Teaching Statement

As Stefano Harney and Fred Moten write in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, “it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge” but one in which “one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can.” They explain, “the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university” is “to abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony…”

In my classes, I attempt to create what bell hooks calls “a location of possibility.” She explains that when we labor for freedom, demand of ourselves and our students, and when we open our hearts and minds, we may “collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress.” I cannot claim that I always succeed in creating such a “location of possibility,” but it is a constant goal when I develop and deliver a course. One crucial component of that delivery is in how I structure the presentation and discussion of controversial or contentious subjects. For the class to collectively venture “beyond boundaries,” I aim to make my courses accessible to students with a range of scholastic preparation and learning goals.

In the first week of my courses, I discuss with my students several norms I expect all of us to better understand, practice, and enforce throughout the semester. Two of these norms pertain to consistent use of methods that can enhance understanding and promote well-being: the principle of charity and self-care. While I could not assign sole or primary credit to these methods, they have contributed to producing opportunities to “move beyond boundaries.”

The Principle of Charity

The principle of charity aims to clarify and improve understanding of another’s claims, particularly when there seems to be disagreement. I invite my students to be charitable with one another, with the texts they read, and with me. In this sense, charity is chiefly concerned with interpretations, as its primary goal is lessening perceived differences caused by problems interpreting the expressions of others. This goal can be achieved by acknowledging points of agreement and by translating expressions into their most well-reasoned and persuasive versions. I often suggest students consider the practice of charity as the opposite of constructing a “strawman.” I invite them to use this method prior to criticizing claims, and find that it fosters civil debate and rigorous thinking during moments of disagreement. Beyond helping students learn, I ask students to consider the ways that using this method in other settings can improve their personal and professional relationships. I model this method in the way that I teach, and because I treat competitive ideas faithfully and fairly, students are often unable to pin down my own opinion on a text or topic of discussion. I am thrilled when we are weeks into a semester and students ask for my perspective on a given issue, as they are frequently unable to assume it.

Self Care

Because my courses address contentious topics that may inspire a range of uncomfortable feelings, I encourage students to be proactive and guard against emotional responses that may create barriers to learning or promote unproductive distress. I encourage students to use self-care in a number of common situations in the classroom and during study. One common situation—the topic of much debate in popular press and education literature—involves direct experience of harms caused by discrimination or traumatic situations. Just as some students have been harmed by the objects we study, others have benefitted from them, and consequently they may feel defensive. If they feel entitled to their advantages, they may become angry or frustrated when their privileged status is acknowledged or criticized. A third situation where self-care is helpful is common to all learning: the frustrations felt when readings are challenging, when there is too little time to complete assignments, or when the subject of lectures or discussions is confounding. I do my best to convey my sympathy to students experiencing these things and to let them know all of these emotional responses are understandable, while emphasizing that they must resolve these challenges to assure successful learning. In my classes, I suggest some self-care strategies (see, for instance, this handout).

Rhode Island College Courses

  • Fall2020

    Classical Sociological Theory

    This course covers the beginnings of sociological theory in the nineteenth century through WWII. Focus is on Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Anna Julia Cooper, Max Weber, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Oliver Cromwell Cox.

  • Fall2020

    Community

    This course emphasizes experiential and service-learning through supervised internships or term-length projects.

  • Multiple Offerings2018-2020

    Crime and Criminal Justice

    This is an introduction to crime, delinquency, and the criminal justice system. The nature, extent, causes of crime, and forms of criminal expression are examined.

  • Fall2019

    Sociology of Punishment

    This is an sociological survey of punishment and corrections in the United States.

  • Fall 2018Spring 2019

    Race and Justice

    Focus is on the intersection of race with crime, justice and the law. Considers whether there is institutionalized bias towards specific racial groups in the legal and criminal justice systems.

  • Fall 2018Spring 2019

    Contemporary Sociological Theories

    The development of sociological theory in its historical and social contexts since the early work of Parsons is explored. Also analyzed are contemporary schools of theory and representative theorists.

      Past UMass Courses

      • Spring2018

        Surveillance & Society

        This advanced undergraduate seminar provides an overview of surveillance studies, an emerging field in the social sciences that aims to analyze the interactions among surveillance technologies, the organizations and people that use them, and broader sociological factors.

      • Spring2018

        Criminology

        This intermediate undergraduate sociology course studies three key factors fundamental to criminology:

        • Determinations and explanations of crime,
        • Social, political, and cultural influences on how societies control crime, and
        • Key organizations tasked with administrating the control of crime (with emphasis on the United States).

        Fundamentally, this course sociologically studies the fields of criminology and criminal justice, primarily by studying the historical development of criminological thought and criminal justice institutions. Criminology emerged prior to the development of sociology through the work of social philosophers during the eighteenth century. It passed through a period dominated by political and social thought, and in the early twentieth century was developed with empirical work conducted by sociologists. It has since become an interdisciplinary field, now with influences from sociology, law and legal studies, psychology and psychiatry, and the criminal justice professions.

