Professors teach much more than their subject matter during the course of a semester. They teach students about participating in everyday life. For this reason, professors have to be cognizant of the message they send to students in and out of the classroom. If a professor can consciously shape this message, she or he can have a tremendous impact on many aspects of the students’ lives and on society itself.

The first skill I want students to develop is the ability to question things—everything…. I want students to question their lives and what they see going on around them without taking anything for granted, no matter how “trivial” it may appear. Such questioning must then extend to the larger society.
James Vela-McConnell

My approach to teaching sociology—and the message I convey to my students—is organized around the question of human freedom: What is the nature of human freedom and how much freedom do we have as individuals? This is an especially relevant question for sociologists given our focus on social structures and dynamics and how such a focus can convey a deterministic view of the world. I want students to understand the social forces operating in our world, but I also want them to exercise their own agency and critical thinking, making choices for themselves after critically examining the situation—what I see as the essence of human freedom. For freedom to be real, we have to claim and exercise our freedom. When sociologist Joel Charon addresses this topic in his book Ten Questions: A Sociological Perspective (2009), he informs us that we have to think and we have to act. Thinking and acting are skills that, given our social natures, are both natural and problematic to the human condition. It is in this dynamic tension between individual agency and societal constraint that the question of human freedom is played out. With this in mind, there are two goals I tell students I want them to develop before they walk out the door on the last day of class, and all assignments, lectures, discussions, and activities are organized around these two goals.

The first skill I want students to develop is the ability to question things—everything. This is the first goal listed on every one of my syllabi: “To foster critical thinking.” In order to meet this goal, I aim to engage students in such a way that their own personal lives and experiences become a topic for critical examination. I want students to question their lives and what they see going on around them without taking anything for granted, no matter how “trivial” it may appear. Such questioning must then extend to the larger society. What we see happening on the surface is only a mask for a much more nuanced and complex dynamic taking place beneath the surface. Peter Berger captured this idea best in his book
Invitation to Sociology (1963) when he said, “The first wisdom of sociology is this: things are not what they seem.” A person who has questioned his or her culture, values, and beliefs is a much more effective member of society. Beliefs that are held without question are blind and empty. If they are still valid after the students have engaged in serious and honest questioning, then these beliefs will have substance and value. Questioning things allows people to think about them, and this is the first element of freedom.

My second goal in teaching is to impress upon students the importance of getting involved in society. Freedom implies that we take an active stance in life, and with action and the ability to make choices comes responsibility to ourselves and to society. Social responsibility begins with involvement. I want students to go out and participate in society and to apply their knowledge to the world outside of the classroom. In other words, I tell them to “Make society happen. Don’t let it just happen to you.” If they like some aspect of society, I encourage them to work hard to see that it continues, for it will not continue on its own. If they do not like the direction society has taken, I challenge them to change it. Without taking action and getting involved, we give up our freedom.

Make society happen. Don’t let it just happen to you.
James Vela-McConnell

Much of this involvement occurs outside the classroom, but only a portion of that—such as a service-learning project—is a direct result of class. The rest is predicated on students possessing the desire and the skills to apply what they’ve learned. One such skill is the ability to work well with other people, a goal that is also reflected on each of my syllabi: “To promote effectiveness when working with others as well as when working alone.” While our nature gives us the ability to act, effective interaction is a skill that is acquired only with practice within a group setting and—in order to develop self-confidence—on one’s own. By learning how to interact effectively, we are better able to participate in the society around us and exercise the second element of human freedom.
These goals, however, are not accomplished in a vacuum. It is first necessary to capture the students’ imaginations. To do this, a professor needs to draw upon her or his personal experiences when teaching students about society. Personal experience becomes the starting point of the semester and the topics under consideration must reflect this emphasis. For example, I begin the Introduction to Human Society course with such topics as socialization, self and identity, and impression management—topics with which students already have much experience, though they may not yet understand them sociologically. Upon examining their own lives, students can draw conclusions that they have never thought of before. Suddenly, their experiences take on a whole new meaning because they are able to approach them from a sociological perspective. This makes the concepts they are learning come alive in a way that lectures and textbooks can never approximate. Only after capturing student’s interest and grounding it in their experiences is it possible to move on to more distant topics such as culture, institutions, social change, and so forth. By then, their sociological imagination has been drawn out and they look forward to even the more abstract topics.

By making sociology directly relevant to the lives of my students, by encouraging them to be critical of their own lives, and by impressing upon them the importance of active participation in society, I aim to validate and empower my students—something that I believe the education system in our country oftentimes hinders in its everyday operations. I strive to teach students more than just the concepts, theories, and methods surrounding our understanding of society. I teach them to be free members of that society who are willing to work hard because they know that they—and society—will benefit as a result.