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The Executive Officer’s Column

ASA’s Engagement in the Teaching of Sociology

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer

The departure from ASA this month of 25–year veteran ASA staffer Carla Howery (see January Footnotes, p. 8) evokes my contemplation of ASA’s longstanding commitment to sociology education. This is an area that blossomed under Carla’s vigorous stewardship, working in her dual role as Director of the ASA Academic and Professional Affairs Program and as Deputy Executive Officer.

In the 1970s, ASA began its Projects on Teaching Undergraduate Sociology, which were designed to improve undergraduate teaching. Hans Mauksch, the main force behind this initiative, drew on his scholarly work in medical sociology where he had witnessed first–hand the training of health professionals. He applied principles he saw in that context to sociology teaching. He realized that when there is a body of knowledge to be learned, learning must involve practice, peer review, and feedback (e.g., residency and internships in medicine). Good teaching, he believed, cannot be a private activity conducted behind closed doors without direct involvement in handson, feedback–intensive learning contexts. Because about 80 percent of ASA members are academics, it was obvious to Mauksch that sociology education was important to the discipline and that ASA should play a key role.

Phases and Objectives in the Teaching Movement

There have been different phases and evolving objectives in the teaching sociology movement over the 30 years since Mauksch received funding from the Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education and the Lilly Foundation. Locating and institutionalizing teaching concerns within ASA resulted in the creation of the ASA Section on Undergraduate Education. ASA began publishing a newsletter on teaching, which has been replaced by a substantive journal, Teaching Sociology, that ASA took over from Sage. Soon, the Executive Office had staff (Carla) and operating funds allocated to issues of teaching and higher education. A distribution system was created for disseminating teaching materials that is now the ASA web–based bookstore and electronic publication sharing. Sociologists’ need for continuing education became a major function at the Annual Meeting. There are now about 80 workshops on teaching every year as well as teaching–related sessions at the meetings of other sociology associations and freestanding workshops.

Another objective has been to provide support to the core of sociology education—the sociology department. Drawing on expertise in sociology, education, and other relevant fields, ASA has emphasized the importance of the academic department (and the college or university) as well as the individual teacher. The context in which sociologists teach is critical to successful sociology education, because missions differ dramatically across the 3,000 academic institutions in which our discipline is taught. The Department Resources Group (DRG), an ASA–formed network of trained consultants available to work with departments on teaching workshops and program reviews, has been developed and nurtured by ASA (i.e., Carla) as has the annual ASA Department Chair Conference and Directors of Graduate Studies Conference, both of which recognize that the leaders of departments are key agents of change in the discipline.

Another primary ASA objective has been fostering the professional preparation of graduate students. Many ASA professional seminars, workshops, courses, and other training offerings are focused on the needs of graduate students. These have helped prepare generations of future faculty to become well–rounded professionals filling the faculty role in a wide variety of educational institutions. The original ASA Section on Undergraduate Education also broadened its scope to encompass graduate education.

Teaching as a Scholarly Endeavour

Key to much of ASA’s work in embracing teaching has been to cultivate the teaching of sociology as an area of scholarship. This shift from viewing teaching as an interest area of some sociologists to that of a research area is reflected in the original ASA Section changing its name to become the Section on Teaching and Learning in Sociology. The journal Teaching Sociology began publishing many more empirical articles and provided a venue for sharing teaching strategies. Conceiving of teaching as scholarship also provided ASA with new linkages to other disciplinary and higher education associations. Since the 1980s, collaborative projects have developed based on sharing teaching expertise more extensively within and across disciplines as well as recognizing and applying our combined “political might” to influence higher education policy. Rather than sociologists working individually on service learning, community–based research, or general education, for example, many people from different disciplines have worked together in these domains and cultivated common principles of practice.

These musings on ASA’s efforts to “pass on sociology” through teaching would not be complete without a nod to sociologist Everett K. Wilson and those who followed him. He and other teaching giants helped keep teaching and research intertwined, one informing the other. Wilson began a nearly 20–year stint on the faculty at Antioch College in 1948, a period in which the college acquired a national reputation for excellence, due in part to its “distinctive way of bridging the dialectic between theory and practice through it imaginative work–study program for all students,” according to Wilson’s March 2000 obituary in Footnotes. At Antioch, Wilson designed the nation’s first formal program for teaching graduate students how to teach. He collaborated with colleague Charles Goldsmid to co–author Passing on Sociology, still a classic on practical guidelines for the instructional process in sociology. ASA’s own Carla Howery reflects the very best of this still–growing and vital tradition in sociology.

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer