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 fourth interview, we spoke to Dr. Kathleen Korgen, the author of  Sociology in  Action: Introduction to Sociology, an Intro to Sociology textbook published by Sage. Check the first three interviews for this series here.

First Publics: Could you tell us a little bit more about your motivation for writing Sociology in  Action: Introduction to Sociology? What were your goals? How did you hope that your textbook would be used?

Kathleen Korgen: Sure. My goal was to create a textbook that gets students excited about sociology and that provides instructors with everything they need to teach a great active learning centered intro course. To make sure the book is accessible to all types of students, we invited some of the best sociology teachers from all sorts of different schools–from community colleges, from comprehensive universities like mine, to elite liberal arts schools–to each write a chapter. We have a learning question for each section of a chapter, then an activity that addresses that learning question. So, the activities directly relate to what the students are reading. And my editor at Sage was wise enough to team me up on this Sociology in Action text series with Maxine Atkinson, who is an incredibly gifted and acclaimed expert in the teaching and learning field and a master at creating active learning exercises. 

The trick, though, when you have a large group of contributors, is that you need to make sure that readers are not jolted from one chapter to the next with different styles and rhythms. So, I edit everything with a strong hand, but the contributors bring in ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. And they are all great teachers! They know how to get students enthused about sociology. All of us are interested not just in teaching the basics of sociology but also in helping students learn what to do with it, so that sociology can actually make a difference in their lives and in society as a whole. 

Throughout all my textbooks, I’m always thinking about what Randall Collins called “The Two Core Commitments of Sociology.” The first is to develop and use a sociological eye to notice social patterns. The second is to do something with that knowledge – that’s where social activism comes in. A lot of the activities are grounded in learning the material. But we also have students answer the question, “So, what are you going to do with this knowledge now?” For example, toward the end of the race chapter in the intro book, we have an activity that asks students to imagine that the President has asked them to help her with an issue: that many refugees from a certain nation–and we give them a variety of different nations–arrived in the country and are going to come to learn on your campus because they are no longer safe in their homeland. The students must plan how they are going to welcome the refugees and make them feel safe and get the larger campus community to welcome them as well. So, they go through these different steps creating a safe place for these refugee students. And throughout this activity, they’re learning how to use their social capital and cultural capital, their knowledge about race and ethnic relations, and figuring out how to do a power analysis on campus: “Who are the people you need to get on board with this to make it a success?” They plan it all out. Since there are different groups of refugees from different nations, depending upon their race or ethnic background, students will come up with different strategies. Then, they can share in class and learn from each other. But through it all, they’ve had to imagine themselves being able to do this in real life and come up with a plan. 

In the gender chapter, we might say, “Pretend you’re the CEO of this company, and you have just learned about the gender wage gap. What are you going to do, based on what you just learned? What measures would you implement to close that gap in your company?” So they’re not just reading about patterns of gender inequality, they are taking the next step and figuring out how to use that knowledge to create social change.

Again, we use our teaching experience to create chapters that capture the interests of students from various backgrounds. On the first day of an Intro class with a lot of non-sociology majors, it’s clear that a lot of students are thinking, “What the hell am I doing here? Why am I stuck in this class?”  In the first chapter, we have an activity that has students think of a possible career that they might embark upon after graduation or that they might be in now, and then make that connection between what they are going to learn in this intro sociology class and how they are going to be able to use that for their benefit, so they have some self-interest in this class. It’s fun to go around the class and ask, “Okay, so you want to be an optometrist and have your own company. Well, now that we just covered what sociology is, what do you think? How can you benefit from this class? How can you become a better optometrist or sell more eyeglasses using sociological knowledge?” It gets students to immediately learn what sociology is and use that information. It transforms the class and creates a very positive atmosphere. 

First Publics: Thank you so much for sharing that. Do you think that textbooks can promote public sociology? And if so, how? 

Kathleen Korgen: I think that the connection to public sociology is an important one and one I believe in. Ideologically, I’m all for it. But to get there depends on good teaching that gives students a connection between themselves and the topic. That’s what we want to do in all subjects, right? To get buy-in from students so that they realize that there’s something in it for them that is interesting or maybe transformative. But you need them to want to learn the material. That’s why I do what I do on the first day of class—and why we put together this intro book and the other Sociology in Action textbooks. You need to grab them and bring them into the subject matter so they feel that there’s a reason they should want to read this chapter, not just that they must read this chapter. It makes learning possible. That’s just good teaching.

One of the things that we do in the intro and other Sociology in Action textbooks, in addition to the activities and discussion questions, is to feature Sociologists in Action in every chapter. We try to include not just academics but also people who, like our students, maybe took just one sociology class or maybe they majored in sociology in college. They may not go on to be professional sociologists, but they are still able to reach back into that toolkit, into what they learned in those classes and use that material in whatever they’re doing. For example, I invited a recent sociology major, who during the COVID-19 pandemic came up with a means of organizing her community by creating an app to help people figure out what their needs were and connect them to a volunteer group of people who could help them. She was able to use concepts like social capital and organizing and put them into action in a time of crisis. It’s a great story! 

