Since this was intro sociology, I threw in a heady mix at the beginning of Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. The students loved Marx. They really understood, felt and lived Marx’s writings on alienation, how you as a worker in a capitalist society were alienated from your work, the process of working and the end product of your work. They had it down almost to a chant: “Why are people alienated?” “Because they don’t own the means of production!” They really felt that sense of general anomie in society and loved the line in C. Wright Mill’s piece on the Sociological Imagination that describes individuals as moving in their own private orbits, never touching and never connecting with others. And they cheered when we covered Marx’s theory of surplus value and exploitation.

But I remember that in the week after I talked about class stratification with them, a young student who recently moved from Zaire came to visit me during my office hours. First, we chatted about how she was doing in class, and she expressed difficulty in linking the different theorists to their theories. Then, we talked about the content of the day’s lecture, reviewing the various positions. She burst out, “What am I supposed to do, because there is so much inequality in society, so much unfairness? What am I supposed to do?”

We hadn’t gotten to the part about agency yet, about how we as social actors can change all of these things: class, race, gender, inequality, etc. I tried to link the idea that things like class were socially constructed and can also be dismantled, redefined and recreated. I am not sure if she got what I was trying to say. I basically felt like I was training the class to become activists, leading them to see the underlying basis of the social structures and institutions that we see in society, and take for granted. I taught with my politics in an upfront manner. I felt like I was working against the influence of the other slop that’s out there – Fox TV, the New York Post, etc.


I decided to not teach this fall at City College, though I was offered a fellowship to do so. I am not ready to be responsible to how my students reflect on what I teach and relate it to the reality of their lives. I don’t want to walk in as a relatively privileged graduate student and lecture them about these inequities that affect them in real ways, then sashay out after the hour of class is over without providing clear options or methods to arrive at alternatives. The latter are fuzzy in my own mind.

I want to include a participatory pedagogy in my practice of teaching. It’s hard to take the concept of participatory learning and classroom democracy into the university space.You are only with the students three hours a week; you get to know their names and selective information that they share with you in slices of conversation. The relationship is rather minimal, and I felt like I was constantly trying to build trust with them, to gain their respect by giving it. But they were not willing to take on power when I gave it to them.

I did one group exercise with my students, where they were divided into three groups and were supposed to work with their peers. They were miserable. They didn’t talk to each other, and would only talk to me when I walked close to them. I am still looking for the middle ground where I am imparting information that I know, while also using a participatory and democratic teaching method.

I think teaching is the most beautiful thing one can do, to bestow a gift of thought, a flicker of an idea in a young person’s mind. I still remember the day the student from Zaire looked thoughtful after we had the discussion about structure versus agency. Then she asked me with wide eyes, “What should I do with my life?” I didn’t have a ready answer for her that day. I’m not sure if I ever will.