A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR TEACHING THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION
By Nga Than, Sebastián Villamizar-Santamaría, Karen Okigbo, Anna Zhelnina, and Isabel Gil-Everaert
How does one cultivate a way of seeing the world, a so-called “sociological imagination” (Mills, 1959), while simultaneously teaching it to undergraduate students? That is one of the most difficult questions that sociologists face in the classroom. We offer a practical guide that helps graduate students with various levels of teaching experience prepare to teach during their career at CUNY. We address questions such as Where do you start when creating a course for the first time? How do you engage students when teaching? How can you encourage critical thinking? How can you embed professionalization and skill development in your curriculum?
We build this guide upon a dialogue between imagination and reflexivity (Giddens 1991). Teaching sociology from this perspective acknowledges the classroom as a space for activating students’ sociological imagination – their ability to connect personal situations to broader issues – while engaging in constant processes of self-reflection and social positioning.
From a sociological perspective, imagination is both an individual and collective process. It involves cognitive processes of meaning making and understanding as well as collective processes of identity and belonging. The sociological imagination involves thinking with others and participating in “thought communities” (Zerubavel 1997), as well as envisioning different or alternate futures and social arrangements which motivate social action. Through teaching the “sociological imagination” professors and students engage in a collective and interactive exercise of “expanding experience” (Zittoun and Cerchia 2013) and “imagining with others” (Fuist 2021). Reflexivity, on the other hand, occurs while we are finding our place in the world and participating in different ways of understanding, contesting, and changing current social arrangements. Throughout this guide, we also emphasize the importance of engaging in “reflexive pedagogy” and “reflexive learning” (Stalker and Pridmore 2009).
CUNY colleges, where “New York City is your campus,” are deeply embedded in the community dynamics and reflect opportunities, challenges, inequalities, diversity and the richness of the city. We offer some guidance on how to bring the social world into the classroom by incorporating everyday experiences of students and teachers, as well as the local issues and context within which learning takes place. In order to achieve this, we describe three key components for teaching sociology in the intersection of imagination and reflexivity:
(1) We have to understand where students are coming from in order to help them connect their biographies to structural contexts, and the best way to do so is to hear directly from them. Every class is different, given the diversity of students’ backgrounds, abilities, and levels of interest. Since our role is to enable students to link their personal experiences with structural issues, engaging them is key to creating those unique linkages. By asking about their personal experiences through different assignments, such as neighborhood walks or short autobiographies, we can help them link the concepts and ideas of the class materials with their lived experiences.
(2) Interacting also means that students have to think critically. As instructors, our challenge is to make students see both the trees as well as the forest. To do so, we provide different examples of how to include not only their personal experiences but challenge them with myriad “what if” scenarios that encourage them to step into somebody else’s shoes.
(3) The classroom is a place to learn about yourself and the discipline you’re studying. We think that providing opportunities for professionalization is important in any class, not only in the sociology discipline. That is why many of our classes focus on key skills that extend across many academic subjects - reading, writing, public speaking, and analyzing data. Students are expected to hone these skills through our assignments, which are designed to prepare them for life after college. Moreover, it is good to invite guest lecturers into the classroom to speak about how they got where they are, what advice they have for students, and what are the different roads someone in social science can take.
Paraphrasing Karl Marx in his thesis 11, we need to understand the world to change it. Sociological imagination is the core of our discipline, and it allows us to analyze and reflect on how our and the world is, and it is the first step to engage with ways to influence it. Our approach to teaching sociological imagination focuses on that first reflexive step, but that does not mean that the rest of the road is absent. We include parts of other traditions in our classes, such as activist and feminist pedagogies, to help students take that first step.
Finally, we also have a space to reflect on what we would have wanted to know before teaching. The responses address a variety of topics that would prove particularly useful for first-time instructors. We are five graduate students in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Isabel Gil-Everaert is an ethnographer, interested in migration, gender, methods and social theory. Isabel has taught several courses at the City College of New York. Karen Okigbo is a mixed-method researcher interested in immigration, race, ethnicity, and family. Nga Than is a computational sociologist, studying the connections between race and technology. Sebastián Villamizar-Santamaría is also a mixed-methods researcher but is interested in environmental and urban inequalities. Anna Zhlenina is an urban and political sociologist whose research lies at the intersection between social movement and urban inequalities.
