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Melinda Messineo, Ball State University
As we return to the classroom for the spring semester, many of us find ourselves in front of students who have enrolled in our “Introduction to Sociology” course. For the vast majority of these students, the class was chosen to fulfill a general education requirement. Perhaps it was more than the time of day that motivated them to enroll, but what we do know is that less than 10 percent of these students will become our majors (Elberts et al. 1991). Couple this potentially reluctant audience with the fact that many of us teach Intro every semester of our careers and the start of the semester can be less than inspiring. Maybe it is time to reframe this experience.
When you think about it, teaching Introduction to Sociology is actually the most important thing we do. Perhaps that is a bit of hyperbole, but in the scheme of things—the number of students we reach, the ideas we explore, the potential it provides to dispel myths, increase research literacy, and foster social change—this stuff matters.
A study presented at the 2013 ASA Annual Meeting, according to an Inside Higher Ed article, found that, “Undergraduates are significantly more likely to major in a field if they have an inspiring and caring faculty member in their introduction to the field. And they are equally likely to write off a field based on a single negative experience with a professor.”
Yes, our discovery research also matters a great deal, of course, but each semester we get to work with novice learners and offer them a sociological perspective that can be transformative and might lead to a few new majors. It is an amazing opportunity.
Not feeling the love yet? Fair enough. But I bet there was a time when Intro was amazing for you, too. Do you remember what it felt like when you finally had things figured out? It was no longer a mad dash to stay one step ahead of our students. You were still interested in the material. You felt engaged, connected, present, competent, and energetic. You were probably still learning, but you were not consumed by the frustration or doubt that plagued earlier attempts. Perhaps you were still a student the last time that happened in Intro, but what you were most likely experiencing during those positive teaching and learning moments is what is referred to in positive psychology as ”flow.” You might describe yourself as being “in the zone,” but the premise is that there is a good fit between the challenge faced and your ability to face that challenge.
Psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following factors as encompassing an experience of flow. These aspects can appear independently, but only in combination do they constitute a flow experience:
Intense and focused concentration on the present momen.t
Flow is related to focus and intrinsic motivation, both of which are connected to learning and are necessary for creating positive classroom experiences. However, a lone professor totally “in the zone” lecturing may not represent the optimal learning experience. While the instructor may be experiencing flow, it will not be mutually beneficial unless the learners are engaged and optimally experiencing flow as well.
In order to achieve this flow, we need to scan the teaching environment to understand the constraints that prevent it. Typically these constraints are structural, interpersonal, or intrapersonal. Structural constraints include challenges in how the course is set up or how class sessions are conducted. Interpersonal constraints are linked to our interactions with students and intrapersonal constraints are related to our feelings about the course and our perceived competencies.
Often Intro faculty lament that they do not have meaningful interaction with students. Perhaps the class is large or there is too much material to get through. Keep in mind that covering material is not the goal; students need to learn the material. So shift from focusing on content and instead focus on learning in order to increase flow and make intro more enjoyable. Odds are you do not have the power to change the enrollment size, but you can make large classes feel smaller through effective use of:
An exploration of ASA’s journal Teaching Sociology or its teaching resource TRAILS can help you connect to resources that explain the activities and concepts in each of these areas.
In order to have positive interpersonal interactions instructors need to know their students and students need to feel comfortable with one another. Technology can help support these efforts along with assignment formats. Most importantly, these efforts build positive rapport which will be very useful when the course includes challenging conversations so common in Intro:
Intrapersonal constraints result from the barriers our own feelings introduce into the teaching-learning equation. Early in my career insecurity about my competence would prevent flow and there are times now when familiarity with Intro material has led to boredom or lack of innovation. I have discovered that what I loved about sociology from the start still excites me and sharing this enthusiasm with students is the first step to creating a positive learning environment. Other strategies include:
What is most important for intrapersonal constraints is that instructors develop reflection mechanisms. It is too late to create change if we only reflect at the end of a semester. Keep a sheet on your desk with reminders of the things you want to go back to and then (and this is important) go back and fix them. You might also consider keeping a gratitude journal in which you can debrief each class. At the end of each class write down three things that went well or you are grateful for then go back to these lists regularly. Revisiting these positive experiences helps to energize us and remind us of why we are fortunate to have Intro as part of our work lives.