Starting in Spring 2023, I will teach 15.900 Competitive Strategy at MIT Sloan.
During my time at the University of Chicago, I have taught in four different roles. As a lecturer, I taught a liberal arts class that examined classic thinkers from Marx to Polanyi as well as a more specialized introduction to economic sociology. As a teaching assistant, I taught in a lecture course on Sociological Theory and as a thesis adviser, I helped B.A. students to develop their first piece of original research over the course of one academic year. In these different positions, I have learned that the job of a sociology instructor is not primarily about imparting specialized knowledge. Instead, the primary goal is to teach techniques of scientific thought. Depending on the course, the techniques may vary from general to highly specialized, but the basic goal always remains the same. Accordingly, I use the same core pedagogical approach for all classes. I believe that students learn best when they 1. apply techniques actively, 2. receive repeated rounds of feedback on their work from peers as well as instructors and 3. experience that the work can resonate with their broader interests in real world phenomena.
I aim to build classes around students’ use of analytic techniques. For most reading classes, these techniques are basic and analytic. The students need to learn to read, comprehend, and critically assess complex arguments in concert with others. I believe that this can be taught most effectively by emphasizing the principle of hermeneutic charity – that critique must always address the strongest version of a given argument. Since the strongest version most easily becomes apparent when everyone works together, the principle orients the classroom discussion away from antagonistic toward collaborative and respectful discussion. To teach the principle, I usually begin the class by asking students to reconstruct a general version of the argument on the blackboard. Prompted by Socratic questions, the students identify central concepts, put them on the blackboard, and debate their internal relationships. In a second step, we begin to explore criticisms. As an exercise in hermeneutic charity, I often ask students to subvert their intuitive judgments. For example, when I taught Marx’s Kapital I found that the class was evenly divided between those who rejected the labor theory of value out of hand and those who found it plausible. Consequently, I asked each group to build a defense for the opposing point of view. Soon, economics majors fervently argued against the appropriation of surplus labor and anthropology students pointed out that value does not correspond to labor time. After the exercise was over, the students reverted to their old views, but found it easier to assess Marx’s arguments collaboratively. These kinds of exercises also help to create a more inclusive environment because they allow students to disassociate arguments from their person and approach them in a more playful way. This fosters collaboration and helps students to enter the conversation more easily.
Regardless what class I teach, I try to build repetition into the syllabus. For example, I usually organize the assignments to feed into a final paper. Students thus receive multiple rounds of feedback, learn from their mistakes, and get to experience their own improvements directly. Their grades then no longer reflect an absolute standard of achievement, but indicate their individual progress through trial-and-error. In the yearlong course I taught as a thesis adviser, we broke the final paper into different sections (e.g. Introduction, Theory, Method, Data, Results) and then asked students to submit multiple rounds of drafts for each. Students had to submit not only new versions of their assignments, but also memos in which they explained how they had accommodated the criticisms of the previous round. We used the same principle for rounds of peer review toward the end of the course. The improvements to the B.A. theses were notable. In surveys, we found that some students from Public Policy had decided to double major in sociology just to get access to the class. If it is not feasible to build assignments around multiple rounds of revision, I try to implement other forms of repetition. For example, in the class on classic social thought, I asked students to develop an analytical grid. Every lesson, they would then try to relate a new thinker or argument to the grid. This helped them to practice not just analytical consistency but also how to parse arguments through a larger conceptual framework. I found that such repetitions greatly improved the quality of students’ work, compared to experiences I had as a teaching assistant in classes that did not use a common analytical framework or repeated rounds of feedback.
Lastly, I believe that it is important to connect the substance of sociology classes to students’ broader interests and everyday lives. This can be done in a variety of ways. For example, when I taught an undergraduate section on economic sociology, I asked students to think of a market phenomenon they found interesting. Choices ranged from markets for loot in online games to privatized social services in France. Each lesson, the students would apply the guiding question of that day’s theoretical framework to their case. In their final paper, they synthesized these exercises by showing how different frameworks would approach their case – what they would fore- and background, and how they would build explanations of the guiding question. In lecture classes, such exercises are not readily available. But it is still possible to bring the material closer to students’ lives. For example, when I lectured on the Frankfurt School and presented the critique of capitalist objectification, I showed students a Cheeto Commercial in which members of the “Orange Underground” press Cheetos into white linens and laptop keyboards. I then revealed that it was based on neurological research. The feeling of the red Cheetos powder on your hands releases endorphins and the spot was designed to prompt such a release subconsciously. In the ensuring discussion, students debated whether the way the spot objectified humans into biological entities was somehow worse because it made us laugh. This was an excellent opportunity to discuss the themes of of authenticity, identity, and science in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. In later surveys, students stated that this and other examples made the material interesting to them as well as easier to understand.
In sum, then, I seek to develop my classroom into a space where students learn to use techniques of scientific thought. Since sociology is a discipline that strives for a deeper understanding of social problems, these techniques are not just relevant for original research or professional analytic work. Following Dewey, I believe that they help students to develop the basic literacy that is required for responsible citizens. To help students to become active and informed citizens in a time of profound uncertainty, disinformation, and social complexity is my personal motivation to research and teach sociology.