        This course regularly draws from cultural criminology in two ways:

        1. The canonical criminology texts we read are scrutinized as cultural products that influence academic and popular thinking about crime and criminogenesis. This is contrary to an approach that would see such texts as offering certain, authoritative explanations. This is not to say these texts offer no explanatory value, but that our mode of inquiry is selected with the intention of uncovering the social processes and consequences of the production of criminological knowledge.
        2. On a weekly basis, the class is assigned a film that closely relates to (a) reading(s) that precedes and/or follows it. These films represent or challenge the academic approaches we study, usually in a fictional setting. Students are encouraged to investigate the ways that cultural artifacts reflect and contribute to prevailing thinking about crime and crime control in popular and academic environments.

      • Fall2017

        Race & Policing

        SOCIOL 392: This advanced sociology seminar focuses on key aspects of the often-controversial relationship between race and policing in the United States. Students will develop a detailed understanding of a number of these major controversies, including empirical accounts of related events and their social contexts. For instance, the course addresses racial discrimination in investigatory stops, use-of-force, searches, and arrests. While students are expected to become knowledgeable about the variety of ways empirical evidence is used to assess these specific issues in detail, they are also expected to become critical thinkers about the broader issues of bias in policing. The course provides a sociological and historical context for policing and its frequently discriminatory methods and outcomes in order to explain these and to determine possible policy implications.

      • Fall2017

        Deviance & Social Control

        Why do some take pride in conformity? Why do others seek out subcultures that reject dominant social conventions? Why is it that some unusual people are perceived as interesting while others invoke revulsion—or violence? How do some acts come to be defined as criminal? What happens later in life after one is labeled a criminal? Is individuality under attack? Is society falling apart because of too much individualism?

        This upper-division undergraduate course studies diverse sociological explanations for:

        • causes of non-normative and criminal acts
        • processes by which some acts are defined as deviant or criminal
        • interpersonal, social, and institutional processes that facilitate conformity and penalize transgression

        On a most fundamental level, we will consider at length what deviance is and what produces social order.

         

      • Fall2017

        American Police (online)

        This is an online, accelerated course held during the first half of the semester.

      • Spring2017

        Race & Policing (online)

        SOCIOL 392 Description: This is a 7-week, online, advanced sociology course focusing on key aspects of the often-controversial relationship between race and policing in the United States. Students will develop a detailed understanding of a number of these major controversies, including empirical accounts of related events and their social contexts. We will focus on racial discrimination in investigatory stops, use-of-force, searches, and arrests. While students are expected to become knowledgeable about the variety of ways empirical evidence is used to assess these specific issues in detail, they are also expected to become critical thinkers about the broader issues of bias in policing. The course provides a sociological and historical context for policing and its frequently discriminatory methods and outcomes in order to explain these and to determine possible policy implications.

        Approach of this course: Most criminology and criminal justice studies of policing use approaches typical of management and organizational sociology. They focus on police agency structure, internal bureaucratic policies, government oversight and accountability, “police outcomes,” best practices, and administrative and managerial questions. Policy considerations operate under the (often-unstated) assumption that police serve a general public benefit. Police “serve and protect”—presumably everyone. Any recommendations are directed toward police administrators to accommodate this mandate.

        This course is more typical of institutional sociology and political sociology. Institutionalism is concerned with how durable, self-activating social practices originate, change, and resist change. Political sociology often begins from the premise that—contrary to a unified, generalized mass public—societies are comprised by a multitude of groups who contend over values, resources, and assets. As such, there is no such thing as a general public benefit—there are always winners and losers in the basic conflicts that produce and create changes in societies. From such an approach, rather than assuming universal service and protection, we would ask: Who is served and how by police? Who is protected and from what?

        At times in this course, assigned materials provide contrasting perspectives on similar issues. We will read some criminal justice and police studies texts. Primary intended audiences for most of these texts (beyond criminology students and other criminologists) include police administrators and policy-makers in government. These texts can provide readers with a particular perspective on policing. Most criminal justice courses would be satisfied with the narrow range of perspectives provided in these texts. Instead, to provide a diversity of scholarly viewpoints, this course additionally draws heavily from theory grounded in historical and institutional analysis, from interdisciplinary scholars, and from nonacademic sources. With varying degrees of guidance from the instructor, students will do the work of accounting for diverging and competing perspectives.

      • Spring2017

        Criminology

        SOCIOL 241 Catalog Description: Introduction to the study of criminology, definitions of crime, criminals and delinquents, demographics of crime and criminals, the work of the courts, law, police, and punishment in the production and administration of crime and criminals, society and crime, problems of prevention and control.

        Approach of this section: This intermediate undergraduate sociology course studies three key factors fundamental to criminology: (1) determinations and explanations of crime, (2) ways societies control crime, and (3) key organizations tasked with administering the control of crime (with emphasis on the United States).

