Teaching Goals and Experience
Pedagogy at the university level should be aimed at helping students develop into life-long learners that become educated and engaged members of society. This means, in part, helping students to become active learners (rather than simply regurgitating material), helping them to see the value in what they are learning, and for many, helping them to develop the skills they need to be successful in college. I have found students to be increasingly pragmatic, however, and the majority tell me that they are in college to earn a degree so that they can get a good job. When many students are enrolled full-time and work at least part-time, and when graduates face an average of $30,000 of student loan debt upon graduation, we cannot discount the need to be pragmatic. Yet university mission statements continue to emphasize local and global community involvement, and my personal goal remains: to help students build a better future for themselves and others.
As an experienced instructor, I fully understand the challenges of such a goal. My teaching experience is broad, varied, and perhaps a bit unusual: I chose to enter a PhD program in sociology after I became tired of working as an English adjunct/instructor but wanted to remain in higher education. Sociology was a natural fit for me. I have taught at universities, colleges, and community colleges. I have taught traditional classes, non-traditional degree-completion evening classes, and dual credit, independent study, and online classes. I received extensive training and mentoring in teaching as an English graduate student, and I found that this training transfers to the sociology classroom quite well. As the Adaptive Technology Specialist for K-State’s disability office, I learned – and lectured on – universal design concepts for learning, which have become increasingly important as our use of technology in the classroom increases.
My role in the classroom is only partially “expert” and “evaluator;” I am also a facilitator; a coach. This approach means that I allow students to teach me as well – about their lives, their culture, and so on. This practice has proven effective in bridging gaps created by differences in age, marginalized statuses, experience, etc. Students learn best when they find the material relevant and engaging, and when they participate in generating their own knowledge. As an instructor, I meet students “where they are,” tying lived experience, current events, and active learning to course material whenever possible. To do so I use a combination of lecture, small and large group discussion, games, online media, writing assignments, and strategic use of course management software to teach course content in a way that is meaningful and memorable. Sociology is in the doing.
Example: Introduction to Sociology students visited local retailers and diagrammed the toy sections, making note of organization, signage, color schemes, etc. They then wrote a message board post that incorporated academic research to help explain what they found. In the classroom, they worked in groups to conduct a SWOT analysis, taking gender socialization into account, design a layout for a new toy store that they felt would be competitive, and present their store design to the rest of the class. Engagement in the activity was high, student presentations were informal but informative, and their designs were insightful. We have since referred to this assignment when discussing inequality, the wage gap, and household labor. When I repeat the assignment, I intend to expand how I present the assignment to emphasize the field research aspects to begin to de-mystify sociological research.
Example: Another of my exercises has been published in Teaching Sociology, was featured (along with others) on the ASA website for several weeks, and recently appeared in an article on the Huffington Post website. “Gender Stratified Monopoly: Why do I Earn Less and Pay More?” surveys existing, published forms of stratified Monopoly and adds gendered elements to emphasize the intersection of class and gender. The IRB-approved research I conducted on student responses showed that the exercise was successful at helping them to understand a complex problem. I have been invited to run the simulation game for K-State STEM programs and in other classrooms, and the exercise is beginning to appear in classrooms at other colleges. To facilitate use by other teachers, I made game setup materials available on my website; these have been downloaded many times.
My approach to assessment varies by the type and size of the class. When classes are small, I typically evaluate student learning through writing assignments and other projects. For larger classes, I evaluate based on shorter, more frequent writing assignments, quizzes, and exams. All writing assignments are paired with clear sets of instructions and rubrics that are available to students well in advance of the due date. In online classes, students respond to weekly prompts over specific elements of the readings, and read and respond to other posts.
Adaptation and Professional Improvement
Adaptation to student needs is an important quality in a successful teacher. Several years ago, I realized that my students lacked much of the understanding of the “hidden curriculum” and were failing at what should have been simple tasks. For example, students did not know how to interpret or write an essay question. I responded to this problem in two ways: (1) by revising my assignments and rubrics to explain often unspoken expectations, and (2) by implementing a series of what I call “adult learning” exercises, aimed at teaching basic strategies for academic success. For example, prior to beginning a writing assignment, students complete an adult learning exercise that asks them to print and read the assignment sheet and the rubric, list any questions they may have, write up what they must do for the assignment, and identify a start date. I answer student questions as I grade so that the student has their answer quickly. Students will often ask questions through this medium that they will not ask in person. After the writing assignment is graded, another adult learning exercise asks them to reflect on their performance and consider what they can do the next time. In the future, I intend to conduct research on the efficacy of these exercises, but anecdotally, adult learning exercises have reduced confusion, improved scores, and improved my understanding of how students study.
Good teaching can always be improved, and each semester I keep a teaching journal for each class, recording class plans and notes about successes, failures, and future modifications. I have used teaching journals for three years and find planning for the following semester to be much easier. I also welcome feedback from peer and Chair evaluations; these help me to learn where I need to improve. This semester I used Google Forms to solicit mid-term feedback from students as well. This feedback was invaluable in my theory class, especially, where a majority of students indicated dissatisfaction with how research journals were conducted. I organized a class meeting, presented students with requirements that must be accounted for (I must assess the class; they must read before coming to class; they will have a written final, where reading notes are allowed), and we discussed how to adjust the class to better meet student needs while still meeting course requirements. Student satisfaction appears to have improved and engagement in the course remains high since I implemented the changes we agreed upon.
I intend to continue to grow as a professional, and am a member of several online groups of sociology teachers that regularly share resources and problem-solve. Moving from teaching writing (a skill) to teaching sociology (concepts) was difficult, but I have reached the point in my sociology career that I would like to work toward integrating the two more than I do now. I would be interested in attending workshops/seminars on how adults learn. In the classroom, I would like to incorporate the campus and local community more than I do now, getting students engaged in making a real difference. I also intend to work on my online presence: course design specialists at Emporia State University evaluated one of my online courses; although I received high praise, they also gave suggestions for improvement that I have not yet had the time to implement.
Teaching Interests and Course Development
As an instructor, I have been asked to teach a wide range of classes, some of which are well outside of my area of expertise. Although these experiences have been both challenging and enjoyable, I prefer to teach classes on subjects I am more familiar with. Students deserve an instructor with more than a passing familiarity with a topic. I genuinely enjoy teaching Introduction to Sociology, for two reasons (1) it is an opportunity to introduce new students to the discipline and (2) the field is so broad that the course can be adapted to current events and to evolving student and teacher interests. I am also drawn to sociological theory and so enjoy teaching the course. Social psychology, social movements, social problems, culture, and religion classes all fall nicely into my expertise and teaching interests. I prefer not to teach multiple sections of the same course every semester, as I find that my teaching grows stale when I do.
There are several courses I look forward to the opportunity to develop, including methods and qualitative methods classes, writing for the social sciences, and specialized culture and/or social psychology of social interaction courses. Although I do have specific research interests, as a teacher I consider myself a generalist and am happy to adapt to department needs.