American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
July/August 2017

It’s Not Every Day that You Get to Design a New Sociology Major

Jessica Holden Sherwood, Johnson & Wales University, Providence

Johnson & Wales University

Johnson & Wales University

Designing a brand new sociology major, where there had been none: it’s roughly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Two years ago, I was appointed to lead a team at Johnson & Wales University to do just that. There were so many questions: what should be required, in what sequence, and why? What’s the best curriculum for producing graduates that are successful both as professionals and as citizens? While I thought it would be acceptable for the design to reflect my fingerprints, I knew it shouldn’t be shaped just according to my own vision. Enter the American Sociological Association.

I started with ASA’s Academic and Professional Affairs program, where the Director, Margaret Weigers Vitullo, introduced me to the Department Resources Group and related resources: I became familiar with the second edition of “Liberal Learning and the Sociology Major” (McKinney et al. 2004), known as “LL2.” I applied for the DRG Mentors Program, and was soon matched with Diane Pike. Pike, a longtime DRG volunteer, has reviewed sociology departments all over the United States. She was the perfect match for me.

Thanks to university funding, I was also able to travel to conferences and talk with both Vitullo and Pike in person. Both were generous with their time and knowledge throughout the project.

The “Foreword” to the project had happened without me. It was based on the administrations’ decision to call for new majors in the College of Arts & Sciences. Their rationale for sociology included favorable data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, whose online resources include both Occupational Employment Statistics and a Career Outlook section.

Designing the major occurred over several months, as the team used guidance from the profession within the framework of our university. For instance:

  • Tiers. “LL2” recommends four tiers of major courses, increasing in complexity. DRG consultant Stephen Sweet invites faculty to consider whether three tiers would work equally well (Sweet 2016). Johnson & Wales uses four tiers of courses, numbered from the 1000s through the 4000s, so our major was designed to conform to that standard.
  • Hands-on Projects. Several sources (Hillsman 2014, Kain 2007, McKinney et al. 2004) emphasize the importance of student research within courses. Johnson & Wales has always focused on preparing employable graduates: its infrastructure emphasizing experiential education will serve our new sociology majors well in their future endeavors.
  • Assessing Outcomes. The Measuring College Learning project of the Social Science Research Council (see Arum et al. 2016) was timely for our work. Its panel of sociologists identified the concepts and competencies essential for a sociology major, which informed our team’s statement of program outcomes. Johnson & Wales has every major map its outcomes onto its courses. We must address where will we introduce, reinforce, and assess each program outcome? The MCL project was a valuable resource in this process.

Our design was also informed by browsing both the online catalogs of peer institutions, and the syllabi included in ASA’s TRAILS: Teaching Resources And Innovations Library for Sociology ( TRAILS is primarily a course design resource, so obviously the syllabi were helpful on content outlines and required readings. But it was also a less-obvious resource in curriculum design, as inferred from syllabi information on course sequencing and prerequisites.

Thanks to all of the resources above and below, I feel confident that our new sociology major is well designed. The “Afterword” to the project will be the publication of “LL3:” sociologists (including DRG consultants) have reconvened the ASA Task Force on Liberal Learning, and I look forward to seeing what’s new in their forthcoming report [see the next issue of Footnotes for more on that topic]. But in the meantime, I will welcome with excitement our first-ever class of sociology majors this fall.

Editor’s note: The ASA Department Resources Group (DRG) advances the discipline of sociology by offering empirically-grounded peer review and consulting expertise to academic departments regarding effective practices for pedagogy, curriculum, and organizational structures in support of teaching and learning and the production of sociological knowledge. DRG consultants are available to assist departments with program review, curriculum development, assessment, department retreats, and teaching workshops. For more information, see


Arum, Richard, Josipa Roksa, and Amanda Cook. 2016. Improving Quality in American Higher Education: Learning Outcomes and Assessments for the 21st Century.

ASA Task Force on Assessing the Undergraduate Sociology Major. 2005. Creating an Effective Assessment Plan for the Sociology Major.

Hillsman, Sally T. 2013. “Sociology is a STEM Discipline.” Footnotes 41:2.

Hillsman, Sally T. 2014. “The Importance of Statistics within the Discipline.” Footnotes 42:6.

Kain, Edward L. 2007. “The Sociology Major at Institutions of Higher Education in the United States.” Teaching Sociology 35(1):31–47.

McKinney, Kathleen, Carla B. Howery, Kerry J. Strand, Edward L. Kain, and Catherine White Berheide. 2004. Liberal Learning and the Sociology Major Updated: Meeting the Challenge of Teaching Sociology in the Twenty-First Century.

Sweet Stephen, Kevin McElrath, and Edward L. Kain. 2014. “The Coordinated Curriculum: How Institutional Theory Can Be Used to Catalyze Revision of the Sociology Major.” Teaching Sociology 42(4):287–97.

Sweet, Stephen. 2016. “2015 Hans O. Mauksch Address: How Departments Can Respond to the Changing Popularity of the Sociology Major.” Teaching Sociology 44(1):3–16.