        Fundamentally, this course sociologically studies the field of criminology itself, in part by studying the historical development of criminological thought. Criminology emerged prior to the development of sociology through the work of social philosophers during the eighteenth century. It passed through a phase dominated by political and social thought, and in the early twentieth century was developed with empirical work conducted by sociologists. It has since become an interdisciplinary field, now with influences from sociology, law and legal studies, psychology and psychiatry, and its sibling, criminal justice.

        Each week features a major theme in criminology and criminal justice, and a film that explores related themes. Typically, Monday’s assignments are readings of primary, often historical texts; Wednesday’s assignment is the viewing of a film, available to watch in-person or stream online via course reserves; and Friday’s assigned readings are secondary texts.

      • Spring2017

        Race, Gender, Class, & Ethnicity

        SOCIOL 106 Course Catalog Description: Introduction to Sociology. Analysis of the consequences of membership in racial, gender, class and ethnic groups on social, economic and political life.

        Approach taken by this course: This course provides an introduction to sociology through the study of race, gender, class, and ethnicity, with primary focus on the United States. At different points in the course, we will look at class, race, and gender as analytically separate, but fundamental to the course is the idea that these social categories are mutually informed and co-constitutive. Primary course materials emphasize sociological theory and historical approaches to the study of society.

        Required books:
        Class by Will Atkinson (Polity, 2015)
        How Race Survived U.S. History by David Roediger (Verso, 2008)
        What Is Gender?: Sociological Approaches by Mary Holmes (Sage, 2007)

      • Winter2017

        American Police (online)

        SOCIOL 395 Description: This advanced, accelerated course offers a sociological study of the police institution in the United States. Students will develop a detailed understanding of social and historical influences on this exceptional institution. One key component of the course addresses the police mandate to produce public order and its authorization to use coercive force to this end. This focus on police violence addresses historic controversies and related reforms. A second key area of study addresses the history of American policing from its origins in slave-catching and in isomorphic influence from European organizations; the professionalization of policing in the early twentieth century; the diffusion of modern model of police; the policing of dissent, and particularly with regard to the labor and Civil Rights movements of the mid-20th century; and finally contemporary changes (e.g., broken windows/zero tolerance, community policing, surveillance). The course emphasizes the relationship between policing and determinants of social location (e.g., race, ethnicity, class, gender, ability).

      • Fall2016

        Race & Policing

        SOCIOL 392

        Description: This advanced sociology course focuses on key aspects of the often-controversial relationship between race and policing in the United States. Students will develop a detailed understanding of a number of these major controversies, including empirical accounts of related events and their social contexts. We will focus on racial discrimination in investigatory stops, use-of-force, searches, and arrests. While students are expected to become knowledgeable about the variety of ways empirical evidence is used to assess these specific issues in detail, they are also expected to become critical thinkers about the broader issues of bias in policing. The course provides a sociological and historical context for policing and its frequently discriminatory methods and outcomes in order to explain these and to determine possible policy implications.

      Past Courses Offered at Other Schools

        • Spring2014

          Conflict in U.S. Politics

          Political Science 265 Description: This writing-intensive course covers political conflict and contention in the U.S. The conflicts we cover in this course have to do with material conditions wedded to and reproduced within political institutions and the built environment. The contentions or disagreements we cover often are over efforts to alter or sustain these very material conditions.

          Popular discourse about U.S. American politics addresses conflict in one of two ways. On one hand, this talk overly stresses the activities of consensus-building and the necessity of agreement. On the other, it frequently depicts deadlock between two clearly defined sides, articulated from the louder voices among the two dominant political parties. The course begins—contrary to many political science textbooks—from the presumption that this depiction is historically and theoretically flawed, and intellectually and politically unhelpful. We immediately take our leave from that position in order to explore others.

          The central questions of this course explore democracy as a kind of political action, as an idea, as a means (political practice or process), and as an end state. It asks: When we take disagreement and conflict to be central to politics, what contentions and antagonisms characterize the history and present state of U.S. American politics? Which conflicts present impediments to democracy in the U.S.? How can these antagonisms open up prospects for democracy and expanded political participation?

          This course will explore political conflict as well as processes and strategies of contention, across four applied areas of inquiry. First, we consider the founding and early political institutions. Next, we look at climate change. Third, we analyze race in relation to the politics of citizenship. Finally, we consider technological politics relative to the environment and surveillance in the contemporary U.S.

          Required texts:
          Jerry Fresia, Toward An American Revolution
          Amanda Machin, Negotiating Climate Change
          Charles E. Lindblom and Edward Woodhouse, The Policy-Making Process (Third Edition)
          Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox
          Joel Olson, The Abolition of White Democracy

        • Winter2013

          Stratification

          Details coming soon.

        • Winter2012

          Information & Society

          Coming soon.