who is the public face of sociology?

The 101 class is the public face of our discipline. Every year there are roughly a million students in the United States who take Soc 101, that is, if my publisher friends’ estimates are to be believed. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, 101 will be their only exposure to our discipline. Sure, they might hear about our research findings in the media, but chances are they’ll have no idea that it was a sociologist who produced the research.

So, who’s teaching the 101 courses at your institution? In many places 101 is taught by a hodgepodge of grad students, adjuncts, lecturers, and assistant professors.[1] In every one of these situations we position on the front lines our least experienced educators (many of whom have never received any formalized training on pedagogy). Now, don’t let me be misunderstood. I reject the idea that years of experience correlates with excellence in the classroom. I’ve been cutting my grass since I was 10, but I’ve always done the bare minimum to avoid the ridicule of my neighbors. My neighbor’s yard, on the other hand, is the stuff that would make the angels cry. Wisdom in the classroom certainly has its advantages, but an inexperienced teacher who is passionate and focused on honing their craft can quickly make up for a lack of experience.

How do the faculty in your department think about 101? Is it something to be avoided like the plague? Is it a hazing ritual that you put newbs through so that senior faculty can get to teach their “real classes” (i.e. their upper division classes within their area of interest)?

Why Does It Matter Who Teaches 101

First, it matters because the introductory classes serve as the on ramp to the major. As reported by InsideHigherEd.com in their forth coming book How College Works, Chambliss and Takacs find that,

Undergraduates are significantly more likely to major in a field if they have an inspiring and caring faculty member in their introduction to the field. And they are equally likely to write off a field based on a single negative experience with a professor.

Second, it matters because of Krulak’s law which posits, “The closer you get to the front, the more power you have over the brand.”[2] Put simply, if the 101 class is the frontline of sociology, then the 101 teacher is the ambassador for us all.

Why Does It Matter Who Is the Public Face of Sociology?

Sociology has an image problem. As a discipline it’s not uncommon for the general public to think we are either explaining nothing more than common sense, not a “real science”, an academic arm of the socialist party, or simply radical liberal wackadoodles. For instance, take a look at the controversy that swirled around Patricia Adler last month. As reported by Rebecca Schuman on Slate, commenters to Adler articles said, “Sociology is a pseudoscience which has successfully pursued government subsidies in tuition dollars for decades… It is akin to getting a degree in practical witchcraft.”

As sociologists, I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you that there are risks to having a poor public perception. In an age when our fellow social scientists have seen their discipline made ineligible for NSF funding, it’s hard to argue that the public’s perception of your discipline doesn’t matter. Plus, don’t we do to create an impact in the world?

What Needs to Change?

We should take our introduction classes seriously. When we meet department cultures or individuals who belittle the role of the 101 class we should speak up and educate our colleagues. If less experienced faculty are teaching intro classes, we owe it to ourselves to ensure that they are well trained and have the resources they need to be successful. For while the viability of an individual professor’s career may hinge on publications and grant dollars, the viability of a academic discipline hinges on the ability to recruit students and impress upon the public the value it holds for them.

As my Internet friend Todd Beer says, “Teach well. It matters.”

Cross posted on SociologySource.org. Written by Nathan Palmer.


  1. Obviously there are some structural explanations for the concentration of non-tenure and/or less senior faculty at the 101 level. The pool of qualified applicants for a 101 course is much larger than the pool for upper division classes that require more specialized training and experience.  ↩
  2. The idea for Krulak’s law came from a quote by General Charles C. Krulak that Jeff Sexton was inspired to share on his blog, but was coined into a law by Seth Godin. Credit where credit due.  ↩

5 Comments

  1. Posted January 27, 2014 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! The intro class is too often a morass of slow journalism and platitudes. I suspect that you’re right that this is in part due to who gets assigned to teach it.

    When I was a graduate student I was a TA for Ann Swidler’s introduction to sociology. She taught it as a large lecture class; students had to read real sociology and grasp the lectures, and then the TAs ran discussion sections that helped students grasp the material. This model allows for the intellectual core of the class to be designed by a leading sociologist, instead of devolving such decisions to many lower-level teachers. The disadvantage, of course, is the large lecture format which is probably sub-optimal (though, I’d say, not necessarily).

