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Terrie Spetalnick

Lecturer in Sociology
Faculty VUcepter, Vanderbilt Visions

What enduring understandings should students gain in a sociology course, and how can instructors foster these understandings?

The diversity of undergraduate students in lower-level sociology courses at Vanderbilt makes for a rich learning environment, but also poses pedagogic challenges, especially for teaching students who are new to sociology. The same course that sparks, for many, a passion for expansive sociological study, on the other hand, might be the one and only sociology course of other students’ undergraduate careers. What knowledge and abilities should this range of students carry forward, long after the course concludes? For me, the answer is the application of sociological critical thinking—not just in school, but also in their everyday lives.

I use a number of techniques to teach sociological critical thinking, and one writing assignment appears in every syllabus: the analysis and evaluation of persuasive devices in a scholarly reading. I believe there are abundant benefits of this writing assignment. Close engagement with the reading results in deeper understanding of crucial concepts. Analyzing not just arguments of the reading, but also the author’s persuasive techniques, obliges students to identify and challenge a variety of assumptions. The assignment also affords development of argumentation skills, and, given strict word limits, practice in concise written expression.