The 101 class is the public face of our discipline. Every year there are roughly a million students in the United States who take Soc 101, that is, if my publisher friends’ estimates are to be believed. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, 101 will be their only exposure to our discipline. Sure, they might hear about our research findings in the media, but chances are they’ll have no idea that it was a sociologist who produced the research.
So, who’s teaching the 101 courses at your institution? In many places 101 is taught by a hodgepodge of grad students, adjuncts, lecturers, and assistant professors. In every one of these situations we position on the front lines our least experienced educators (many of whom have never received any formalized training on pedagogy). Now, don’t let me be misunderstood. I reject the idea that years of experience correlates with excellence in the classroom. I’ve been cutting my grass since I was 10, but I’ve always done the bare minimum to avoid the ridicule of my neighbors. My neighbor’s yard, on the other hand, is the stuff that would make the angels cry. Wisdom in the classroom certainly has it’s advantages, but an inexperienced teacher who is passionate and focused on honing their craft can quickly make up for a lack of experience.
How do the faculty in your department think about 101? Is it something to be avoided like the plague? Is it a hazing ritual that you put newbs through so that senior faculty can get to teach their “real classes” (i.e. their upper division classes within their area of interest)?
Why Does It Matter Who Teaches 101
Undergraduates are significantly more likely to major in a field if they have an inspiring and caring faculty member in their introduction to the field. And they are equally likely to write off a field based on a single negative experience with a professor.
Second, it matters because of Krulak’s law which posits, “The closer you get to the front, the more power you have over the brand.” Put simply, if the 101 class is the frontline of sociology, then the 101 teacher is the ambassador for us all.
Why Does It Matter Who Is the Public Face of Sociology?
Sociology has an image problem. As a discipline it’s not uncommon for the general public to think we are either explaining nothing more than common sense, not a “real science”, an academic arm of the socialist party, or simply radical liberal wackadoodles. For instance, take a look at the controversy that swirled around Patricia Adler last month. As reported by Rebecca Schuman on Slate, commenters to Adler articles said, “Sociology is a pseudoscience which has successfully pursued government subsidies in tuition dollars for decades… It is akin to getting a degree in practical witchcraft.”
As sociologists, I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you that there are risks to having a poor public perception. In an age when our fellow social scientists have seen their discipline made ineligible for NSF funding, it’s hard to argue that the public’s perception of your discipline doesn’t matter. Plus, don’t we do research to create an impact in the world?
What Needs to Change?
We should take our introduction classes seriously. When we meet department cultures or individuals who belittle the role of the 101 class we should speak up and educate our colleagues. If less experienced faculty are teaching intro classes, we owe it to ourselves to ensure that they are well trained and have the resources they need to be successful. For while the viability of an individual professor’s career may hinge on publications and grant dollars, the viability of a academic discipline hinges on the ability to recruit students and impress upon the public the value it holds for them.
As my Internet friend Todd Beer says, “Teach well. It matters.”
Obviously there are some structural explanations for the concentration of non-tenure and/or less senior faculty at the 101 level. The pool of qualified applicants for a 101 course is much larger than the pool for upper division classes that require more specialized training and experience. ↩