Teaching

Sociology is fundamentally not about learning any particular set of facts or figures. It is about learning to see the world differently. As students learn this new sociological way of seeing, it can be a life-changing experience: they learn to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions and integrate their personal experience into a broader understanding of the social. In teaching sociology, I see my primary goal as helping my students to develop this new way of seeing and thinking about the world.

Eidlin teaching Weber
To reach this goal, I draw on tools I initially developed as a union organizer prior to beginning my graduate training. I see teaching and organizing as related. In both cases, the aim is to provide others with the tools and the confidence they need to make sense of the world independently, not passively accept what they are told. In both cases, the teacher/organizer must help others address and overcome fears and insecurities, be it the fear of speaking out, the fear of being wrong, the fear of looking stupid, and more. In both cases, a key challenge is to encourage risk-taking while avoiding discouragement. And in both cases, success comes through collaboration and drawing on each other’s strengths.

To address these teaching challenges, I organize my classes with these precepts in mind:

  • Create community: It is difficult for students to develop the confidence they need to explore new ideas if they do not have a safe, supportive environment in which to do so. From the first day of class, I strive to create a classroom community that is conducive to intellectual exploration. I seat students in a circle with nametags to facilitate discussion, and ensure that students get to know each other as individuals through icebreakers and other activities (these activities also have the side-benefit of surreptitiously introducing students to a key sociological research method, namely interviewing). I have also developed a set of guidelines for respectful classroom discussion that I share with students at the outset.
  • Take risks and test limits: A safe and supportive environment is not always a comfortable environment. This is especially the case in sociology classes, which not only deal with controversial subject matter, but also introduce students to theories that can be deeply at odds with their worldview. This can risk alienating students, but it can also provide an opportunity for intellectual growth. In my discussion questions and writing assignments, I encourage my students to explore new ideas, while also pushing them to ground their arguments in evidence.
  • Build on existing knowledge: I recognize that although my students come to my classes relatively new to the course material, they do bring with them a variety of knowledge and experiences. I seek to incorporate this into my teaching, both substantively and structurally. To give a substantive example, in discussing Veblen’s theory of the leisure class, I would have students relate the theory to commodity-based status hierarchies on campus as a form of conspicuous consumption. As a structural example, I use small group activities to allow students to teach each other, as I find that this gives students more ownership of the material, and increases their confidence in their ability to grasp and apply the theories we study.
Criterion of Bureaucracy
  • Get it in writing: Regular, intensive writing is at the core of my teaching philosophy. I require weekly writing responses of my students. Rather than grading them individually, I have students discuss their responses in pairs briefly before broadening discussion to the entire class. I find that this creates accountability among the students, and ensures that they come to class prepared to engage. If discussion is lagging, I will provide students with time in class to free-write in order to collect their thoughts, which often improves participation.
  • Different pathways to involvement: Since different students have different learning styles and different ways of participating, I structure a variety of activities into class time. In addition to regular class discussion, I will often use small group discussion to make difficult texts more accessible. I divide up students and assign each group a question covering a specific aspect of the text, and then reassemble the groups so they can discuss the text as a whole. I also move outside the familiar discussion section format. For example, when covering social contract theory in my Classical Political Economy course, I staged a three-way parliamentary style debate between Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, where students not only had to argue the point of view of their assigned theorist, but also had to critique the other theorists from their theorist’s perspective.
  • Encourage self-directed learning: Ultimately my goal as a teacher is to help students take ownership of their education and learn to teach themselves. I do this through my writing assignments as well as exercises specifically geared towards developing critical reading skills. Additionally, I structure the research assignments in my courses to allow students time for proper problem formulation, and work with them to figure out what kinds of evidence will be necessary to evaluate their hypotheses.

I am currently teaching an undergraduate course on sociological inquiry at McGill University. At Rutgers University I taught an undergraduate course on "Youth and Work," and in Spring 2014 taught an advanced undergraduate/graduate seminar on Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy in America Since 1890 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In my time at UC Berkeley, I was a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) for Introduction to Sociology (taught by Ann Swidler), U.S. History from the Civil War to the Present (taught by Leon Litwack), and Theories of Classical Political Economy (Taught by Alan Karras). I have also served as a mentor for the department's undergraduate honors program. 
 
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