We formatted the following guide as an interview so readers can easily identify the different experiences, strategies, and tactics each of us use in our classes. Additionally, we provide annotated examples of assignments, syllabi, and other sample course materials that readers could use and adjust to their own classes. We hope you find this guide useful in sparking your students’ sociological imaginations, as well as your own.
Q: HOW DO YOU CULTIVATE A SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION AMONG UNDERGRADUATE STUDENTS?
According to Mills (1959:7), the sociological imagination is the means through which individuals “grasp what is going on in the world, and to understand what is happening in themselves as minute points of intersections of biography and history within society.” Sociological imagination, as a concept, has a rather simple definition. But, as the answers below highlight, there are innumerable ways to approach the teaching of sociological imagination, including community organizing game, socratic questioning, utilizing visualisations to study urban processes to guide students on how to begin noticing the intersections of biography and history.
The sociological imagination insists that to truly understand people, we must acknowledge the myriad ways their personal biographies intersect with historical context. I usually introduce this concept early on during the semester, and in my theory courses, I have students read directly from Mills' original text. Then, throughout the semester, I use Socratic questioning to tease out the dynamic interplay between their personal biographies and historical context. For instance, I will ask students to describe a key moment in their life. From there, I would probe further about how that moment is contextually situated within history. My course usually culminates in a final assignment where students are tasked with creating a mini-podcast that expresses their understanding of a significant life event using the sociological imagination. They have to explain how historical context influenced their personal experience and vice versa. The connections that students make usually astound me, and they often admit that they previously never saw how interwoven their personal experiences were with societal issues.
Social problems and processes can seem abstract when students first hear about them; making them less abstract by linking these issues with students' lives and experiences is the task of the course. One can practice it in every class meeting, in discussions, asking targeted questions, and doing role playing games. In my social movements classes, I like to use the "Community Organizing" game (see Annotated In-Class Activity). In this exercise, the students enact a community board meeting in a socially mixed community experiencing a set of social problems. They have to discuss strategies of cooperation for their neighborhood's sake. This exercise helps students establish clear connections between the sociological analyses of social composition of urban neighborhoods, distribution of social problems, and everyday experiences of the inhabitants of these places.
The sociological imagination is a way of understanding the world and one’s place within it. It is also a lens for inquiry, creativity, asking questions, and imagining answers. When I teach, I invite students to place their individual experience within particular social contexts, and to understand how their experiences interact with social structures - how their biographies intersect with history and how these intersections take place in particular times and spaces. I use in-class assignments, such as approaching a situation both with and without “sociological lenses,” that illustrate how a sociological perspective fosters these connections. For example, I have a student (or myself) talk about the experience of leaving our country of origin and crossing one or many borders; how migration impacted our lives and the lives of our close ones; the obstacles we faced and what made our migratory journey easier. Afterwards, we put on our “sociological lenses” and explore the structural forces behind our migratory journey: the economic, political, and social conditions of our country of origin and the country where we now live; migratory policies and how they influenced our mobility experiences; the impact migration has had on both our country of origin and destination. What follows is a conversation on how our individual experiences cannot exist or be fully understood without history and society and vice versa.
Sociological imagination, for me, is an analytical strategy that is unique to the discipline of sociology. As my colleagues have pointed out, sociological imagination is an ability to link individuals’ micro-social behaviors to structural forces. It is not necessarily a skillset but a practice, a way of thinking. Therefore, it takes time to teach students such a framework. In my classes, I often incorporate multimodal assignments to help students cultivate it. For example, in Visualizing the Urban (See Annotated Assignment), I ask students to use their smartphones to capture an urban experience that they personally encounter in New York City. The picture serves as an entry point into their urban living. They write a short response essay, where they can incorporate a sociological concept that they learned in the class to shed light on what they experience. This exercise aims to activate students' sociological imagination through digital technology, as well as challenge them to interpret a sociological concept in a local context.
