Why I Teach Intro

Why I Teach Intro

February 24, 2009

You probably recall that in George Orwell’s 1984 the authorities bring Winston Smith to a torture chamber to break his loyalty to his beloved Julia. Perhaps you do not remember the room number. It is 101.

The modern university institutionalizes Orwell’s association of the number 101 with torture. Faculty and students often consider introductory courses an affliction.

I suspect that colleagues award teaching prizes to 101 instructors partly as compensation for relieving themselves of the agony of teaching introductory courses -- a suspicion that first occurred to me last year, when I shared an award with the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Pain, much praised for its relief of suffering.

Why, then, do I teach introductory sociology? My colleagues have been too polite to remind me of the alleged downsides, but they are well known. First, teaching an introductory course is often said to be a time-consuming activity that interferes with research and writing -- the royal road to prestige, promotion, and merit pay. Second, it is reputedly boring and frustrating to recite the elementary principles of the discipline to young students, many of whom could not care less. Third, the 101 instructor performs supposedly menial work widely seen as suited only to non-tenured faculty members, advanced graduate students, and other personnel at the bottom rung of the academic ladder. Although I understand these arguments, I do not find them compelling. For me, other considerations have always far outweighed them.

In particular, teaching intro solves, for me, the much-discussed problem of public sociology. Some sociologists believe that working to improve human welfare is somehow unprofessional or unscientific. They hold that professional sociologists have no business drawing blueprints for a better future and should restrict themselves to analyzing the present dispassionately and objectively. However, to maintain that belief they must ignore what scientists actually do and why they do it. Sir Isaac Newton studied astronomy partly because the explorers and mariners of his day needed better navigational cues. Michael Faraday was motivated to discover the relationship between electricity and magnetism partly by his society’s search for new forms of power.

Today, many scientists routinely and proudly acknowledge that their job is not just to interpret the world but also to improve it, for the welfare of humanity; much of the prestige of science derives precisely from scientists’ ability to deliver the goods. Some sociologists know they have a responsibility beyond publishing articles in refereed journals for the benefit of their colleagues. One example is Michael Burawoy’s 2004 presidential address to the American Sociological Association, a gloss on Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach”, in which Burawoy criticized professional sociologists for defining their job too narrowly and called for more public sociology. Still, many sociologists hold steadfastly to the belief that scientific research and public responsibility are at odds -- largely I suspect, because they are insecure about whether their research is really scientific at all, so feel they must be more papist than the pope.

Setting such anxieties aside, one is left with the question of how to combine professional pursuits with public responsibility. One option is conducting research that stimulates broad discussion of public policy. Some of my colleagues study how immigration policy limits the labour market integration and upward mobility of immigrants; others how family policy impairs child welfare; and still others how tax and redistribution policies affect inequality. To the degree they engage educated citizens in discussion and debate on such important issues, they achieve balance between their professional and public roles.

I have chosen a different route to public responsibility. I have conducted research and published for a professional audience, but I have also enjoyed the privilege of addressing hundreds of thousands of members of the public over the years by teaching Sociology 101 in large lecture halls and by writing textbooks for intro students in several countries. As Orwell wrote, communicating effectively to a large audience may be motivated by aesthetic pleasure and egoistic impulses. Who among us does not want to write clear and compelling prose and to be thought clever for doing so? But in addition, one may want to address a large audience for what can only be deemed political reasons.

In 1844, Charles Dickens read his recent Christmas composition, The Chimes, to his friend William Charles Macready, the most famous Shakespearean actor of the day. Dickens later reported the reading to another friend as follows: “If you had seen Macready last night -- undisguisedly sobbing, and crying on the sofa, as I read -- you would have felt (as I did) what a thing it is to have Power.” I understand Dickens. I, too, relish the capacity to move and to sway a large audience to a desired end because it signifies that my influence will not be restricted to a few like-minded academics and that I may have at least some modest and positive impact on the broader society. I find most students burn with curiosity about the world and their place in it, and I am delighted when they tell me that a lecture helped them see how patterned social relations shape what they can become in this particular historical context. On such occasions I know that I have taught them something about limits and potential—their own and that of their society. Teaching intro thus allows me to discharge the public responsibility that, according to Burawoy and others, should be part of every sociologist’s repertoire.

In Marx’s words, “it is essential to educate the educators” -- especially those who persist in believing that teaching intro bores, frustrates, interferes, and suits only the academic proletariat.


Robert Brym is professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. A version of this essay first appeared in Academic Matters, which is published by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.



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