    Last year I redesigned my SOCI 101 course to focus on sociology written by people currently or formerly associated with UNC sociology. That way students were reading actual sociology, and they also understood that people at their university *make* sociology, don’t just teach it. That worked well, and when I teach it next I’ll do it again.

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  2. krippendorf
    Posted January 27, 2014 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Are there any systematic data on (a) what proportion of Intro soc courses are taught by non tenure-track instructors, and (b) how this compares to our sister disciplines?

    I think it’s important to differentiate structural position from teaching ability: being a tenured professor and being a good teacher are not synonymous. We need good professors to teach Intro, not (exclusively) tenured ones.

    Just to play Devil’s advocate, I’d think that the ideal Intro instructors would be people who are reasonably well-versed in recent research across the field as a whole, not just in their specialties. And, you’re more likely to find this in newer PhDs, not in people who are 25 years out from their graduate coursework and exams, and who have so many demands on their time (e.g., service, which increases with rank) that they can only keep up with the new work in their areas.

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  3. Posted January 27, 2014 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    At Wisconsin we have introductory-level topics courses that precede intro. Both these pre-intro classes and intro to sociology are taught by a mixture of senior professors, assistant professors, and graduate student lecturers.

    The most senior faculty taught intro at my undergrad institution, Stanford, when I was there long ago. Each taught a different course focused on what most interested them.

    A growing trend at many top schools is non-tenure-track full-time teachers who have real jobs with salaries and benefits. These folks are typically fine teachers.

    One huge problem with intro to sociology is that we as a discipline don’t agree on what should be in the course. This makes designing the course highly idiosyncratic, so it is the content not just the personality that varies markedly, often within departments, not just between them. Maybe the unifying principle is the idea that we introduce people to “thinking sociologically” and are less concerned with the content? But the lack of agreement about essential content in the intro course does make it even more highly dependent on the judgment and knowledge of the instructor, as well as the personality.

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  4. Posted January 28, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    It’s worth noting that individual departments (and professors) face perverse incentives regarding the quality of undergraduate education they provide. At a large state-supported university like my own (and many of yours), administrators are concerned with filling the seats. High enrollments and major counts generate departmental resources.
    Individuals, however, are rewarded for scholarly publication. The quality of teaching, assessed primarily through student evaluations, is given a cursory overview in personnel reviews. No one advances by being a great teacher alone, and junior faculty are warned about devoting too much time to their teaching.
    And students, pressured by the ever-increasing costs of school, often work way too many hours to devote much time to scholarly inquiry. Inspiring faculty and intellectual challenge are certainly sometimes motivations in course selection, but so are convenient scheduling, minimal requirements, and “reasonable” standards for grading (As without too much effort).
    Pursuing what’s good for the discipline in teaching intros means swimming upstream against some powerful currents, often at personal cost or risk.
    Of course, it’s important to care about education in a serious way, but it’s critical to think sociologically about why this often doesn’t happen.

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  5. Posted February 1, 2014 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    I don’t think any of the problems outlined above are exclusive to sociology. I tutored almost exclusively fox news watchers and business school crossovers when I tutored for econ 101. Most people think supply and demand curves, like structural functionalism and the subconscious mind, “are like, teehee, just common seeaannccceee — duh!” So too is an object falling from the sky common sense, but that doesn’t make intermediate differential equations irrelevant.

    So are the graduate students, some of them incredible, most of them mediocre to awful, teaching undergraduates — that problem spans biology to calculus to composition to sociology.

    Sociology is actually better at conveying its first principles and worldview to the woman and man in the street than most any other social science, which is a major reason why some fuzzy version of structuralism and fundamental criticisms of prejudice are nearly ubiquitous across political distributions in the United States.

    Hell, even the almost-kinda-but-maybe-not-neo-marxian version of the economy taught in sociology, political science, and anthropology departments is much more common in the street than anything nearly representing neoclassical economics. It’s actually the irony of sociology’s progressivism, always looking for the next problem to solve, which leads it to systematically discount how enormous of an impact it’s already having.

    Nobody, other than psychology, has been more influential in conveying the intuition of its first principles. If you think economics is influential and sociology has a PR problem — you can ask a garden variety conservative about any topic from an economics principles course, and grade ‘em with ample lolls.

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