Having a sociological imagination means being able to link personal experiences to structural issues. When explaining sociological research, it is common to find people in the audience who say “but I know someone who didn’t go through that!” It is precisely then that this analytical tool is crucial. That happened to me in a class when I showed a graph of employment rates in the U.S. by race and sex, where white men had the highest rate and black women the lowest. A student interrupted me and said that he was a white man and that he was poor, visibly annoyed and wondering where were the “millions of dollars” in which he “should be swimming because I’m a white man.” This took everyone by surprise, including me, and I took that opportunity to turn an uncomfortable and contentious situation in the classroom into a lesson of sociological imagination.
I started by saying to him that I was sorry he was going through that situation, and that we should speak later if he had any concerns he’d like to express in private. I then said that it was unfortunate that he was in the very low percentage of white men who were unemployed, but that, as the graph said, more than 90% of this group of people had jobs. Welcoming personal experiences in the classroom, while challenging, is the explicit point of sociological imagination--how can we understand personal experiences through structural trends? I explained that although his personal experience had direct effects on his life, that did not mean that the structural trend affects other people’s lives, which in this case was the vast majority. By taking a step back from his anecdotal experience and seeing the bigger picture, class discussions can be further contextualized and nuanced, thus opening the way to bring counterexamples, other students’ perspectives and other parts of the text we discuss.
Q: WHERE DO YOU START WHEN CREATING A COURSE FOR THE FIRST TIME?
The answers to this question involve the first steps of creating a course. These range from imagining what and how to teach a particular topic to revisiting your own knowledge and previous encounters with that topic to designing what you will teach and how you will teach it. We provide some practical advice on searching for syllabi, how to combine learning materials and activities, and how to incorporate your students’ interests in the design of your course.
I start by imagining how I came to understand a particular topic from a sociological perspective. From my perspective, courses are processes, like a building that gets built throughout the semester, starting with the foundations: the simplest concepts that are then discussed by the literature, and then increasing in complexity as the course moves along. In the end, the aim is that the beginning of the course seems like a first step to understand the following parts, and at the end the connections between the concepts are clear.
Think of questions, sub-topics and debates that you want to build your course around.
Search for existing syllabi on what you’re teaching. Going through other course plans gives you a sense of the literature, but also of possible course structures and key issues to address.
I always do a small summary of each reading (2-3 lines) before I decide where to place them in the syllabus and how it speaks to other materials throughout the course. Balance academic readings with other materials such as podcasts, magazine or newspaper articles, blog posts, movies, images, etc.
I start with what I know about the subject matter. If I do not know anything about the topic, I will first ask seasoned instructors through my social networks to share with me their syllabi. For example, in Globalization, I started out by sampling Globalization syllabi through my networks, then I studied what similarities and differences the syllabi shared. All syllabi started with a discussion of what Globalization meant sociologically, then each instructor could structure the course according to the themes or the theories that were relevant to the phenomenon. After studying the similarities and differences, I decided which textbook should be used in my course. I surveyed my peers about which textbook would be best for the topic, and chose Globalization: a Basic Text by George Ritzer and Paul Dean. Then, I personalized the syllabus, and added extra reading materials such that it catered to CUNY students.
I do three things at the same time. First, I go online to see if there are sample syllabi, resources and videos that might be useful as teaching aids. Second, I think of my own position regarding the topic: who are the authors I like? What kind of discussions are going on? What are the implications of that topic for sociology in general and for the real world? And third, I think of the students that might be taking the course: who are they? What can they get out of the class? With that, I start building the syllabus. I try to incorporate three skills--reading, writing, speaking--through the assignments; each session focuses on reading and one of the other two skills. I tend to establish the fundamental concepts first and then divide the rest of the sessions by specific topics that create a constellation of the general subject. For example, if I teach a class on economic sociology, I start with how sociologists have approached it and then I go into problems (discrimination in the labor market, education outcomes, precarity, etc.).
