Intro to Sociology classes are frequently the first and only contact many students will have with sociology, which also makes Intro textbooks an important platform for public sociology engagement. In this Dialogues series, we interviewed four authors of Intro to Sociology textbooks and asked them to explore how their textbooks can facilitate students’ first encounter with sociology while also promoting the reflection and practice of public sociology. In this third interview, we spoke to Dr. Lisa Wade, the author of Terrible Magnificent Sociology, an Intro to Sociology textbook published by W.W. Norton. Check the first two interviews for this series here.
First Publics: We’ve read some of the pieces you and Norton have written about the textbook, but we wanted to hear from you firsthand. What motivated you to write Terrible Magnificent Sociology? What were your goals for this book?
Lisa Wade: The marketing materials have done a pretty good job of packaging my story, but that story is true! I’m a first-generation college student. My extended family is all rural. My mom went to a one-room schoolhouse through middle school. My dad was drafted into the Vietnam War out of high school, when my mom married him. I didn’t grow up on the farm, but I didn’t feel that far off it.
Being first-generation, I wasn’t sure I’d actually make it through college. I had so little cultural capital that, when I took the SAT, I didn’t know what it was for. When I applied to colleges, I just applied to the ones on the beach. I didn’t even like the beach! I just didn’t know any other way to discern one school from another. I had no information, no college counseling, and my parents couldn’t help me. I got into one college, thank goodness, UC Santa Barbara, and when my parents dropped me off to start my first year, it was the first time I’d ever stepped foot on a college campus. I was scared.
I took Sociology 101 that year, and that scared me more. As we know, sociology is about understanding the things outside of us that are affecting our lives. My prospects didn’t look so great from that point of view. Sociology was telling me that no matter how hard I worked, I wasn’t well positioned to make it. And working hard was all I had. Mentally, I just couldn’t accept what I was hearing.
My sophomore year of college was also the peak of the HIV epidemic in the United States, and that was really terrifying, too. At that time, most everyone who contracted HIV died. I was already getting involved in sexuality activism on campus and so I was out begging my peers to wear condoms. But condoms break and monogamous partners aren’t always faithful. That was scary, too. In the same way, I thought, if I just practice safer sex, I’ll be okay. But would I?
Sociology responds to these kind of reassurances – about the benefits of working hard and wearing condoms – with “Well, maybe.” I just couldn’t handle that information as a young person. So, Sociology 101 was my worst grade in college (I didn’t want to put the “correct” answers on the tests, even if I knew them). I majored in philosophy. It’s overconfidence about truth with a capital T was reassuring.
Much later, as my career in sociology was maturing and I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, that early experience of being frightened away from sociology – especially given how much I came to love it – was still quite present for me. I worried that experiences like mine could scare people off of sociology forever. So, I wanted to write an intro to sociology that acknowledged that and was organized around the kind of emotional work we need to do to make sociology accessible. And one way to do that, of course, was to lean into how wonderful it is, right? So let’s go ahead and feel all the scary things and face them head-on – all of what C. Wright Mills calls “terrible” – but let’s also bring forward, in a heavy-handed way, all the “magnificent” things about sociology. And that, of course, is the origin of the title, thanks to Mills.
That was a really big part of the motivation, and a big part of how I thought to write a book that would be accessible to first-gen students like myself, and others who are marginalized in academia. I did this not by making the ideas simple, but by making them irresistible. I thought I could help students push themselves to overcome some of their fears of higher ed and the deprivations of their previous educational experience if I made the book worth reading. If it was rewarding emotionally, intellectually, and pragmatically, this would inspire students to keep coming back to it all semester.
First Publics: Thank you for sharing that biography of the book. You mentioned how you hope the students will encounter the book. How else do you hope the book will be used by students and instructors?
Lisa Wade: While I was writing, I assumed that most students would take one sociology class, just this one. Of course, I want them to take all the sociology classes! But I assumed not, and I wanted them to leave this one class feeling empowered.
I noticed that a lot of introductory texts had a very inspiring conclusion, but I wanted to do a little better than that.
First, I tried to empower by giving students real knowledge about how harm is done in and by society. One of the totally new chapters in my book is on the social structure. Most books discuss the idea briefly in an introduction to a section on social institutions, but I felt we needed a whole chapter because it’s one of the most difficult concepts in sociology to understand, and also one of the most important. This chapter is paired with another innovative chapter called “Elite Power,” which is all about the elites that so often go unscrutinized: Who are these people? How do they grasp power? How do they wield it? And how do they legitimate it?
Now, those two chapters don’t sound very inspiring, but I think knowledge is power, so the book is really giving students an understanding, not just that there are these dark clouds over some people’s lives, but about what exactly is going on.
Then, in the last three chapters of the book, I lean very heavily into showing that people are already working hard on making the world a better place. After “Elite Power” is “Power to the People,” a social movement chapter where I highlight many examples of young people who are doing amazing things in our society. And it’s really easy to show a very diverse range of young people, because that’s often who is at the front lines of these fights. In that chapter, I start with Frances Fox Piven’s idea of “interdependent power,” which is the power of non-cooperation. I’m trying to show rather than just tell them that they have much power, even as individuals, but especially together.
The chapter before the conclusion is called “Our Future on Earth,” and it is the chapter in which I introduce the idea of globalization and world systems theory. But it’s also heavily organized around the climate crisis and climate activism. That is a perfect example of how young people are literally changing the world. I will admit to tearing up every so often when writing that chapter. Young people are genuinely inspiring.
First Publics: Great! How do you think textbooks in general and your textbook specifically can help teachers and students practice public sociology? How does that connection happen? And how do you perceive your book doing that?
