During the Fall of 2023, First Publics published a series of interviews with four authors of Intro to Sociology textbooks: Dalton Conley, author of You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking Like a Sociologist; Shamus Khan, one of the authors and editors of A Sociology Experiment; Lisa Wade, author of Terrible Magnificent Sociology; and Kathleen Korgen, one of the authors and editors of Sociology in Action: Introduction to Sociology. 

We invited them to tell us why they decided to write an Intro to Sociology textbook and the challenges they faced when teaching and writing introductory content prioritizing public sociology. In this post, we highlight some of these interviews’ common themes. You can also check all of the interviews here.

1. Why write/edit an Intro to Sociology textbook?

Our textbook authors discussed several motivations for writing or editing their Intro to Sociology textbook, including breaking the mold, increasing accessibility, and taking a student-centered approach to training and exciting a new cohort of sociologists, a common thread for all our authors. In this way, our textbook authors focus on their students as a public, one that the discipline must meet where they are and has the potential to form into a public sociologists themselves. 

“Our idea was that textbooks had variable quality and were too expensive. They were driven primarily by a profit motive, owned, designed, and operated by large corporations that didn’t have the interests of students or faculty at heart. For students, we wanted to prioritize providing the highest quality presentation up-to-date with the latest research; it was also essential to be truly financially accessible. For faculty, we knew we had to provide a low barrier to entry, particularly for faculty who are teaching pretty considerable loads” – Shamus Khan, A Sociology Experiment

“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.” – Lisa Wade, Terrible Magnificent Sociology 

2. How Intro to Soci textbooks can promote Public Sociology?

Authors and editors spoke about the various ways they conceptualize the publicness of the Intro to Sociology classroom and how the textbook facilitates this connection. More specifically, they were concerned with how to encourage students to make connections to current events and care about sociology beyond their grades and the classroom. In doing so, the textbook content can encourage students to challenge their taken-for-granted realities, but only if instructors have the resources to best engage students beyond their initial engagement with the textbook and in the independent discourse the instructor is trying to build. 

Connecting Sociology with students’ lives and interests

“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. (…) 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.” – Kathleen Korgen, Sociology in Action: Introduction to Sociology

Challenging students’ preconceptions

“I consider the textbook probably the most important form of public sociology I have done in my life because it’s reaching more people at an important formative age, trying to shape how they view big public issues, as C. Wright Mills has put it. (…) I feel like getting young students to think as public sociologists in some ways is easier, in some ways harder. They’re already thinking that way, on the one hand. On the other hand, in pushing them further to understand big issues or to question their own orthodoxy that might be in line with sociological mainstream thinking, my goal is not for them to have certain views about certain topics, but to have a way of thinking and engaging with public issues that is critical and skeptical. I think that part might be harder these days.” – Dalton Conley, You May Ask Yourself

Creating a textbook that is helpful to faculty’s different needs and constraints

“I think it is absolutely something that can be done through textbooks. In general, sociologists in R1 institutions can be pretty dismissive of textbooks. But I think we need to remember that this is how most people are introduced to sociology, right? If we can create a textbook like the one we did, that is useful, that is helpful for the contingent faculty that we’re producing all the time to reduce their workloads and actually give them resources that are helpful for them.” – Shamus Khan, A Sociology Experiment

3. What were the challenges in writing an Intro textbook?

The authors also highlighted different challenges in writing an Intro to Sociology textbook. One common difficulty was keeping up with transformations in society and making sense of current events while also writing a text that could be relevant beyond the present. Authors attempted to overcome these challenges in different ways, such as by constantly updating content through new editions, making sure content reflects the most current research, or providing resources online to speed up the publishing process. Another challenge is making sure the book considers diversity and inclusion. This meant guaranteeing that the books’ language was sufficiently inclusive of different identities but also incorporating various standpoints and theoretical paradigms so Sociology as a discipline could reflect diversity in its canon, research questions, and methods. Inclusion also meant considerations over affordability, a concern especially centered on the dynamics of interacting with the publishing industry.

Keeping up with transformations in society

“I’d say one of the big challenges I’ve encountered is that our social understanding of American society and social norms have evolved so rapidly. It’s very difficult to keep up with that in the textbook. For example, in one section about how colleges are adapting to non-binary students, we’ll talk about the college experience a lot because we want to be relatable to the students themselves. I gave the example of the pronoun “zee”, which was for a while in the running for a third, gender-neutral pronoun. But by the time the book came out, it was very clearly entrenched that “they” was the non-binary pronoun of choice in the U.S. So, we looked really odd and out of place. The next edition, which we’re doing now, is going to change that.” – Dalton Conley, You May Ask Yourself 

“What ends up happening in most textbooks is that they have one author who writes an initial version of a textbook, then, the publisher hires out the edits to other people, and these edits get approved over time. In our case, we are a pain in the neck to our authors every year because they have to update their materials and we ask them to do so with the newest research in mind.” – Shamus Khan, A Sociology Experiment

Making a book that considers diversity and inclusion 

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. (…) 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. (…) 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.” – Lisa Wade, Terrible Magnificent Sociology

“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. (…)  I’m teaching students who come from just a wide variety of racial, class, economic, and educational backgrounds. (…) 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.” – Kathleen Korgen, Sociology in Action: Introduction to Sociology