I fell in love with sociology at university when I came across ‘Connell’s seminal work “Making a Difference”. Connell’s exploration of families, social class, and lived experiences of education resonated with my experience of schooling, from beginning right through to my under-graduate experience. I suddenly had access to the theory, and the language, behind things I had experienced but never been able to quite put my finger on. It was a pivotal moment in my studies (and dare I say life) and influenced the direction of my undergraduate degree and all I have done from there. I am aware however, that Sociology as a discipline can be considered, particularly by my first year students, as a ‘heavy’ subject. Illustrating the complexity of social life, particularly what many have regarded as ‘common-sense’ and have never questioned, with theory, can make an initial introduction to the subject over-whelming. Coupled with increasingly diverse groups of students who are first in family, from rural families, Indigenous students and children who have grown up in refugee families, along with students who have had a relatively smooth path to university, I just cannot assume a common starting point to introduce sociology. Everyone starts from a different place. I therefore think of teaching sociology in terms of helping students to understand the importance of questioning the every-day, taken for granted assumptions, and the ideology of meritocracy that pervades every aspect of our lives. Before I can do that however, I first need to unpack what’s already in the virtual backpack they bring with them to university, that is, their own experiences, often their own privilege. The idea of privilege can come in many forms and is a difficult idea for students to grapple with at first. The way structure has impacted their ‘choices’ and a multitude of things that have impacted their everyday lives which they have never thought to recognise.
I have over the years come up with a range of ways, of tips and tricks to help students ‘get it’ and to help them contextualise complex theories in sociology as relevant to their studies, their future careers and their world, .
Charles and Baz are two fictional characters that often accompany my first-year students through their sociological journey. Charles and Baz may be fictitious but they are useful and importantly ‘safe’ for student discussion in the early days of study. Charles and Baz transform according to the contexts we are looking at, altering character, traits, and resources, and sometimes even gender according to the topic under investigation. For example, when considering the influence of social class on education and outcomes, Charles assumes characteristics of the middle class, with well-educated parents, a private school education, extra-curricular activities including rowing and cricket, and even work experience in Europe. Baz, on the other hand, is from a working class background, living in a gentrified area of Sydney, much to his family’s dismay. He experiences many obstacles in his educational journey, most of which have little to do with his individual characteristics. Baz and Charles thus provide the perfect vehicle through which to explore the impact of structure on the individual (and importantly to dispel the myth of meritocracy!)
Excerpts from situational comedies are also particular helpful for my first year education students. Readily available on You Tube, I often use these to highlight issues. They are a great resource as most of the time, students are already familiar with the characters. For example, think about what Elaine and Jerry can teach us about the social construction of gender in this short clip from Seinfeld https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBpgbElLpzw. Or what Chris Lilley’s genius, aka Ja’mie from Summer Heights High, can teach us about social class in her address to the Summer Heights High assembly https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0hrCam_wUU . Or what we can learn about white privilege from Sonic Nomad https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dbkvoj6SC0w. We watch the clip, I then introduce the theory and then we re-watch the clip in light of their new knowledge. This, of course, can just as readily be utilised online as face to face and it is particularly satisfying when I can see that “I get it” look on my students’ faces, or read it in their posts or detect their enthusiasm in an online meeting.
Postgraduates come to you a little differently, often with some experience in sociology and a wealth of experience in their chosen profession. Key to understanding the new ideas and theories introduced in subjects such as Policy Analysis is robust discussion, so the trick is to find a way to facilitate this in an online space. Usual practice would be to incorporate synchronous discussion using a tool such as online meeting. With a recent cohort however, I had students in Canada, Asia, the US, the UK, as well of course in Australia, so this wasn’t a practical option. I needed to find another way to enable my students to have the kinds of conversations needed to aid their understanding. I approached this challenge in two ways:
Firstly, I used traditional online forums where students could discuss the readings asynchronously which I related to relevant examples as well as I could.
Some of the readings, however, are quite challenging, requiring students to be familiar with policy, theory and application of one to the other. My postgraduates tell me their biggest obstacle to participating in the necessary online discussion with myself and their peers is just not knowing where to start, and not knowing what this might look like. In recent years, there have been a number of quality podcasts produced in both Australia and overseas. .
So secondly, to help with the discussion aspect I use a variety of podcasts to show them how this type of discussion occurs in every day contexts. A good example is the ‘Fresh Ed’ podcast, a US podcast with a comparative focus. Guests are what you could term the “rock stars” of sociology, educational research, and education policy. Researchers discuss their recent research in a short podcast of 30 minutes. So, when the students were introduced to Stephen Ball, for example, I would point them to one of the podcasts where Ball, himself is actually doing the talking. So, not only does the theory (and theorist!) lose its abstract quality but in conversation, the host of the podcast and the researcher are able to decipher some of the complex language through conversation. I emphasise to students that they do not have to take notes or log on to their PC, they can just listen. Because these podcasts are presented by academics they are credible and informative of course whilst at the same time – and maybe most important for student understanding – bringing the application of theory and policy to life. Other useful podcasts include ABC’s The Minefield and The Philosophers Zone and the BBC’s Thinking Allowed. And I am sure there are many more just waiting to be discovered. Student feedback indicates this as a useful tool, and this is also evidenced by increased activity on the discussion board after students have had a chance to listen to the recommended podcasts.