of many academics who teach. The day after the election was a teaching day for me: a graduate-level Seminar on TeachingThat morning I found myself asking: “Can I do this?” Going to my office seemed like a difficult task; teaching seemed impossible. Two days after the election, our state sociological association held its annual undergraduate conference and I was slated to travel as our departmental representative. So, on Thursday, I found myself asking: “Do I really need to do this or is there some better use of my time?”
I took the time to really listen to our students during this past week and here is what they are saying: yes, we need to do this. We can do this. There is no better use of our time.
My graduate students said they were tired and didn’t want to talk about the election. Unlike many of our students, they did not need a space to process the election results, but I would have provided it if they did. They wanted to jump right into the material instead. Inevitably, perhaps, we did come back to the issue of the election results. For these students, the big question was whether they should talk about the election in their teaching demonstration and how they could address the topic. They were concerned with the risk associated with speaking out as well as the risk of staying silent about sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiment, etc. These students needed me to help them navigate this difficult question so that they could best help their students. We talked about how to create “safe spaces” for open discussion as well as sociology’s unique ability to speak the issues they saw as emerging out of political discourse. I reminded them that part of their role, as a teacher, should be to connect students with the safety and mental health resources they might need on campus. We brainstormed ways to use sociology and sociological research to teach about polling, voting patterns, political disenfranchisement, economic deprivation, changes to the global economy, social class discontent, privilege, and more. Their passion for using sociology to educate and inform was inspiring. It reminded me that the next generation of sociologists needs us to tackle these issues. We can help them use sociology to discuss these issues publicly. There is no better use of our time than teaching them how to teach sociology.
The students at the Nebraska Undergraduate Sociology Symposium (NUSS) didn’t say much about the election either. Their words were powerful and inspiring nonetheless. A panel of recent graduates from a variety of Nebraska colleges and universities spoke about their careers since completing a degree in sociology. These students spoke eloquently and passionately about the central role of the sociology major in who they are today and the type of work they do. Their words quickly became the highlight of my week. These students said that sociology taught them the ability to see other perspectives and to understand other people’s experiences.* Sociology taught them humility and empathy. It was a source of encouragement for them to keep going in the face of social problems. Our discipline gave them the ability to advocate with and for marginalized communities and to challenge the status quo—they want to make society better. They want to advocate for sociology and we can help them do this. Sociologists need to teach our students how to pass along the sociological imagination. There is no better use of our time than helping our students teach others how to see other perspectives and understand other people’s experiences.
How Can Sociologists Help?
Many of us who teach undergraduate and graduate classes are now asking “What more can we do?” And sociology can help here too. I encourage you to turn to a few resources I have found helpful. During the past week I turned regularly for guidance to the inspiring teachers who contribute to the Facebook group Teaching with a Sociological Lens. The amazing teachers in this group compiled an impressive list of ways they taught about the election in their classes. They shared effective techniques for creating safe spaces for dialogue in their classrooms. At ASA, TRAILS, of which I am the editor, compiled a set of teaching resources on “Teaching About the 2016 Election” that bring together activities and assignments related to topics raised in this post. For those interested in helping students to understand the election, to effectively utilize the sociological perspective, or to participate in social change I hope you will find these resources valuable and share with others ways to keep doing more.
I’ve heard our students, and I know you are listening too. They have a lot to teach us. If we listen we can find the inspiration to do what we do when we are tired or worried or angry. We can hear that what we do matters and that what we do is important. Their take on “what sociology gives them” tells us we need to cover the data and ideas that helps them put this election into context so that our students can talk about it with others. We are right to emphasize our disciplinary ability to walk in other people’s shoes so that our students can carry that skill and that knowledge into their conversations with others. Armed with knowledge and the ability to engage in civil discourse our students will be compassionate advocates for a sociological understanding of the world beyond this election.
*Over 80% of graduating sociology majors report an ability to describe and explain “people’s experiences as they vary by race, class, gender, age, and other ascribed status” and “current sociological explanations about a variety of social issues.” (American Sociological Association, Research and Development Department, 2006. “What Can I Do with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology” A National Survey of Seniors Majoring in Sociology: First Glances: What Do They Know and Where are They Going? Washington, DC: American Sociological Association.)