Lisa Wade: I think one of the biggest obstacles to taking our sociological imagination out into the world and making change is just overwhelm. There are a thousand things we want to do, and no time to do any of them. Our students — even mine who are very privileged — are feeling overwhelmed, as they sign up for too many clubs and take too many classes and feel fearful about whether they’re gonna do enough in college to make them stand out on the other side.
But of course, those aren’t the typical college students. The typical college student is a parent, or they’re taking care of their parents or siblings, or they’re working to pay their own tuition, or they’re helping someone else get through school. And that’s the challenge: I think that, in some ways, it’s a lot easier to inspire people than it is for inspired people to find time.
So, one thing I’ve decided to do for the second edition is include a supplemental chapter that poses answers to the question, “What now?” Rather than saying, “Oh, Michelle Obama was a sociology major, you could be too,” or “Here’s something you can do with a sociology major”, my idea is to inspire students to embrace sociology at whatever level they can. The first level is guidance about how to just keep thinking sociologically. The next level would be like, “Okay, maybe you want to be a nurse or a paralegal or start a business. What’s one more sociology class you could take that would help you be more sociological in that occupation?” And so on. I am trying to think about overwhelm and how I can meet students where they are in terms of growing their capacity to build sociology into their lives.
First Publics: We’ve been thinking about the kind of challenges involved in writing a textbook with the goal of public sociology in mind. Helping students deal with overwhelm is surely one of these challenges. What other kinds of challenges did you consider?
Lisa Wade: I worked hard to expand the scope of students who would feel like they belonged in sociology, not just as research subjects but as researchers. I believe I’m the first author to write an intro sociology book that breaks out of the canon of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. They, of course, appear in the book, and they get lots of kudos and attention, as well as they should. But I don’t set them apart from the many other scholars of the same era who made important contributions to sociology. Typically, you would see DuBois and Jane Addams, maybe, highlighted in the theory chapter alongside a mea culpa. I don’t do that. They’re just in the book. And so are Anna Julia Cooper, Harriet Martineau, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Oliver Cox, Marianne Weber, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and others.
And so, if you read my book, you get the sense from the beginning that sociology is an inclusive field. I do address our own history of exclusion in the supplemental material on the evolution of the field, but I decided that at some point we had to start presenting the field it always should have been.
Of course, I include a diverse set of contemporary sociologists, too. I tried to make sure that no matter who you are – if you were trans, an immigrant, a single mom, a person with disabilities – there would be a sociologist profiled who you could identify with.
Then, I foreground standpoint theory. I try to make it clear, both explicitly and subtly, that difference is an epistemic resource. I say so in the introduction. I introduce standpoint theory, and I argue that we need everybody involved in sociology if we want to get to the truth. But also, throughout the book, whenever I introduce a scholar, I spend a short paragraph or two giving some information about that person that ties into their insight.
So, for example, Charles Horton Cooley was a shy, awkward child with very high-achieving parents who had very high expectations for him. He felt very intimidated by their gaze. Arguably that translated into his capacity to come up with his idea of a “looking-glass self.” I do that throughout the book. I say, “Sure, maybe being Black helped W.E.B. Du Bois see things that other people couldn’t see, and maybe being a woman helped Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the same way, but also being shy and awkward helped Charles Horton Cooley, or being from a family that was anxious about their reputation helped Goffman come up with “impression management,” and so on and so forth. I tried to make clear the value of everyone’s perspective by constantly showing throughout the book that everybody’s perspective is in fact really valuable.
First Publics: Did you face any other political or practical challenges in writing a textbook with this kind of public sociology orientation in mind? What was it like to write the book?
Lisa Wade: It’s amazing! It’s wonderful! I love writing, and I love sociology, and I love teaching. The writing process was a delight, and I hope that my enthusiasm comes across. I loved finding new and exciting ways to describe something or discovering a fresh and effective example. I was kind of sad when I was done!
The thing I worried about the most was the price. Currently, our hard copy is $74 and our ebook is $37. I don’t think that’s too bad. I wish it were better, but I’ve learned a lot more about what Norton does to help students learn, help faculty teach, and make classes fun, and easy, and productive. I understand that that takes a lot of effort and work. So, I know the book has to cost something, but I did try to make sure that it was as affordable as possible.
First Publics: Great! And are you working on the next edition now?
Lisa Wade: Yes! It takes a long time to revise it when you have twelve chapters, an introduction, a conclusion, and three supplemental chapters! Most Intro books are on a two-year revision schedule, but we’re on a three-year schedule. We feel like the book has more staying power because I tried to use timeless examples rather than ones closely tracking pop culture. In revisions, we’re integrating methods more deeply into every chapter and trying to do more around decolonization in addition to de-canonization. We’re just at the beginning. We’re excited, but it is going to be a while before anyone sees it.
First Publics: Do you have anything else that you would like to add? Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Lisa Wade: I just wanted to thank you all for doing this! And I hope your project helps replace some of the cynicism about textbooks with enthusiasm. I think that, as college has become more expensive, textbooks have been a scapegoat for problems of affordability. And many are obviously too expensive. But I also think a well-written and well-supported textbook can be an incredible pedagogical tool, especially in intro classes. So, I’m going to keep pouring love into Terrible Magnificent Sociology and hoping that it makes a difference.
Lisa Wade is an Associate Professor at Tulane University with appointments in Sociology, the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, and the Newcomb Institute. She is the author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus; an introduction to sociology titled Terrible Magnificent Sociology; a sociology of gender textbook, Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree; and numerous other research publications. Her newest project documents undergraduate social life during the pre-vaccine pandemic. As a public-facing scholar, Lisa works to make her and others’ scholarship engaging to a public audience. You can find her online at lisa-wade.com and on Threads at @lisawadephd.