Week one. Second class. I pause mid-sentence in my lecture covering Everything Is Obvious: Once You Know The Answer by Duncan Watts. My eyes sit momentarily transfixed on the double doors at the back of the lecture hall before I direct them to the floor. Holding a syllabus in my right hand, I amble from one end of the stage to the other without uttering a word. My students sit silent, watching me, waiting to see what I’m going to do next. I crumple the syllabus in between my hands and launch it up into the air toward the mass of students. “Catch!” I say breaking the silence. Sure enough the ball of paper lands easily in the hands of a student.
The student’s eyes lock onto mine and she shows me the paper firm in hand like a baseball player shows an umpire the clean catch of a foul ball. With a nod of the head I say, “Please stand up.” A look of surprise, then awkwardness flash in sequence over the student’s face. Once standing I ask, “I didn’t know you were a physicist. How many physics classes have you taken?” “Uh… None. Well, one in high school, but none here.” “Forgive me, but I just saw you estimate the acceleration, velocity, and angle of that paper lickety split. How on earth could you have done all of those calculations on the fly if you are not a student of physics?” A slow smile emerges before it’s transformed into an unimpressed smirk. “Well, everyone knows how to catch things. It’s… it’s-” “Common Sense?” I ask her before she can find the right word. She nods.
People intuitively use physics everyday, but they aren’t physicists. When Newton theorized gravity he only told people what they already knew; things fall to the ground. Big whoop. Except, the scientific study of physics and mathematics made it possible to land a space shuttle on the moon and this is just one example of the myriad of innovations the scientific study of physics has made possible. I have never met a student who would say that physics was a pointless discipline. And yet, students often say that sociology is pointless because it only tells us what we already know. It only confirms what anyone with common sense would know.
Intuitive sociology (a.k.a. common sense) is the enemy in an introduction to sociology class. As the terrible saying goes, “everyone’s a sociologists” and that’s the problem. After a lifetime of understanding the world around them with intuitive sociological methods, which are atheoretical, non-systemic, and riddled with bias, students think to themselves, “well my common sense has gotten me this far, no reason I shouldn’t use it in this class.” Except, common sense leads the student down the wrong path nearly every single time in a sociology class. Students have to unlearn their common sense and resist the impulse to trust their gut.
I throw a syllabus at my students because I want to remind them that being able to catch something doesn’t mean you’ve mastered enough physics to ace the class without trying. I throw that syllabus because I feel compelled to call out the cognitive error that is common sense early and often.
Side Note: This Makes for Great Theater
I found it interesting how the students seemed to come alive as the paper sailed through the auditorium. The mood of the room changed when the crumpled ball of paper broke through the imaginary wall the separates the presenter from the audience. I spend so much of the first few weeks trying to emphasize that our class will be different than all of their other large lecture classes they may have taken, but this simple activity did more to make that point than any number of words could.