Teaching Sociology to the Millennials

In the second of a short series of blog postings, author Rob Beamish discusses his experiences teaching introductory sociology, and how those experiences altered his writing of The Promise of Sociology: The Classical Tradition and Contemporary Sociological Thinking. This book was recently named one of the Outstanding Academic Titles of 2011 by Choice, a popular publication of the American Library Association.

The Promise of Sociology opens with a profile of first year students, or the “Millennials” (students born after 1990 who are now entering college or university), including who they are, how their life experiences have shaped them to date, what strengths and skills they bring to postsecondary education, and how well they may or may not meet the expectations of their professors.

A key theme in this opening chapter is the tension students will experience as they enter and must adapt to the largely print-based culture of postsecondary education. As successful as they were in high school, the expectations and skill sets needed to excel in university are quite different, and even though universities and instructors have made some concessions to the needs, wants, strengths, and interests of the Millennials, students themselves must make significant changes to succeed in the postsecondary system. The chapter is partly a reminder to the instructor about the students she or he will teach and partly a warning to first year students about the institutional expectations they will experience at university. Mostly, however, the chapter focuses on the engaging challenges, freedoms, and rewards that a postsecondary education holds out for students and the place that sociology can play in helping them realize the full potential of a liberal education.

I use a variety of sources to develop my profile of the Millennials, including The Beloit College Mindset List. The Beloit list is a useful reminder for instructors, particularly those who are as senior as I am, about the cultural and experiential divide that exists between professors (even young ones) and first year students. But as useful as the list and my other sources are in building a profile of the students I teach each year, my most profound insight came in the middle of a lecture on Emile Durkheim and his concept of social facts.

Several years ago I began to use Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater to provide a concrete illustration of the ways in which individuals’ biographies are shaped by the social worlds in which they live. Carrier’s story lends itself perfectly to a discussion of the social facts associated with the family, school, church, hockey rink, friendship groups, gender, class, ethnicity, residence, province, nation, and dominant culture (see the back of a Canadian five dollar bill for an example). I wanted students to grasp Durkheim’s notion that individuals are shaped by the social facts that surround them and are internalized in their everyday lives. Using Peter Berger’s imagery, I emphasized that every individual stands at the centre of a large number of overlapping concentric circles, and we proceeded to explore the social facts—or concentric circles—surrounding Carrier, and then his mother, father, siblings, and extended family in 1940s, rural Quebec.

To personalize the example, I asked the students to focus on how large their world was when they were five years old—what social facts impinged on them? I then asked how those concentric circles had changed by the time they were ten. When I asked about the age of 15 I was stopped short, because I suddenly realized that for those students 15 was only two or three years earlier. Much of what 30- or 40-year-old professors—to say nothing of 62-year-olds—know as part of their direct life experiences is purely abstract history to first year students. The social events and forces that shape the contemporary world may be something those students have heard or read about but they are not among the social forces that have directly shaped students’ lives (which is why it is always easier to teach introductory sociology to “mature students” coming into university because they have so many life experiences to draw upon and can quickly see how events in the past have shaped them and their circumstances in the present).

I drew two important lessons from that moment. First, because I firmly believe that sociology must be historically informed, I wanted to insure that my students were exposed to a perspective that emphasized the intersection of history and sociology. I also wanted the perspective to be something they could easily grasp at the outset, would serve them as a basic road map for thinking sociologically, and would lead them into a more profound sense of the importance of history for sociological analysis. As a result, I spend more time in my course and in The Promise of Sociology examining C. Wright Mills’s conception of “the sociological imagination” than is typical of most introductory courses or texts.

Rather than the quick overview found in most introductory courses, I take some time to explore how Mills’s idea moves students well beyond the psychologistic (or egocentric) view of “the natural attitude” and their “everyday stocks of knowledge” and enables them to grasp the relational nature of the world in which they live. While the phrase Mills crafted to capture sociology’s “task and promise” is brilliant—“the sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society”—I carry the discussion further into an analysis of Mills’s three key questions:

“What is the structure of this particular society as a whole?”

“Where does this society stand in human history?”

“What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and in this period? And what varieties are coming to prevail?”

The key relations that sociology must constantly address—structure/agency, macro/micro, field/habitus, power/knowledge, and past/present/future—are all captured in those questions. I use Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in the same vein that Durkheim studied suicide: to take what appears as an individual, psychologically based drama and indicate the rich, complex sociological understanding one can gain of 1950s North America by using Mills’s three, seemingly simple, questions.

Second, I realized that all first year courses—but sociology in particular—are part of an important transition in students’ lives. While they will progress from information consumers to knowledge producers over the course of their degree, the greatest change must come in first year where students who are only two or three years beyond the age of 15 are expected to demonstrate many of the skills of scholarly craftsmanship by second year.

To emphasize the nature of the transition students must achieve in their first year and to provide them with guidance and some of the tools necessary to make that change, The Promise of Sociology also explores the frequently forgotten appendix to The Sociological Imagination, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” Despite all the changes that have taken place in Canadian society since 1959 and all the adaptations that universities have made to the digitally based information society of today, postsecondary education best prepares students for the future when it instills the skills, perspective, and commitment to scholarly craftsmanship that Mills emphasized in that appendix. Letting students know what their “apprenticeship” will involve, giving them some of the tools to begin that journey, and emphasizing the promise that lies ahead as the craft of sociology is mastered are specific goals that I have woven into the first two chapters of The Promise of Sociology.

—Rob Beamish, Queen’s University

Note: If you are scheduled to teach a course in introductory sociology or sociological theory and would like to request an exam copy, please email requests@utphighereducation.com. We would be more than happy to give you the opportunity to review this excellent text for yourself!


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