Students taking sociology courses are can be very successful at absorbing empirical data and understanding the dynamics of everyday life in relation to topics of gender, class, ethnicity and so on. As my colleague Ralph Fevre and myself noticed, students often understood theoretical frameworks well but have difficulty moving between the concrete and the abstract or deploying theories in their own discussions. Theory then appears to students not as something they ought to care much about or do much with. Neither does it give students a grounding in applicable intellectual methods which they can apply to other areas of study and later years of their degree. They were uncertain in how to inhabit theoretical discourse and often found themselves relying on brittle, black and white constructs which did not match the suppleness of their understandings. Some would beautifully describe the theoretical frame they were relying on and then give a magical account of the empirical situation they were examining, but the two apparently existed in separate spheres. Others take refuge in safe and known positions which they intuited would flatter their teachers’ points of view. Sometimes it is students who produce less polished work who are being more honest about their stance.
Sociological theory can be taught in ways which give students the confidence to articulate theoretical concepts and work through their real world consequences. To take two examples of where this often does work as intended, courses in feminist theory and postcolonialism often do this very effectively. A combination of the commitment of the authors, teachers and students to a joint enterprise is borne through involved and engaging teaching methods. The classroom becomes a fruitful, productive space, and teachers in these topics are often comfortable recognising and incorporating conflict into their work, recognising the multiplicity of social life and the multivariant nature of social phenomena without losing sight of the big picture issues at play. Observing my colleagues teaching these courses and speaking to their students shows what can be gained where the classroom is a lively place where things happen. Ideas are crystallised, differences aired, and provocations are permitted and encouraged.
How might this be done more widely? Giving students permission to disagree and the tools to articulate their disagreements is key. These qualities can be incorporated into texts and classroom environments using a dialogic approach that draws on the classical tradition of disputation and productive conflict. As students will come to the classroom with a variety of capacities they are likely to find leaping into something in the style of Plato’s Symposium intimidating or alienating. In any case these classical dialogues are themselves rather contrived. Instead I like to draw on concepts students will be familiar with for creating dialogue and giving students the tools to interact with the material and each other. These are world building, simulation and augmentation. World building and simulation may be familiar from the Minecraft video game and many other apps, and augmentation from augmented reality capabilities built into social media apps such as Instagram. Problem based learning approaches align with these experiences, where students are given information and asked to simulate a problem solving team or another scenario. Students may be asked to write the thoughts of Georg Simmel attending a 21st century rave, advise a drug gang or the FBI on the philosophy of money, or rewrite Marx’s Communist Manifesto as if he had been a driver in the gig economy. The challenge in these approaches is that students are sometimes unsure of what is being asked of them, and often do not have experience of creative methods and being asked to think in a creative way, it is demanding of both teachers and students, and it does not remotely fit with the evaluation bureaucracy beloved of the modern British higher education system. However if we can make a space for recovering the ideal of the Enlightenment university – a public place that exists beyond the rule bound bricks and stone of the institution – then we will have done some good.