My approach is probably more technical. First, I work on the grid: lay out a table with dates and class sessions and start filling it in with activities I would like to incorporate and the topics I would like to cover. I, too, try to incorporate a variety of tasks in my courses – reading, writing, open discussions, games, in-class analysis of empirical examples (video recordings, newspaper articles, and so on). I need time to have all this, so I make sure I have class sessions dedicated to these activities. If I schedule in-class tests, quizzes or presentations, they also go into the table. Then, I start filling in the content. I make a draft list of topics I think should absolutely be included, followed by secondary topics that I include only if I have room. For these lists, I refer to the syllabi I find online, textbooks, and handbooks on the subject matter. For example, I teach a class on Social Movements and Social Change. Comparing syllabi and handbooks, I figured out which topics overlap in all of them and made sure I included it in my syllabus. An important step is thinking about the students and adjusting the syllabus to fit their potential interests. Since I taught in New York and had access to New York resources, I made sure to include some local examples of social movements and activism, so that my students could relate, and even go and check out local exhibits and libraries on these subjects.
Q: HOW DO YOU ENGAGE YOUR STUDENTS WHEN TEACHING A COURSE?
In this section, we talk about student engagement from both the ideological and technical perspectives. The ideological aspect calls for the mobilization of student experiences as material for analysis and application of sociological concepts. The technical equipment for achieving this larger task includes a variety of techniques: low-stakes writing assignments, directed observation of one’s daily life, guided analysis of audiovisual aid, as well as prompts to help students think about their personal experiences sociologically.
When I teach, I aim to engage with students by attempting to address the following questions:
Why is this class relevant? What does it have to do with my life/interests/issues? I believe that we don’t leave our personal lives, struggles, and experiences outside of the classroom’s door, but instead we all bring them to class, and they inform our processes or learning and interacting with others. I encourage students to bring their experiences to class, share them and connect them to the issues we are discussing. Also, I share some of my own experiences and how I have understood them from a sociological perspective. I have found that providing examples, asking them to reflect on their day-to-day experiences, and connecting them to class’ topics has had a positive result for students’ engagement. Some examples of assignments for this purpose:
Writing a short autobiography (they can share it with the class if they want, but this is not required) where they reflect about their experiences with a certain social issue such as: when did I first realize that gender was important for me and for those that surround me? How have I experienced gender differences and inequality throughout my life? When have I experienced privilege or discrimination and how could I explain/understand these situations?
“Ethnographic” exercises: I ask them to choose a particular place and situation of their daily lives( work, their homes, their commute, a social gathering, and analyze them from a sociological perspective, as if they were outsiders trying to understand what is going on and how they can see a particular social dynamic playing out. For example: What are some of the gendered-dynamics you can observe in the subway or at your friend’s party?
What is my role as a student? How am I part of this course? Participation is a significant portion of the grade in my class, andI constantly emphasize the importance of being in class and what that means. I tell them that participation involves talking in class, but also asking questions, following the conversations, and paying attention. I try to consider different people’s ways of engaging. Some students are quieter, and others love talking, some are good writers and some struggle with writing so I try to diversify activities, requirements, and lectures in order to open up spaces for engagement in different ways for different students.
I try to balance my class plan and expectations with the students’ rhythms and interests. I am flexible when I think some activity or reading needs more time, and I am willing to change certain readings if my students seem to be more interested in other topics or if we need something more active rather than a simple lecture.
As an introverted person, I have always been sensitive to the anxieties of shy students. I know how difficult it can be for certain students to willingly participate in class discussions, so from the onset, I pay particular attention to establishing a classroom atmosphere that is both respectful and inclusive. I spend the first day of class discussing my course policies which stress the need for a respectful and inclusive classroom atmosphere.
However, the second day of class is always spent discussing a controversial article on the Coddling of the American Mind. I use this to frame my position in the class as an instructor who will intentionally, but respectfully, push students to challenge their assumptions and venture outside their comfort zones. I explain to students that a large measure of growth occurs outside their comfort zone. Therefore, I encourage students to embrace moments of discomfort as a sign of intellectual growth. I have found that this dual emphasis of respect and intellectual nudging has invariably resulted in classrooms where students are not only vulnerable and open, but also willing to share, challenge, and learn from one another.
