The work we do as teachers is not simply personally transformative for students; it changes their whole family tree and, by extension, their communities. I am especially concerned with supporting students who have been traditionally marginalized in higher education, particularly first-generation students, students of color, mothers of young children, those serving as caretakers for loved ones, and poor students. Because of this commitment, I conduct most of my teaching online, which I consider a feminist endeavor and a defense of democracy.
My students, nearly all of whom are “nontraditional,” enrich the online classroom through the diversity of their experiences. The online classroom allows them to remain in those communities, many of which are rural, and share their growing expertise with others who need it; university towns don’t need more college students, but our rural communities do, and my students in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Oklahoma’s small towns are reversing the “brain drain” that is diminishing rural America and contributing to the political gulf among the US electorate. In this way, my teaching ensures that rural citizens are well-practiced in thinking sociologically.
I teach for the specific students in my classes, prioritizing their specific needs and the assets they bring to class. For this reason, my syllabi tend to be very flexible, allowing students to choose readings and assignments that align with their goals outside of the classroom, both personal and professional. For example, in Sociology of Sexuality, students choose seven themes from ten I suggest for the focus of their semester; students seeking careers in nursing or police work may focus on forensic investigations of sexual assault, while social workers focus on disability and sex and future teachers learn about sex ed. This flexibility is a recognition that many of my students are already working in their chosen field, albeit in low-level positions, and want to increase their practical knowledge to do their jobs better. Likewise, my assignments often make use of local resources to foster relationships between students and their communities, strengthening ties, encouraging the sharing of what students are learning, and opening further opportunities for students to invest in the place where they already are. For example, students in my Sociology of Disaster course identify a local leader in disaster prevention, preparedness, or response and conduct an interview with that person, and in Sociology of Religion, they practice their participant observation skills by conducting field research with local religious groups. Each course includes a signature assignment that requires students to use a new method of sociological discovery, such as survey design, focus groups, or content analysis.
Though my classroom activities focus narrowly on my students, I don’t teach just for my students; I teach for their families and their communities, because I expect them to make those relationships and those places better. I carry this commitment to addressing inequality and thereby strengthening democracy to every setting where I teach. In the past, I have taught enrichment courses offered at no cost to students of color seeking graduate education in fields where they are often underrepresented, and I have taught in a program that supports economically disadvantaged students as they enter elite schools. I want the most disadvantaged students to have access to what the advantaged have always been granted. I teach for big changes, wherever that teaching occurs.
My teaching mirrors my research on higher education, which focuses on diversity, professor-student interactions, the culture of higher education, and student learning. (You can find my research on these topics in the National Education Association’s Thought & Action, Radical Teacher, and Proteus: A Journal of Ideas.) A vibrant research agenda of work that is aimed at the common good is one of the best ways I can model for students the possibilities that education holds for them. I work closely with students, especially on student writing and research design, having a strong background in teaching writing and having spent three years as a dissertation coach. I have supervised dozens of senior research projects in addition to working with dozens of graduate students. My students do fascinating work on topics including
- Racism and sexism in special education labeling
- The relationship between physical and psychological stress on police officers
- Programmatic failures in religion-based prisoner re-entry programs
- Doctors’ training for supporting the mental health of trans people
- Mother-child relationships among women whose pregnancies resulted from rape
- Fathers’ roles in supporting breastfeeding partners
These are projects that they choose because they promise to improve life for the people and in the places they care about and where they see their futures. In their research, my students thus model what I aim to practice in my teaching: to create positive change for the people I am responsible for serving as a teacher and, over the long term, for their communities.
Other courses I teach
Sociology of Gender
Sociology of Disasters
Sociology of Youth Subcultures