Kathleen M. Fallon
Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts
What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
One thing that’s important to my teaching is for students to feel they have a say in their learning, so I have them bring their own interests in. In my undergraduate courses, such as Sociology of Gender (130 students) and Gender and Development (85 students), after covering theory, I have students post links on WebCT to current articles that relate to topics we’re covering in class and state whether they agree with them and why. In the Sex and Gender graduate seminar, after starting out with a heavy theoretical framework, the students then choose topics they want to focus and present on. This approach has been hugely successful in stimulating interest and thought in the material. By bringing them closer to the material this way, students learn skills and substance, but they also learn how to relate real-life situations to the theory and practice of sociology that they’re studying in class.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
Mostly, I use WebCT postings, papers, and exams. For the first, students will post reviews of guest speakers, current articles, or videos. Students also have to respond to other people’s posts. They can disagree, but they have to do so in a very respectful manner—and they also have to present their perspective on the issue. This type of dialogue reinforces that the concepts we are addressing relate to real life situations. They also have to write a final paper in three segments for Sociology of Gender. The first is to write an op-ed piece on topics of their choice, with their arguments sourced and clearly and persuasively presented. For the second segment, they have to discuss how the lectures and readings relate to their topics. For the final segment, they have to choose a theoretical framework discussed in class and show how it would explain the issue they chose to focus on.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
They learn to be critically engaged, to think substantively about things and about all the different variables involved in them—basically, to think critically. It’s easy to oversimplify the patterns we see, to explain them away without really trying to recognize them or why they exist. So learning to see these patterns reveals a new world to many students. For example, in Sociology of Gender, I show how societal institutions, such as the media, present a “preferred” gender script, which tends to confine individuals. Many students claim they suddenly can’t watch TV anymore without thinking about all the different patterns and their implications. We look at society’s expectations for women and for men, and how we’re all scripted to “do gender.” Yet, gender is experienced differently depending on a person’s background and life experience, which includes factors, such as race, economic status, and ability. It’s very important for students to learn to pick out these factors in both themselves and in others, and to learn to understand how people experience gender.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
I think it’s naturally embedded in the way I present material—the topics, the theories, the readings I assign, and the way I organize the courses. In all of my courses, I start with something simple that students can relate to, like the concept of identities in Sociology of Gender. Then I move on to the theory—I feel it’s important for students to be grounded in the mainstream theories before moving on to actual topics because the theories are the windows to better understanding the topics and sociology generally. In terms of articles, I like to mix it up. I’ll include articles from authors in the field, both contemporary and classic pieces. These articles expose students to different methodologies and academic arguments. I will also add in op-ed and popular media pieces, so students can see how current on-going issues are directly tied to the academic research of sociology.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
Everyone has their own style, so I wouldn’t say that new faculty need to follow certain recommendations. Instead I’d say that they need to figure out what works well for them and to pursue the route that makes them most comfortable.
I would also add something I often tell TAs who are worried they won’t have answers for students’ questions: they do have the knowledge to answer, even if it takes a second to recall it. They should recognize this and know that they are therefore inherently able to present the material.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
Not to be scared of professors and TAs and to come talk to us, especially during our office hours. I think some students fear being viewed as dumb, so they don’t address problems they have with the material, but that’s just going to create problems for them down the road on the exam or when writing papers. It’s much easier to address problems sooner rather than later. The other thing I would recommend to students is to not wait until the last second to do their work. Not cramming for the exam and keeping up with the readings and coursework will just make everything easier in the long run.
Why do you teach?
Change and transformation—that’s why I teach. I teach to pass on knowledge, not just so that students have the knowledge themselves, but also so that they have the tools to use it for their benefit. Society is constantly changing. I therefore teach to inspire students to understand and work toward positive change and transformation.