I encourage my students to express their interests in the content of the class in the first class. At the beginning of the course, after I introduce students to the syllabus, and what I expect of them, I collect an informal survey, where they are asked questions such as “why did you sign up for this class? What do you expect to learn from this class? And how can I help you to achieve your goals?” Then I read the answers to learn about my students, their interests, and how I can cater lectures, classroom discussions to their interests.
Second, I encourage them to engage with the class materials such as readings, documentaries, and assignments during classroom discussions. I often ask them questions such as “how do you understand what this text means? Have you seen this concept, or a process applied in your living environment or lived experience?” By asking questions that link student’s lived experience with sociological research, I am able to both engage students in classroom discussions, and to concretize abstract sociological concepts through their own examples.
Third, I encourage students to pursue non-academic projects outside of the classroom context that are relevant to the class materials. In my second year teaching Urban Politics and Policy at City College, two students approached me after the lecture to express their interest in applying for the Zahn Incubator, which is an entrepreneurship program at City College. One of them wanted to turn ideas they learned in Urban Politics and Policy to an urban farming project. The other wanted to create a digital platform to match pro bono lawyer hours to families whose kids have disability needs. The two ideas were inspired by readings and discussions in class. They simply wanted to hear my input, and suggestions about how they could write a proposal. Even though neither of them received the grant in their first attempt, they learned about the grant writing process and turning an academic idea into a large-scale project. Eventually after a year of trying, and refining the idea and work plan, the student with a sustainability project got into the incubator to create a product prototype which would turn plastic bottles into small size recycling products for urban households. The entire process took three years, and I learned that to materialize sociological ideas in practice takes skills, coordination, and stamina.
My engagement with students is threefold. First, I start each session with a video, a graph, or other audiovisual component that prompts students to analyze using the readings for the class and the discussions we’ve had so far. Second, I engage with them by asking them to speak or present in class, and to debate with each other. This helps them to build argumentative abilities and to lose stage fright. And third, I try to get to know them more through other in-class assignments, so that I know where they come from and adjust my teaching depending on their needs and interests. For example, during our first session, I usually ask them to tell the class why they registered for this course and what they expect to learn from it.
Student engagement for me is two different things: one is class participation (making sure people don’t fall asleep or drown in their gadgets) and meaningful engagement with class material (linking class content with students’ lives and views). To help students stay engaged in the classroom, I try to shift activities frequently. Thus, the variety of things I try to include in the syllabus: active watching of video materials (with guidelines and questions), group discussions and games, lectures (they can be entertaining, too, if they don’t last too long).
For the second type of engagement, I encourage people to think about their personal experiences, and potentially to share – I welcome but don’t require public sharing. For example, in the Social Movements and Social Change class I teach, an important concept in the literature is “cognitive liberation.” After introducing the concept, and making sure people found examples of it in the assigned reading, I asked them to pause and think about the moments when they changed their views on some social or political issue. Using low-stakes writing at such moments can be beneficial: I ask students to freewrite for a couple of minutes, without necessarily collecting what they wrote, as a way of stimulating their thinking.
Q: HOW DO YOU ENCOURAGE YOUR STUDENTS TO THINK MORE CRITICALLY?
In this section we share our thoughts on critical thinking, its importance for sociology, and how to cultivate and foster it in class. We provide some specific examples of assignments and methods for this purpose, as well as more general ideas on the importance of asking questions, questioning assumptions, and reflecting on personal experience and how that leads us to certain ideas and approaches to the social world.
Somehow, I have already become one of those instructors who retells the same story repeatedly! My personal favorite is “turtles all the way down”, which I use as a parable for critical thinking. After a certain point, we stop thinking critically about certain issues and rely on assumptions or biases(i.e. turtles). So, to encourage students to think critically, I use the Socratic method to ask probing questions about underlying assumptions. It is so rewarding to see the willingness and depth of student introspection when they attempt to answer the “why” in a line of successive questioning.
In one particularly endearing class, I had a student exclaim “it’s turtles all the way down, Professor!” when she began to see cracks in her previously held assumptions. I find that students are often willing and eager to think critically about issues if they feel supported and know that diversity of thought is welcome.
