Dr. Jennifer Silva’s (Bucknell) “Discovering Sociology” Helps Students Understand the Building Blocks of Social Life

“I wanted to write in a way that communicates the passion and the excitement I have about sociology.” — Dr. Jennifer Silva, Bucknell

Jen Silva No border In the following interview, Dr. Jennifer Silva discusses the formation of her new title with C4E, Discovering Sociology and what sociological ideas, past and present, excite and engage students. Dr. Silva is a professor in the Department of Sociology at Bucknell University who specializes in the study of inequality.  She received her PhD from the University of Virginia.

C4E: What made you want to write an introductory textbook?

JS: I started writing the textbook as I was preparing to teach Introduction to Sociology at Bucknell this past fall. It inspired me to think about how I wanted to teach sociology, and what I thought was important. To me, teaching is all about telling a story. I wanted to think through the narrative of someone’s first sociology class. This textbook allowed me to think through the progression of that narrative, and how different topics can be woven together. I wanted to write in a way that communicates the passion and the excitement I have about sociology.

C4E:  What were the main sources you included?

JS: I tried to stick with many of the classic sociological works. As a discipline, we’re very committed to classic figures and theorists, like Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. But I also wanted to introduce more exciting and new work that is coming out in the field. I incorporated current issues, such as debates about if transgender students should be allowed at women’s colleges, and about police and racial bias. I wanted to take our classic theories, and show how they’re relevant to understanding our world today.

To me, teaching is all about telling a story.

C4E: What are your favorite assignments to use from the book?

JS: I’ve tried out a lot of the activities, and I know what works well in terms of what generates discussion. I really like the case studies that we included. Students will say that while they can read a textbook, they really learn from seeing how concepts apply in real life. I added some case studies of real people from my own personal research. In the first chapter, I included the “Diana and Rob” Case Study. Diana and Rob are young adults who are trying to finish college and get jobs in our economy. I want students to see how abstract ideas of sociology apply to real people in our nation. These are young people, who in some ways, are a lot like the students.

C4E: What were some of the challenges of designing an online textbook?

JS:  I wanted to convey the personal connection and excitement that I have in the classroom, and bring that into the textbook. Writing in an engaging, familiar, welcoming and inviting tone was one of my main goals. As a teacher, I have a lot of energy, and I try to connect with the students so that they feel an emotional or personal connection to sociology.

The textbook has helped me become more organized in my lectures. When I give a lecture, I try and speak in more accessible language, as opposed to academic language. I tried to write as if I was talking, rather than using a dry style.

I want students to see how abstract ideas of sociology apply to real people in our nation.

C4E: How did you decide to organize the book in the way you did?

JS: I start with our founding theories, going back to the 1800s. I take students on a tour, where we look at the building blocks of social life, like our social institutions and culture, and that gives students the tools to understand our society. Then we start to look at more contemporary issues, like racial and gender inequality, or the struggle to balance work and family. So it builds up tools from the very beginning, where we have the basic theories, and applies those tools to contemporary issues.

C4E: Does your research on inequality and the working class figure into the text?

JS: I’ve interviewed so many people, and I brought their stories into the text [as in the assignment on “Rob and Diana”]. I am always thinking about inequality, so this issue probably figures into my text more than other introductory books.

C4E: Who are your favorite sociological thinkers?

JS: In terms of classic sociology, I love teaching Karl Marx. There’s a section in the textbook on him.  I think his ideas about exploitation and alienation and social class are still so relevant. Amongst contemporary sociologists, I really admire Andrew Cherlin’s work on family life in America. I like the work of Harold Garfinkel, who has done a lot of research on the hidden rules and norms that structure our everyday lives. I admire Bruce Western at Harvard, who’d done work on incarceration. Eva Illouz does great work on culture, emotions, and the self.

I try to connect with the students so that they feel an emotional or personal connection to sociology.

C4E:  What have been your favorite teaching experiences?

JS: I have had a great year in all of my classes at Bucknell! I taught a class called “Growing up Rich and Growing up Poor in America,” where we looked at different kinds of opportunities children have. I ask students to use their own research, and interview families or interview kids about growing up.  Students produced some really creative and exciting papers.

C4E: Who have your most influential teachers been?

JS: My high school class on sociology was focused on inequality and social justice, and I haven’t stopped thinking about those ideas since.

C4E: How have you seen the discipline of sociology changing (in terms of research methods, general trends) over the past ten years?

More and more scholars are trying to be relevant to public policy. They’re trying to not just speak to each other, but also to speak publicly, in the New York Times, or even beyond the news, and to shape public discourse. It’s important to be inviting to people beyond your own field.

C4E: What are your favorite video clips from the webtext?

JS: From the book, there’s a great clip about millenials;  how older generations believe they are very lazy and entitled, and that they are ruining the country. It’s interesting to think about this, but then also how our economy and culture are changing. Growing up now is in many ways much harder than it was for many generations in the past.  When students see something on the news, they should be able to say: what’s missing from this presentation? What can sociology tell us about these public issues in a more nuanced way?

Sociology challenges our common sense that we’re all individuals, and that biology and psychology are what drive our behavior.

C4E: What are some of the other projects you’re working on?

JS: I study young adults and inequality. I am interested in opportunity for young adults, especially in terms of jobs and education and family life.  I am going to start a new book on politics of working class identity in May.

C4E: What do you think are biggest challenges for student in your courses?

JS: For students, sociology is a really new way to think about the world. It challenges our common sense that we’re all individuals, and that biology and psychology are what drive our behavior. The social world has an effect on us, and shapes who we are. It takes a while to convince students that they’re not just these individuals completely in charge of their lives, but that they’re shaped by social norms, systems of power, and the time and place in which they live.

Learn more about Discovering Sociology and how to adopt it as the textbook for your face-to-face, hybrid, or online intro to sociology course. 

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Alisa Gross
Content and Social Media Specialist at Connect For Education
Alisa Gross is the editor and webmaster of the College Teaching and Learning Blog. She holds advanced degrees in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute, London, and Johns Hopkins University. Alisa has also worked as a math and writing instructor and tutor to high school students in New York, London, and Philadelphia over the course of eleven years.

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