Friday, January 19, 2007

Teaching sociology: The pedagogical value of deceit

This semester I started my criminology class by introducing myself as Richard Bruce Cheney and the class as English 153: Victorian Poetry. I then went on to mention some of the high Victorian poets that we would cover, including Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, the other Browning, and Nigel Tufnel. At this point a number of the students had a rather stricken look on their face, and some were ready to head for the exits. Last semester I actually had a student make it 50 feet down the hallway before a TA could catch them. (BTW, Richard Bruce Cheney is also known as Dick, and Nigel Tufnel is a member of Spinal Tap).

Likewise, in my methods course, I present a bogus statistic to my students (e.g., that 1/3 of UConn students are African-American, when the real number is around 8%), test them on it, and then refuse to give credit when they give back to me my wrong answer. (I eventually relent and drop the question).

Character issues aside, why would I lie to my students? It’s my impression that big universities, such as UConn, implicitly train students to be sheep-like in the classroom. "Show up, sit down, take the tests, and leave at the end of the semester" seems to be the subtext of much of what we do. Furthermore, professors have the unfortunate tendency of presenting themselves as the all-knowing experts not to be questioned and certainly never to be challenged. As a result, the successful student strategy for most classes is one of quiet conformity.

I use deceit, and the inevitable discussion about it afterwards, to raise these issues. Our job as professors is to train students to critically evaluate what they hear and read and who readily challenge other people’s ideas. In short, we are to “de-sheepify” them.


For additional essays on teaching sociology:


Glen Davis said...

I cannot begin to tell you how happy your post made me. Brilliant.

Dr. Terry Hill said...

I am definitely not a christian. As a social scientist qua scientists, I do not feel it necessary to announce my faith to the world. As a retired sociologist I find the strategy of deceipt as a learning tool, effective in one way, but self-defeating in another... an Okam's Razor perhaps, i.e., that deceipt is OK in achieving a higher good. Students who are bored, apathetic, or truant from class, are sending signals which I personally don't care about. Motivating these students should not occupy more than a minimal %age of a professor's time. Being an enrolment police officer is a role that educational bureaucracies like to see faculty members adopt. Let the material and your presentation style do the motivating, not extrinsic factors. If you must resort to deceipt it pobably signals your methods are not sound or your worrying about the wrong things.

brewright said...

Glad you liked it Glenn!