Critical thinking is a skill that can be honed. In addition to asking questions of my students, I always encourage my students to ask questions. I believe that asking the right questions is the most important step in being a critical thinker.
I try to give them “real life” scenarios or events for them to analyze based on the readings. It is very easy to stick to what an author said in a piece, but I think that students get the most out of the class and its concepts when analyzing a real case. That’s why in every session I give them a piece of media to discuss (either in small groups, with the class in general or by themselves) and I always have them do group research projects as the final assignment (See Annotated Final Assignment). This is a project they work on throughout the semester in different stages, and its goal is for them to “do” what a social scientist does: pick an interesting case, read it through a theoretical lens, talk to people, write, and present. This exercise allows students to think through social problems with what they have learned, and that creates a more critical mindset to tackle other kinds of issues.
Sociology is all about critical thinking. In any class, you can discuss social statistics, ethnographic accounts of social problems, and ask a question: why is this so? Is it the only way to see it/ think about it? If there are alternative opinions on an issue, it is a good exercise to try and reconstruct the ways of thinking of different sides, and the reasons why they arrived at these different conclusions. In-class debates are also a possible way to stimulate questioning and arguing. Once I tried the following trick with media accounts of the same event: I selected news reports about the same event (Dakota Access pipeline controversy) on different TV channels and asked the students to, first, identify the differences in these reports, and then think about the reasons why they were different. It was fun and thought-provoking.
Q: HOW DO YOU EMBED PROFESSIONALIZATION AND SKILL DEVELOPMENT IN YOUR CURRICULUM?
This section discusses ways of integrating students into the professional field of social sciences. This task involves providing students with a set of skills, but also engaging them with the community of professionals in sociology.
In every course I teach, I plan spaces for teaching specific skills and resources: using the library, using Zotero (or other reference managing systems), the writing center, skills for oral presentations, writing a research paper, and teamwork. I plan two sessions each semester specifically for skills training. On the first one, I guide them through the process of thinking about a research question, and the first steps of a research project such as finding literature connected to our interests, etc. The second session is a research project/paper workshop, where we do a collective peer-review process and both students and I provide feedback to those who wish to present their projects. Also, I invite guest speakers to class and ask them to talk about how they’ve worked as sociologists inside and outside of the classroom.
Oh, this is my absolute favorite part about teaching! I believe that professionalization and skill development are the core of this profession, and that each student needs several foundational skills to be successful: collaboration, research, writing, and presenting.
First, I always, always, always have a mandatory collaborative paper in the syllabus. There are few skills more necessary than learning how to effectively work with others.Working together forces them to hone their time management and problem-solving skills. To support the collaborative writing process in class, I embed several opportunities for partners to build rapport and work together throughout the semester. By scheduling writing days, I give students the opportunity to brainstorm, outline, and edit their papers in class.
Second, in addition to being a collaborative paper, the final paper requires that students use a specific research method (interviewing, demographic analysis, autoethnography, etc.). This approach of conducting their own research and data collection forces students to theorize about how their findings fit into the existing body of literature. It is much harder to regurgitate information when the data you use is yours.
Third, is presenting -- arguably, students’ least favorite part of my courses. Yes, writing is incredibly important, but public speaking and the presentation of self are equally important. I have personally always hated public speaking and once taught a course on the Fundamentals of Public Speaking (as a masochistic way of overcoming this fear). So, I make sure to share a lot of those strategies and tips with my students. I also remind them that no one has ever died giving a presentation in my class!
Lastly, I listen to my students’ needs and concerns and address them as needed. Over the years, my students bemoaned the lack of information available to them on how to successfully navigate their time in college. To address this, I applied to be an Andrew W. Mellon Teaching Fellow. As a Mellon Teaching Fellow, I participated in the Center for the Humanities' Seminar on Public Engagement and Collaborative Research. This experience afforded me the opportunity to experiment with a new pedagogical approach that infuses professional development, peer mentoring, and networking opportunities into my classroom and curriculum. Through this opportunity, I also mentored a Student Advisory Board, hosted a panel workshop, and created a magazine for students.
