Wednesday, December 17, 2008

it's the schooling, damnit!!!

i was reflecting on the seeming differences between student learning in soc courses and student learning in the natural sciences (for example). my observation is that successful student learning in soc represents increased awareness about the social world, the relationships between individuals and collectivities (how narrowly or broadly they may be defined), and the impact of systematic categorization and ranking of peoples on those very same people. it would seem that in the other sciences, there is much more emphasis on memorization of material and less emphasis on any specific expectation of an increase in personal awareness about the world (granted, there is increased awareness of how material objects work, their properties, etc.). in other words, the other sciences focus more on content and less on changing thinking.

i suspect that this presumed difference is characterized in sociology by terms such as "increased critical thinking ability" or "evidence of obtaining a sociological imagination;" indeed, these are fit characterizations. what they seem to gloss over, however, are the institutionalized challenges that those of us who teach sociology must face. for instance, it appears to me that much of public schooling (elementary, middle, junior HS and HS) trains one to do fairly well at memorization (natural science approach) and provides little or no training to increase awareness of self in relation to others. as such, when students hit college and they take their first soc course, they might find it intellectually challenging (i certainly hope that they do) as i suspect that most teaching sociologists are not as concerned about students memorizing sociological terms as much as developing that soc imagination/critical thinking. having little or no experience in employing these skills, students are oftentimes confused about "what we want" as professors. of course, what "we want" is for them to think differently; not knowing that it is possible or desirable for them to do this (nor knowing HOW to do this), they may flounder. not necessarily a bad initial outcome, but one that can be stressful.

not wanting this to turn into a monograph, i guess my main point is that it seems to me that we have a much bigger task than perhaps other sciences do in terms of student learning. our goal is to (in some, if not most cases) reverse/change years of reinforced thinking about self and others. yes, we do this through presentation of "facts" and data; but many of our facts and data run counter to what most people are taught (just think of social construction of just about anything, but most especially gender and race, for example). most students will not be "surprised" to learn how a cell functions, but think about how they might respond when (if) they truly grasp how they function, e.g., the notion that we have no permanent self; that who we are, what we think, what we do, etc., are all conditional. suddenly, observations about how an item of intellectual interest functions (like a cell or a human being) becomes very personal. and, as noted, students usually do not associate personal with academics (with the exception of grades, of course).

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