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Imagining a different sociology?
By Anthony K Smith
Posted on 5/21/2020 6:37 AM

SOC101 - Imagining a different sociology?: reflections on a postgrad ice-breaker task, ‘design a new first-year sociology unit’ 

Authors: Anthony K J Smith & Claire Moran


 

What topics make up the quintessential introduction to sociology course? You might think: the sociological imagination, power/knowledge, stigma, habitus, identity, and social constructionism. At the 2019 annual TASA PostGraduate Day, we invited Postgrads to combine their research interests and sociological understandings to imagine their own first-year sociology unit.

 

Postgrad day is an opportunity for TASA Postgrads around Australia to come together to discuss, collaborate and network. As two members of the TASA PostGraduate SubCommittee, we were tasked with putting together an ice-breaker activity that would achieve the following objectives:

  1. Provide an opportunity for PostGrads to introduce themselves and their research areas to each other
  2. Inspire PostGrads to discuss key components of sociology, including discussing scholars, theories and contemporary debates
  3. Build connections and cameraderie between Postgrads (as part of the overall Postgrad day)

 

In line with these objectives we developed an ice-breaker activity, ‘Design a new First-Year Sociology Unit’, set against this fictitious background:

 

You work in the sociology department at Lohmeyer University and your group have been tasked with creating a new sociology unit. The unit can be about anything your group decides, but the Principal Assistant President for the Committee of Academic Affairs has requested that all new units at Lohmeyer University be topical and attractive to interdisciplinary students. However, the unit will still be an essential unit for the sociology major.

 

Postgrads were tasked to create a unit outline/overview which included: Unit Title, Course Description (100 words or less), a 10-week unit schedule (each team member was responsible for guest lecturing on a specific topic), and three assessment items. We encouraged Postgrads to introduce themselves to each other, talk about their research interests and topic, and to combine those interests in their design.

 

Postgrads were grouped in teams of 8-10, given butcher paper and textas, and had 30-40 minutes to complete this task. They were then asked to briefly explain their proposed sociology unit to the other groups and tweet their unit outline to the TASA PostGrads Twitter Page. We later announced the winner of the activity on the Twitter page (the group with the most engagement on Twitter), who were awarded the highly coveted prize, a box of Cadbury’s Favourites (see Figure 1). The Twitter engagement allowed for some friendly competition, and we hoped it would be a good way for Postgrads to establish connections with each other.

 

Figure 1 - Examples of Unit Titles:

 

Conducting this ice-breaker led to some unexpected insights about what TASA Postgrads are interested in, and their vision for sociology. Prior to this activity, some TASA Postgrads admitted to having never studied sociology at an undergraduate level, but still deciding to come to TASA. In fact, this was the case for both of us. Designing a first-year sociology unit gave all Postgrads the opportunity to critically discuss the key components of sociology from a variety of interdisciplinary and thematic group perspectives, opening up debates about dominant schools of thought and challenging assumptions about what constitutes important sociological thought. We found that many groups discussed wanting to move beyond the ‘dead, old, white men’ of sociology (Marx, Weber, Durkheim), preferring to incorporate topics and thematic weeks around intersectionality, centralising Indigenous voices, as well as LGBTQ+, feminist, and disability topics. Many groups also created units directed towards studying contemporary technologies (especially digital), and applied sociology, and there was a strong interest in wanting to incorporate practical assessments in order to inspire students to engage in sociological critique in their everyday life.

 

We received some formal feedback about the ice-breaker through the Postgrad day feedback survey, accounting for roughly half of attendees. The majority of Postgrads completing the feedback survey (n=31) indicated feeling ‘very satisfied’ (n=11) or ‘satisfied’ (n=11) with the ice-breaker, with fewer who indicated ‘neither’ (n=4) or ‘dissatisfied’ (n=3). We also received feedback specifically about the ice-breaker in an open-text field at the end of the feedback survey. One Postgrad liked that the ice-breaker ‘gave each of us a chance to share our background and current focus of research as we determined how best to structure the unit.’ Conversely, one Postgrad felt that the ice-breaker was part of a ‘marketing brainstorm session to ‘sell’ sociology’, and involved ‘patting ourselves on the back for criticising established sociology’. Admittedly, the ‘background’ to the task was written as a tongue-in-cheek critique of the Neoliberalised tertiary sector. But the latter point is interesting because criticising established sociology (e.g. ‘old, dead, white men’) was the way that many Postgrads took up the task, and not part of our design. Another critique we received was that the design of the unit was superficial, and that teaching is complex. We agree - there are many more pedagogical considerations than topic areas! Based on the overall feedback, if we ran this again we would simplify the instructions and perhaps re-think the competitive aspect, which some liked and others found stressful.

 

Overall, the ice-breaker prompted Postgrads to consider what excites them about sociology and to share this while getting to know one another. We found it interesting to consider that Postgrads had an appetite for imagining a different kind of sociology from the type they were familiar with. On the day, some Postgrads we spoke to explained that the units they designed reflected the units they wish they had taken as students, and Postgrads wanted to engage with different sociological canons, including beyond a Western/European or Global North canon. Despite some Postgrads explaining that they had not studied sociology as an undergraduate student, everyone seemed to find a way to bring together what they thought sociology was, is, and could be, drawing on ‘classical’ sociological concepts of power, knowledge, culture, gender, everyday life, identity, and much more!

 

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ben Lohmeyer, the Postgrad Portfolio Leader, for feedback on this article. We would also like to acknowledge the other members of the the TASA PostGraduate SubCommittee: Emma Barnard, Simon Copland & Marina Khan.