There are two types of skill development that I use in my classes. First, I always ask them to read, write and talk. These three skills are very important for any social scientist: reading to know what other people say, writing to make our own ideas clearer, and speaking to make our ideas more convincing and to debate with others. That is why all the assignments I give always deal with one (or more) of these skills. Second, I think of professionalization through learning other processes like using the library or other online resources and finding and reading data. These activities are useful for different jobs that students might end up having.
I agree that engaged and active reading and reporting on what you’ve read and learned are the key professionalization skills. To add to that, I think that writing in different genres can be a way to introduce even more skills necessary for the job market. For example, I like the idea of experimenting with writing about students’ research projects or the insights they had when reading the course material in different genres, from blog entry to research report or letter to a colleague. Reporting in all these different genres is what many professions need and do on a daily basis.
Q: WHAT DO YOU KNOW NOW THAT YOU WISH YOU KNEW INITIALLY?
Teaching can both be fun, and challenging. One challenge that a graduate student encounters as they begin their teaching career is to juggle different scholarly activities such as teaching, doing research, and figuring out their students. It would be beneficial for graduate students to have a stronger supporting system where more seasoned instructors could share with them in advance what it takes to be a successful instructor in the CUNY system.
I wish I had known how much fun teaching can be! I was honestly convinced that I would hate the entire enterprise but have gladly found the opposite to be true. This may sound very new age, but I always set an intention for the beginning of each class and it is always to introduce my students to new information and personally have as much fun as possible. I find that this mindset has allowed me to be my authentic self in the classroom and connect with my students on a much deeper level. It can be so tempting to over analyze every decision and drown in imposter syndrome, but there are so many resources available to help support you. Once I spend time thinking through the curriculum, I then focus on being present and enjoying the process.
I wish someone had given a teaching time-management formula to follow before I started. One example could be that it would take about five hours to create a first draft of a syllabus, and then it would take about four to six hours to prepare for a two-hour lecture. Time allocation is important because as a graduate student, one should prioritize doing research and writing one’s dissertation. Teaching is an important professional development activity; however, if I allocate more time to teaching than other activities, it will interfere with my other professional pursuits. After teaching at CUNY for more than three years, I decided that I would spend two full workdays for teaching-related activities. This has helped to ensure that I allocate a sufficient amount of time for different activities, and also avoid teaching burnout. Finally, I would also benefit more if more experienced lecturers in the CUNY system could mentor graduate teaching fellows. If there was such a mentorship system, teaching would be more enjoyable for graduate students.
I wish I had known that for as much as higher education is standardized, context matters even more here. I was used to teaching undergraduate students in my own country, who had their own socioeconomic conditions, but I was not sure what undergraduates in the US were like in terms of their backgrounds, shared cultural images and meanings, and what types of skills they were taught before they took my class. Having that information would have been useful in terms of adjusting syllabi and work expectations for the class. For example, writing skills were a major focus in my previous university, but CUNY students did not have the same number of mandatory classes dedicated to it. Therefore, I made sure to always do quick writing workshops and guides to help them with these assignments--an approach that was significantly strengthened by my Writing Across the Curriculum training at Kingsborough Community College. Another example was my familiarity with cultural references and memes, which I used before but that now I had to learn almost from scratch. Luckily, that is what the sociological imagination is for: to bring those very specific contexts into broader discussions and learn from those differences.
Fuist, Todd Nicholas. 2021. “Towards a Sociology of Imagination”. Theory and Society 50 (2): 357–80. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-020-09416-y.
Giddens, Anthony. 1991. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Stanford University Press.
Wright Mills, C. 1959 (2000). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stalker, L. Lynda Harling, y Jason Pridmore. 2009. “Reflexive Pedagogy and the Sociological Imagination”. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self - Knowledge 7 (3): 27–36.
Zerubavel, E. (1997). Social mindscapes: An invitation to cognitive sociology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Zittoun, T., & Cerchia, F. (2013). Imagination as expansion of experience. Psychological and behavioral science, 47(3), 305–324.