A message to my students as they enter my classroom each semester. From a sociologist.

Samantha Fox

November 26, 2017 (base script); periodically revised

College (or university) is not a means to an end. It is an opportunity to grow such that you have the intellectual, personal, and social skills to succeed in a professional environment upon graduation. What this means is that college does not serve the purpose of job training. Job training is the purpose of vocational school, or more appropriately the job of the employer. University education serves students in a different capacity. It serves to elevate intellectual capacities, to allow time to reflect on various fields of inquiry, engage with different approaches to knowledge, and to develop as a person through exposure to diversity of thought. The education one receives in a college or university is very much a space of social exclusion based on race, class, and gender (among other axes of inequality and privilege). The costs of attendance at university are prohibitive for the majority of this country’s people and even more so for people of other countries. The United States has one of the highest costs of university education in the world. It is a privilege to attend university and you should take every opportunity available to you. 

Being a student is your job. It is a form of work you signed up for. You should view yourself as an employee in the classroom. Treat the classroom like a workplace. Most students are taking on incredible amounts of debt—a form of negative income that you will work for a wage for years, if not a lifetime, to pay off. You are not a customer of the university. Customers can do whatever they want with the products they buy. As a student and an employee of the classroom, you are gaining a skill set denied to most of the world’s people. If you opt not to embrace the opportunity for an education while attending university, you diminish the quality of the institution you attend and the institution of higher education. Wage-paying employers do not want uneducated customers turned employees, they want professionalized individuals with the skills to help their business succeed. Your commitment to this endeavor of professionalization makes the university and your future employer proud. 

Developing the intellectual skills required in the waged workplace requires you go through a period of learning where you earn a negative wage (debt) that is intended to prepare you for an income-based job. Bridging your time as student in the required public education system (or privately acquired public education as the case may be) is the college experience. You have much more freedom in college. You are free to choose to go to class, to use electronics, to go to the bathroom. These freedoms are important but as the axiom goes: with freedom comes responsibility. Show respect for yourself, peers, and the professor by limiting your use of electronics in the classroom. Remove headphones, avoid consuming food, and spend time thinking about the subject in the moments prior to arriving in the classroom. You are responsible for your education. Your final grade in this course will be interpreted through the education-is-a-job frame of thought wherein you are evaluated based upon your ability to adhere to professional standards associated with classroom conduct. This breaks down into social and intellectual components. It means coming to class on time, prepared to discuss course materials, having done independent research as necessary (we all have different knowledge sets and holes in our knowledge), having identified difficult concepts and ideas (the common holes that define our field of study: sociology), prepared with a discussion question (use what is important to think about from the course materials to design a summative question), able to identify important points, and with a personal reflection on the subject matter under investigation.  

My classroom is a communist space. You have power over your learning, individually and as a group. I seek to create a learning community, where diverse voices have the opportunity to express themselves. Even so, if you are advocating oppression—tacit or explicit—and someone calls you out, accept the critique with poise and grace. Avoid defensive behaviors or assigning blame. Your voice matters. If you think something is worth spending time in discussion, be prepared to explain what that point is and how you understand it. Bring a question to get students thinking about that point. I am a guide, a facilitator of your learning. This is how I teach. I do not have dominance over knowledge; I am an authority in my field of expertise. I can help you understand the material and the data behind a sociological analysis but I cannot dictate how you understand or interpret sociological data. If you want to change the trajectory of the course by delving deeper into a certain subject, bring it up to the class so that as a community we can determine whether that is the best course of action for our collective intellectual enrichment. As facilitator of your learning, I am open to altering the course structure in ways that better serve student interest and ability. 

Intellectual honesty is a virtue. It must be buttressed by expertise over the subject matter, an understanding of diverse perspectives, and effective communication.  Knowing your audience in the immediate but also respective of the diversity that exists in society broadly is important to effective communication. Being precise in your use of terms demonstrates clarity of thought and helps others to understand you. Make use of theoretical concepts as appropriate. Some concepts are intended to frame how we think about the subject matter, other concepts are intended to be used in the course of conversation. Professionalism in the classroom means acknowledging your colleagues, addressing your colleagues ideas, and not exclusively relying on affirmations from the professor. You are bright people! If you are misguided and your peers do not correct a misinterpretation I will interject. Do not assume you are wrong. Do not engage in self-deprecations. Study to the extent that you are confident in your abilities. Discuss ideas in class to deepen your understanding of concepts and ideas that you are less confident with.

As a student in a sociology course, you are expected to practice the discipline of sociology through your ability to communicate the subject matter in the professional context of the classroom. Sociology is not a course rooted in the memorization of facts. Many sciences rely on the memorization of facts and inserting data into formulas for several years before they introduce the rigors of analytical thinking necessary for data interpretation. Sociology utilizes facts for analytical thinking from the start. Data is important, facts are important. The foci of sociological analyses are meanings, practices, characteristics, qualities, and behaviors. These can be researched using qualitative or quantitative methods. The profession of sociology thus utilizes empirical data collected with the intention of demonstrating the existence of phenomena (the more quantitative side of sociology) and explaining why it exists in the way it does (the qualitative side of sociology). As with all academic scientists, sociologists are subject to peer-review which maintains the professional standards of the discipline. In the classroom, peer-review manifests as collective engagement with course materials as we work through the information and develop a critical understanding of the social world.