We love highlighting student Sociologists in Action, too, and how they’re using what they have learned in their sociology classes in, say, a campus organization or in an internship. 

Those are the types of things that are inspiring, I think. 

I think that the connection to public sociology is an important one and one I believe in. Ideologically, I’m all for it. But to get there depends on good teaching that gives students a connection between themselves and the topic.

Kathleen Korgen

First Publics: Agreed! Can you tell us a bit about the challenges that can arise when writing a textbook with social justice and public sociology in mind? 

Kathleen Korgen: There are a lot! For example, we wanted to make sure that in every chapter we have activities that make sense to do online or in the classroom with large, small, and medium-sized classes. So, for each activity, we have an instructor’s note that provides some guidance on how to adapt the activity for different types of classes, considering different scenarios. 

Many college students are working as well as going to school, and they have a limited amount of time. Imagine there’s an instructor who, every time they assign a chapter, also does an activity. We want to make sure that our activities get to the point quickly and that they don’t take too much time. Some could take 5 min in class. Some very time consuming activities are great, and students would learn a lot, but they’re not realistic for many students, and some might just fake their way through if they had to do them. Now, we have to deal with AI and ChatGPT, so we’re having to create new activities. It’s becoming more challenging but also forcing us to make the activities better. 

First Publics: Could you tell us more about how you consider the different publics that the textbook is serving? You mentioned students who are working. But what about different types of students? We’ve been thinking about how much textbooks cost and all kinds of accessibility issues. 

Kathleen Korgen: One of the reasons why we work with Sage is because they keep the cost of their textbooks relatively low. They charge less than any other publisher that I’ve seen, except for the free ones, which frankly just don’t tend to be as good. You can do a lot more with a publishing company. You have access to more; you have content and other types of editors who help. And yes, that’s always something that pains me, that students have to pay for the book. But I think they’re getting something better than they otherwise would, and that always motivates me to make sure it’s the best possible. Now more of our textbooks are sold as online versions which I think has made it more accessible for students. And Sage is good on other types of accessibility: making the print big for those who can’t see small print, and that sort of thing. So I do think that the textbooks are as accessible as technology allows them to be at this point–which is good. 

First Publics: When you were writing the textbook, what kinds of students did you have in mind? Who did you imagine reading your book?

Kathleen Korgen: First and foremost, I thought of my own students. It’s hard not to immediately think of them. And they are a real mix. I’m fortunate in that sense. I’m teaching students who come from just a wide variety of racial, class, economic, and educational backgrounds. I am also teaching in a program called WP Online, which is all online and is specifically for returning students. So yes, often I imagine little kids in the background, or sometimes my students might be holding a baby as they’re trying to read or type. Some of them are taking the class on their phones. 

We have a lot of students who have come from community colleges. So I was thinking about the community college students too, as I wrote and edited the book. So, I realize you don’t want to write such things as “Think about your dorm and your roommates.” Some textbooks just assume that “traditional” type of college student. We don’t do that, though we know, of course, we have some students who are in their dorms reading it. We always think of different scenarios to try to include all students in some way. 

First Publics: Thank you! Before we conclude, is there anything you would like to add? Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know? 

Kathleen Korgen: One thing that’s interesting to think about is if you want to have a successful textbook, you need to make sure that there are enough people who are going to use it. So, you have to think that one of the publics is the group of instructors who are considering using a textbook in their classroom. So that’s also something we have to consider. For me, it has always been a push to go a little bit beyond what’s out there now, but not too far, so that people are not going to look at it and be like, “What the heck is this?” In our textbooks, we have these activities, but we also have these full-content chapters. If you aren’t even into active learning at all, you could still use our textbook. Then my hope is that you will see these activities and say “Whoa! These are great. Of course, I should use them; they’re right here for me!” So, bit by bit, we are trying to transform how people teach, to make it more student-centered and focused on active learning techniques rather than just the “sage on the stage.” 

Kathleen Odell Korgen, PhD, is a professor of sociology at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. Her primary areas of specialization are teaching sociology, racial identity, and race relations. She has received William Paterson University’s awards for Excellence in Scholarship/Creative Expression and for Excellence in Teaching. Along with Maxine Atkinson she is founding editor of the Sage Sociology in Action series, which includes Sociology in Action: Introduction to Sociology, Social Problems: Sociology in Action, Race and Ethnic Relations: Sociology in Action, Research Methods: Sociology in Action, and Social Theory: Sociology in Action (forthcoming).