Teaching philosophy

A sociological perspective offers students an opportunity to see their own personal biographies within broader patterns of social stratification, race, gender, inequality, and conflict.  My approach to teaching is to foster a sociological perspective with intellectual curiosity and clear communication.  I invite my students to reconsider everyday events with analytical rigor and empathy in order to trace connections between course material, historical context, current events, and personal experience.  By the end of each course, students should be equipped with the empirical knowledge and communication skills to engage in a lifetime of critical thought and social engagement.  I pursue these learning goals by utilizing diverse teaching and assessment methods and by cultivating a learning culture which is simultaneously safe and challenging for students of all backgrounds and abilities.   I am committed to learning and implementing effective teaching practices that equip students with knowledge and empathy to engage social life as informed citizens of their state, nation, and world.

Through experiences gained in classroom settings, one-on-one tutorials with research assistants, invited guest lectures, and curriculum development, I have grown increasingly convinced that this sociological lens is best nurtured by students themselves.  As a teacher, I cultivate this growth in analytical thinking and communication through student-driven learning experiences, skill-building assessments, and inclusive pedagogy.

First, I design learning experiences that empower students to draw meaningful connections between sociological principles and their everyday lives.  Through in-class activities, I challenge students to link global and local environments, histories, and politics by engaging with real-world events.  For instance, I have found that students often come into the classroom with an impartial conception of the intersectionality of labor, class, and gender.  To trouble this view, I bring bananas to class and ask pairs of students to describe the path of this fruit, from production to purchase.  Typically, students accurately articulate many institutional and transportation components of the bananas’ story, but remain blind to the work of laborers—typically women—to bring this fresh produce to market.  Students struggle to describe who grows or makes the products they take for granted each day, reflecting the disconnected nature of many broader consumption patterns.  To meet some of these laborers, we read a case study of the triple-burden of agricultural production on women grape-harvesters in Brazil by sociologist Jane Collins.

Second, I integrate formal and informal assessment methods to build competency in communicating new knowledge.  I value using multiple forms of assessment, not only to measure student progress, but also to build skills and offer students more opportunities for individualized and one-on-one learning.  I prioritize forms of assessment that measure student progress in communicating and analyzing social problems, such as essays, research papers, and oral presentations or debates.  Within the classroom, I explicitly teach and model skills of analytical reasoning and oral communication and I measure student maturity in these skills through low-stakes presentations on common readings as well as scaffolded small- and large-group discussion.  When I assign research papers, I require one-on-one meetings with students to further train them in the multi-stage process of developing hypotheses, planning their research design, evaluating evidence, and drafting and revising final writing assignments.  I have found that in-class writing assignments can serve as meaningful metrics of student growth and opportunities for feedback on course content and culture.

For instance, while discussing the high-rates of incarceration and death among African American men, a young black man died in an altercation with police in my students’ university town.  In the shadow of this trauma, I used ungraded, in-class writing exercises for several weeks to track students’ reactions and strengthen their skills in seeing through a sociological lens.  These activities included personal, and anonymous, reflections on how these current events connected with their own race, class, and gender, as well as mini-essays (on 3×5 cards) analyzing the social construction of race, violence, and safety.  Throughout that semester, I saw remarkable improvements in my students’ communication, critical thinking, and argumentation skills, as well as an emerging sense of community and cooperation among those students.

Third, I cultivate a learning atmosphere which is simultaneously safe and challenging for students of all backgrounds and skill levels.  My past and present teaching involves the sensitive subjects of religion, politics, environmental racism, and injustice.  Through explicit reflexivity about my race, gender, sexual orientation, and class background, I aim model my expectation that students will self-consciously practice respect and inclusivity of one another.  Inside my classroom, I present discussion and readings on norm-challenging issues as safe opportunities to confront students’ own experiences within a broader conception of society.  When discussing politically- and religiously-charged conflicts, such as those between environmental preservation and economic development, I use a scaffolded approach to discussion.  For example, while teaching my course, “Eating a global environment: Critical perspectives on agrofoods systems,” at the University of Chicago, I had students break into groups of three or four and ask them to develop a coherent policy suggestion which addressed the concerns of poor food access in urban Chicago.  Students then presented their team-developed, in-class assessment to the entire class for review, rebuttal, and debate.  This multi-scale discussion structure successfully engaged students of different personalities and contexts in thoughtful and productive conversation about the social structures, actors, problems, and concerns of food injustices and spatial inequalities.

My pedagogical approach extends beyond my own classroom.  As an environmental sociologist with a historical bent, I find that my scholarship intersects with curriculum development and teaching in ways that enrich student learning.  For instance, during my master’s and doctoral research projects, I developed Directed Study courses designed to mentor undergraduate research assistants’ towards their own independent projects.  I train mentees in human subjects research ethics and research design, and guide them through interview transcription, qualitative coding, and descriptive data gathering and memoing.  In addition, I have been repeatedly invited to guest lecture on important principles central to my own citizenship and scholarship: commodity chains, agricultural globalization, and “food from nowhere.”  In these lectures, I use contemporary data, case studies from my own research, and a provocative segment from a BBC documentary to illustrate how technologies and historical patterns of political power matter for a sustainable future.More formally, I was hired to develop new food sustainability curricula for a graduate-level, online conservation biology course and revise a geography faculty member’s curriculum to integrate sustainability-related service-learning opportunities.

For many students, experiencing the looking-glass of a sociological lens can be both disenchanting and empowering.  I am committed to guiding students of all backgrounds and majors through challenging course material and discussions, holding fast to the expectation that solid, sociological training will prepare them for lives of greater mutual respect and thoughtful citizenship.

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