Students care, and therefore learn, when the work they’re tasked with speaks to and acts in the world(s) they inhabit. My teaching aims to ground abstract sociological processes in the real world, most often through action in the local community. Theoretical perspectives are applied to local phenomena – debates over public transit, skyrocketing rents, the location of tent cities for the homeless. Dry statistical principles are demonstrated using vivid data on important social issues – segregation, economic inequality, evictions. Students are active participants in their own learning – they collect their own data, conduct participatory observation in local contexts, and argue novel hypotheses of their own formulation.
My approach to classroom work is grounded in my approach to research: bring varied and appropriate data to bear on important, contemporary issues. Students are expected to conduct demanding quantitative and qualitative research – work that honors both their lived experience and the historical tradition of sociologists before them. In my class on the Urban Community, for example, students chose a local Seattle neighborhood on the first day of class. This neighborhood became their laboratory for the quarter. Students worked in groups to collect, analyze, and present Census, ACS, crime, and other data on their neighborhood for the 1990 to 2015 period. They conducted ethnographic field work in their neighborhoods – taking photos, talking to local residents, assessing the quality of local amenities, and developing a fine-grained understanding of how macro and micro scale forces shape contemporary realities. My students’ final projects can be found on my website (posted with their permission): http://www.thomasbfoster.com/teaching/urban_comm.
The inevitable result of work grounded in the local community is a visceral understanding of phenomena that must be experienced to be understood. Gentrification is a complex and difficult concept; the construction of a new, high-rent apartment complex in the historically-black Columbia City neighborhood is not. A discussion of supply and demand in local housing markets is enough to make most academics’ eyes glassy; a doubling of housing prices in Ballard and a block of houses with “SOLD” signs in front of them is riveting. Students’ positive and challenging experiences were reflected in their overall quantitative evaluation of the class (4.8/5.0), their above-average assessment of the rigor of the course, as well as in their self-assessment of how much they learned in the course.
My approach to curriculum is shaped by my own experiences in service-learning courses and community-based research. Throughout my undergraduate career at West Virginia Wesleyan College, I volunteered at a local food pantry and mentored and tutored K-12 students at an after-school program. As a senior, I conducted community-based sociological research aimed at understanding the local social safety net and identifying the holes through which residents may fall when trying to meet basic needs. The contrast between the relative wealth and well-being on campus and the poverty of the surrounding community was stark. These experiences fundamentally shaped my thoughts about the role of institutions of higher learning in the larger community. We have the obligation to give back to our neighbors in ways the community deems important and meaningful.
Organizing classes around “the things students care about” is no academic concession. It’s not an admission of defeat, a relinquishing of lofty ideals to the banality of millennial culture. It’s a celebration of these ideals. Confronting contemporary issues head on, deliberately, in the construction of classes and assessment strategies is the best way to produce citizens who can critically assess the world, understand the complexity of everyday life, and act meaningfully to confront injustice.