As the head of a program that emphasizes public sociology, it is not difficult for me to convince faculty to include active learning in their curriculum. The program itself includes a “community engagement” requirement. One of our core courses for the program is called, “Introduction to Public Sociology and Community Studies” and requires students to complete 15 hours of service learning. However, creating an active learning culture is more than just developing one or two courses in which students go out into the community, it involves building relationships with community leaders and norms that encourage active learning.
Over the years, our department has been able to identify the leaders in the community who are engaged in social change and progressive policies. These people include leaders from government agencies, businesses, and the non-profit sector. The process of building relationships takes time but I have found that leaders are typically happy to discuss their organizations and allow students to see and participate in the work that they are doing. Our students have been to organic farms, homeless youth services facilities, and a non-profit community center developed to serve underprivileged families. It is clearly not feasible to have this type of engagement in larger classes and not every department is set-up to do this kind of work. In our highly enrolled classes, we try to bring the community into the classroom by inviting local leaders to discuss the ways that they are trying to address social problems. Over time, this type of engagement creates a cache of sorts which other faculty can access as part of their own course development.
Active learning techniques like the ones available in Sociology in Action provide ideas for starting the process of community engagement in departments that do not yet have such a culture. I have found that when just one or two faculty try out new forms of engagement, it creates an excitement that other people want to be part of, both faculty and students. What do students think of an active learning culture? In our most recent program assessment, ALL the graduating seniors reported that they liked the program’s emphasis on public sociology and active learning. One of them said, “The real life examples and public sociology emphasis can really help a student find what they want to do after graduation with such a diverse degree.”
Not every program is ready for this level of engagement, but it is possible to initiate this kind of sociology in action in any one class. If you are interested in doing so, I suggest you start small and work toward developing solid relationships with community leaders and alumni who are working in the community. Our assessments suggests that students are ready, willing, and able to participate in this sort of thing. As one student said to us, “If students have a better understanding of their communities it might influence them to stay and solve community problems.”
David Rohall is professor of sociology and department head at Missouri State University, and a contributing author for Sociology in Action.