Joyce “Sage” Sevilla
Behavioral and Social Sciences Department
Despite all the technology that surrounds us, nothing is more powerful than conversation and action.
This is a moment in time; a moment rife with challenge, rising civil rights abuses, high frequency bogus news feeds, speedy online interpersonal communication, low-level rules of engagement, identity politics, social isolation in public spaces, and a heightened fear of the unknown. In this moment in time, the LIVE democratic classroom, its values and practices, could not be a more vital space.
While Sociology101 (Soc101) offers an opportunity for students to better understand social behavior in human groups and consider the ways in which culture and societies change over time, the live democratic classroom provides the social context: a liberating forum, where students can reflect, express and thread ideas and questions on complex sociological topics across a 16 week community platform of respectful engagement. Students actively listen, grapple and challenge diverse perspectives on salient issues that impact society, world, family, peers, the evolving self. Things students really know to be true are tested within a sociological framework and within new theoretical contexts.
Multi-tasking is off the table, as cell phones are silenced and put away (REALLY!) for the designated 90 minutes of class time. The physical separation of a student from their gadget can be an adjustment, but with consensus reaffirmed each week to give focus and attention to the people in the room and the lesson at hand, the focus, community alignment, student agency and respect are duly affirmed. The first beat of class sets the tone.
Two conceptual frameworks that I utilize in my Soc101 classroom to structure conversations, regardless of subject matter are introduced day one of the semester: the sociological imagination* (C. Wright Mills,1959 ) and the concept of verstehen**, the German word for insight (Max Weber, 1926). These mega-frameworks are fundamental to the discipline and together offer the student two distinct lenses from which to see, analyze and comprehend social phenomena. By applying the sociological imagination and verstehen alternatively,students get regular practice spinning off their biases as they explore social phenomena from the perspective of an objective outsider*or interpret social action, social behavior from the perspective, the motivation, the subjective viewpoint of the individual social agent**. This analytical rigor, practiced weekly gives students regular practice listening and connecting new knowledge with applied understanding. And hopefully over the course of the semester, this practice leads to new habits of mind that carry over into their lived lives.
Like any new analytical skill, it takes practice. Students are required to apply the sociological imagination and verstehen not only in classroom discussions but also in regular writing assignments on various topics. In one memorable assignment, a student applied her sociological imagination and verstehen to analyze the Super Bowl Party she attended over the weekend. Among the highlights of her analysis was the identification of self-imposed gender segregation within the social gathering: women in the kitchen and men glued to the television set. The student then analyzed the gender, class and racial stereotypes embodied in the high stakes commercials aired, discussed the products in the commercials and the half-time music entertainment as artifacts of modern American culture. It was an exciting piece which highlighted the creativity and acumen that can emerge as students apply these analytical frames.
Throughout the semester, with practice applying these tools, critical thinking perspectives on social issues grow and change. New understandings of society, social groups, social action emerge and old ways of thinking fade away. It’s an intense academic journey.
As an educator in these Trumped-up times, establishing a democratic classroom for students of diverse backgrounds to respectfully explore biases, challenge subjectivity, air out and dispense with narrow, commonsense notions on sociological issues and become fortified, intellectually curious agents of social change could not be a more essential task. And at the end of the day, the live HOSTOS Soc101 classroom flickers bold, vital and deliberate, like a candle in the rain.