As a freshman majoring in Biology and Psychology, I enrolled by chance in my first sociology course, “Gender and Society.” In this course, as we read Black Feminist Thought, I found the language and discipline that reflected the lens through which I saw the world. That semester, I changed my major to Sociology, a step that would impact my ultimate career trajectory. Through the next four years, I was inspired by engaged professors who not only challenged my intellectual development in the classroom, but who also encouraged me to dialogue with them as equals about relevant contemporary social issues. From such professors, I learned that education goes beyond reading canonical texts—that what we learn in the classroom can be applied outside of academia, and that what we learn there speaks back to our theories and methods of inquiry.
Building on these experiences, as well as those I have accumulated as an instructor of various courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I adhere to three main principles of teaching and learning. First, I encourage critical reflexivity. Second, I provide students with tools to evaluate knowledge claims. Third, I emphasize clear communication skills, especially in written work. By working toward these goals, I help students create bridges between sociological knowledge and what they observe beyond the walls of the classroom. I employ a variety of teaching and assessment methods to achieve these goals.
Critical Reflexivity: A sociological lesson I learned early in my undergraduate career was to locate my personal experience within historical, institutional, and structural contexts. That is, to practice critical reflexivity. I encourage the same in my students. In courses on race and ethnicity, for example, I regularly assign ungraded reflection papers that count only toward participation. In one such paper that I assign at the start of the term, I ask students to discuss their racial and ethnic background. Based on their essays, I give students guiding questions to discuss in small groups, such as: Who has ethnicity? What does it mean to be American? How does interacting with people of other ethnic or racial backgrounds make you feel about your own identity? In a larger group discussion, I introduce the idea that our personal experiences of diversity and race are shaped by institutions and policies, like those pertaining to residential segregation and migration. This assignment also helps set the tone for the classroom: When students opine on notions of race and ethnicity, I remind them that they both speak from their societal standpoint and can speak to the interplay of structural, institutional, and interactional aspects. Of these experiences, a student shared: “I liked Katrina because she pushed all students past their own comfortable area. I realized it was for my own benefit to learn and understand.”
At the same time, balancing student opinion can present challenges for maintaining a comfortable classroom environment. I have found, however, that by opening the course with the foundations of critical reflexivity, or positionality, students appreciate that the diversity of their voices contributes to a generative discussion. One student said: “I really liked this class. All of the readings were really interesting and class discussions were always thought-provoking. Everyone in the class had different perspectives on the material, and this made class that much more interesting. Katrina is a great professor. She’s really smart and always made me leaving class still thinking about our discussion. One of my favorite classes of my undergraduate education.”
Interrogating Knowledge Claims: Having established early on that what people say is informed by their social position, I teach students to evaluate the claims that people make about the social world. I encourage them to apply this both in navigating class discussion as well as in the reading of academic, journalistic, and popular culture material by asking what how people make claims, what evidence they use, and the strategies they use to persuade. For example, when discussing immigration and citizenship, I show news segments of deportation raids and responses by organizers opposed to the raids. I ask students to look for how different actors define what it means to be American and what kind of data or evidence they use in their arguments. Students then compare the claims with examples and concepts from course readings ranging from historical examples of Chinese exclusion to data on immigrant labor and integration. I also encourage students to share their perceived advantages and disadvantages associated with certain types of claim making or modes of understanding the world. The point of such exercises is to teach students that there are many ways to see an issue, and that different conclusions often depend on different forms of making claims and evidence. Blending sociological concepts with contemporary events has kept students engaged. One student said: “I liked that she connected each part of the class with current issues and debates, which made the class relevant.”
Developing Communication Skills: Finally, grounded in a reflexive understanding of how knowledge is produced, I coach students in how to produce and communicate their own ideas. I rely on both ungraded and graded written assignments. Throughout the semester, I ask students to reflect on what they are learning in short, daily “journals,” so that they may practice regular reflection and writing. In more formal writing, I scaffold assignments so that students have the opportunity to mature in their writing. For example, in an independent research paper, students move stepwise through picking a topic, doing preliminary research and submitting a bibliography, drafting an outline, writing a first draft, revising and reverse outlining, and submitting the final paper. At each step, I evaluate the students work, providing detailed feedback. In class, I discuss common issues in writing. I also require at least one individual conference for discussion and training in specific writing challenges. Through informal and formal writing assignments, I build process into writing. Though it requires additional attention, students have benefitted: “I appreciate your challenging us with our writing. It is important to develop writing skills, and I appreciate your help with that.”
By adhering to these principles, I have witnessed incredible student growth in perspective and communication skills. One student who was in favor of racial profiling announced in class one day that he realized that when people argued that racial profiling was for public safety, they meant the safety of white people and elites. Students have also produced engaged and mature written work on topics ranging from school policy to segregate Hmong students to epigenetics. It has been a pleasure to train young people to become critical and engaged citizens.