#britsoc13 : We do teach y’know

In one of Chomsky’s later books, I think it’s Failed States but I may have got that wrong, he includes a two page conclusion in which he starts ‘Some people accuse me of never providing solutions or recommendations…’ and proceeds to set the record straight. With a couple of measly bullet points covering about a page. I had a similar reaction when I read a great volume recently, Will Atkinson, Steve Roberts, and Mike Savages’ Class Inequality in Austerity Britain. It’s a great book – timely, prescient, angry and level-headed, that does a really substantial job of addressing how inequality makes it worse for all of us. Go buy a copy – I’ll wait.

Done? Good. The only problem I had with the book is the editors tackling of ‘the recommendations problem’. The final chapter included some reflection on how sociology could be done better, an argument for an activist and public sociology. Great thing to get behind, but I felt something that I and my colleagues at SHU and throughout the country do was forgotten, something we do all the time. Teach. Since September I have spent at least three hours a day in the company of young people aged 18-21, people who have chosen to study sociology and political science (yeah I know, but they’re not bad people). Why does teaching sociology not seem to count as public sociology, or as a way of encouraging activism?

It may seem small and parochial, but we should never forget that we have at our doorstep people longing to know about the world, longing to learn about their position in that world, waiting for people with a variety of experiences and ideas to talk to them. They’re great, and we are very lucky to be able to do what we do. One of the easiest ways to get our message out, to impart the facts of the welfare changes for example, is to teach it, and to reinforce the messages so that students’ friends hear it, and their families hear it. This will not have the same impact as a great media campaign that cuts swaths across middle Britain, but we seem pretty sure we are not getting one of those. To ignore the fact that we teach at our largest conference seems a pretty appalling oversight.  A quick scan through the programme (searching for the word ‘teaching’ which may not be the best method to employ) shows only two or three papers which focus on the usefulness of teaching sociology. The vast and overwhelming majority of papers were focused on new and important research – great, but that’s not all we do.

I know there is now a BSA Teaching group (formerly the ATSS), which seemed to have a great first conference, and has another coming up in July 2013, but the idea that we keep teaching separate is something the BSA should reconsider. If sociology is meant to be democratic and equal, then having a conference dominated by richer Redbrick and Ancient universities, with much of the work of post-1992 institutions sidelined, is not a great idea. I met one or two sociology teachers, those focused on A-levels, but very few. The professional themes and fears which dominated BSA2013 – REF, publishing, massive funding bids – are not things all university sociologists worry about. Before we worry about trying to educate the public, we have to make sure we are doing all we can to educate our students to the best of our ability. If BSA-led sociology places research over teaching, then we are missing out on our greatest opportunity to enact change n individuals.  Let’s stop ignoring teaching.

Jon Dean is a lecturer in Sociology at Sheffield Hallam University. This was originally posted on his blog. You can follow Jon on Twitter here


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