When I teach I consider my most important role to be facilitator-in-chief for students’ learning. By this I mean that an instructor does not pour knowledge into a student like pouring water into an empty vessel. Instead, I create an environment which encourages my students to challenge themselves and take charge of their own learning process. In this way I approach teaching much like a coach approaches mentoring; my job is to guide and challenge the students under my tutelage in order that they can succeed in the broadest way possible. No matter what course I am teaching, I strive to also focus on generalizable skills such as critical reading, thoughtful analysis and good writing that will empower my students in all of their future endeavors. To do this I eschew the traditional lecture format and instead incorporate strategies of learning through doing in several ways. During class time I make frequent use of small groups where students are required to work through problems in teams while I circulate around the room offering guidance and answering questions. This gives people an opportunity to struggle through difficult concepts while having the instructor present as a resource. In addition, I structure out of class work so that students gain experience in real research.
For example, when teaching Religion and Social Life at Cornell University, I designed an activity where my students read and interpreted interviews of atheists describing perceived discrimination in order to better understand aspects of religious identity formation. Likewise, when teaching research methods, I tapped contacts established when working for NORC at the University of Chicago to garner permission to let my class use some of the documents employed by field interviewers on the General Social Survey. These behind-the-scenes examples from real sociological research brings the process of social research alive for my students in a way a mere textbook never could. Other examples of activities I have designed can be found below.