How to ‘Show’ Sociology in an Academic World of ‘Telling’

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Ana Villa-Lobos, Sociology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003

While the adage “show, don’t tell” is common in creative writing circles, in teaching, I find it’s all too easy to “tell” students what is important. However “showing” students how sociology is done, letting them witness the process of the sociological analysis of raw data, live and uncensored, is almost universally absent from the classroom. This leaves a shroud of mystery over the process, with many students intimidated and confused when it comes to their own research projects.

I decided to try to incorporate this missing component into my own teaching, and Sociology of the Family offered the perfect venue since nearly everyone has lived experiences in families and the students themselves could therefore serve as data sources.

So, for example, as we embarked on a unit on immigrant families, I had the students share about their parents’ work life, and its influence on them as children. We had a note-taker write down the key elements of each person’s story on the board, and collectively, those elements became our data. I then led them in analyzing the data, looking for patterns, and creating theories to explain those patterns. We noticed, for example, that the immigrant parents often worked more than one job and were frequently absent from the family, and their children framed this as the parents sacrificing for them — an act of love. By contrast, many students with American-born parents viewed their parents’ work-life as selfishly motivated, and saw their parents as choosing to spend time at work rather than with their families — an act of neglect. So the research question became: Why did this difference exist? We hypothesized it could be due to class differences between new immigrants and American-born citizens, with the latter being predominantly middle class and thus possibly having a greater portion of their identity emanating from their work (we used Hochschild’s Time Bind, which we had just read, as theoretical support for this hypothesis). Alternately, the difference could be due to an imported culture of parental respect from the immigrants’ country of origin (most immigrant families of students in our class came from countries with Confucianist influences). Other hypotheses arose, and I inquired about what follow-up questions they might ask to come closer to understanding the issues involved. They wanted to know what the parents’ particular jobs were, and what cultural beliefs the immigrant families brought with them. We gathered that information, and since the immigrants turned out to span classes, we focused the remainder of the period fleshing out the cultural-importation hypothesis.

We engaged in this type of analysis — using students’ lived experiences as data — throughout the course, on topics ranging from love to sibling order and divorce. The purpose of these exercises was certainly not so we could generalize about the social world based on an “N” of twenty, nor so we could generate the “right” theories. It was rather to show them how social analysts approach data in the theory-building phase of research, coming up with ideas, some of which fall flat and some of which seem worthy of further pursuit and more rigorous testing. It was an attempt to demystify the early stages of research where students traditionally stall out.

My measure of success is that, as the semester progressed, I was doing less and less of the analysis and the students themselves were recognizing patterns in their own replies and generating their own theories to explain them. They were becoming sociologists. Additionally, when it came time to do their own research projects, they launched immediately in, and proved themselves highly capable of this type of analysis.