Following up on Jessica’s post, I’ll report an exploratory assignment that worked surprisingly well for introducing students quickly to the diversity of sociological topics and a classic class discussion topic (suicide) that worked well but had a worrisome angle. Neither is the “blow you away this was awesome” reaction of Jessica’s experience, but either or both might promote useful exchanges about teaching.
What worked really well
Background:I’m teaching honors introduction to sociology to a crew of mostly freshmen who are mostly non-majors. (They take it because it is an honors com-b course.) One of the goals of this course is to convert good students to sociology. They have to choose a topic for a major research paper and a second goal is to expose them quickly to a broad range of sociology so they can have a wider conception of things that they might do papers about in time to choose a topic and get to work on it. One assignment is for each student to interview one or two professors and report to the class next week about their research. This has the goal of getting them to meet faculty as well as of exposing all students to short descriptions of faculty research. This went pretty well last term; this term’s reports are next week.
The new idea I had that worked surprisingly well as an ungraded exercise was to have them scan abstracts of ASR and AJS. I gave them specific instructions about how to bring a long list of abstracts up in SocIndex. The assignment was to scan at least 30 abstracts and to slow down and read the ones that looked interesting. They were to summarize at least three abstracts that looked interesting and write about the whole experience. I also gave instructions for how to look up other journals in specialty areas (giving them a list of titles) and how to look up particular key words. Their feedback indicated this exercise worked: they quickly saw a breadth of sociology that they would not get from just what I talk about, and each student found different kinds of articles interesting. It remains to be seen whether this helps broaden their ideas of paper topics.
What worked well but with a pretty serious caveat
A lot of on-line resources about teaching introductory sociology mention using suicide as an opening discussion topic. First I let them have an open discussion about causes of suicide — they emphasized depression, bullying, and competitive pressures — then pushed them to make demographic predictions. Some knew boys/men suicide more and emphasized young adult suicide. One person mentioned religious strictures. When pushed on race/ethnicity, they had no clear predictions, they thought disadvantage might make you suicidal. Then I put up the graph of suicide rates by race, sex and age available from Wikipedia Commons. (I had also located some other graphs and read some articles so I had broadened my own knowledge of the subject a bit, although I am still by no means an expert.) They were very startled at the age X race X sex interactions these graphs show. It led to a great discussion of what the social factors might be, with me talking about how I wasn’t sure which explanations were right, but we could think about how to test them. I quoted some Blacks as saying “if other people are trying to kill you, you don’t kill yourself,” talked about the possibility that White men who are not doing as well as they’d hoped cannot blame discrimination and perhaps blame themselves more, brought up the Catholic/Protestant difference (for which I did not have graphs but had checked the data), and mentioned the complex problem of selective mortality as influencing rates in old age. One explanation of the White male trend I had located one article on young male suicide that shows that the negative relation between an area’s race-specific SES and its suicide rate goes to zero for Blacks when gun availability is controlled but stays significant for Whites. In short, it did work quite well to get some predictions, show some data, and talk in an open-ended way about cultural factors, individual factors, etc. and the range of ways of talking about the problem. I did not go into Durkheim’s altruistic and egoistic suicide types because I had not reviewed them enough to feel comfortable with that line of discussion.
The caveat: In a class of 20, 2 students said in their private daily reactions that it bothered them to talk about suicide. One has been suicidal and the other has had friends suicide. They seemed ok with the way the discussion went, into social factors rather than personal woes. But given the high prevalence of suicidality among young people, maybe this isn’t such a good topic. It would probably be safer to get something equally surprising and interesting that is less likely to be a trigger. Ideas anyone?