How I Teach — Sociology
Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase November 05, 2021
Prof. Victor Perez shows students new ways to think about social structure
Editor’s note: First-year students, prospective students (and some of their parents) wonder and worry how they will handle the academic transition from high school to college. In a series of stories, UDaily speaks with University of Delaware professors who teach courses commonly taken by students during their first year on campus. The series includes professors who teach biology, writing, business, calculus, political science and sociology, and those stories can be read on the How I Teach website. In this story, Associate Professor Victor Perez explains how he teaches sociology.
When Victor Perez looks out at a lecture hall filled with University of Delaware students taking what is probably their first-ever sociology course, he sees not just individuals but the social framework in which they all exist.
His goal is to teach them how to see that as well.
“Like all of us, students are embedded in a structure, a way of life, that they don’t think much about, that they take for granted,” said Perez, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, who has taught introductory sociology courses for some 20 years, beginning as a graduate student. “These are behaviors that are just expected.”
He can offer many examples of social expectations we follow but probably don’t often think about: How we dress (“If you want to test this, try teaching a class wearing a bathing suit.”), how we stand in an elevator with strangers, how long we’ll hold a door for someone.
Perez’s introductory courses, both large lecture classes and small Honors sections, are designed to show students the fundamental principles of sociology and the way sociologists think. National research shows that students rarely enter college as sociology majors and that most eventual majors choose the field based on their first class, he said.
“Very few high school students get a real sociology course, one that exposes them to the conceptual, methodological framework of the discipline,” he said. “I often hear from my students — whether they go on to take more sociology courses or not — that the intro class really opened their eyes to a lot of aspects of society and how people act within it.”
Perez said he’s learned that the best way for students to learn these new concepts is not through a traditional comprehensive textbook. Instead, the assigned readings in his class include peer-reviewed journals, other scholarly articles and book chapters. Like his lectures and the classroom discussions, the readings all focus on the four concepts he defines as the pillars of sociology.
“I haven’t used a textbook in 15 years,” he said. “I realized there’s another way to inform students about how sociologists think and the conceptual framework of sociology. … I want to give them a toolkit they can use to gain the basic understanding and also to take them to upper-level courses if they decide to continue.”
He begins with the idea that society is more than the sum of its parts. Individuals are certainly important, he tells his students, but in the structure of society as a whole it’s social roles — as an employee or a parent, for example — that are key.
From there, his students explore the concepts of self and identity and the social cues that people use to portray themselves to others. Discussions of this pillar are complicated, Perez said, but students are generally eager to learn and talk about the related issues, including power, history and racial and sexual identity.
“All these topics come up, and the students think deeply about them,” he said. “We tackle the subjects because it’s crucial to think about, not just who you think you are, but how you present yourself and have other people think about you.”
As with other subjects, students are encouraged to speak up in class, but Perez emphasizes that not everyone is comfortable talking about every issue, especially one as personal as identity. He tells students that all debates must be respectful, and no one is penalized for not speaking.
Other class sessions delve into global connections, including issues of mass production and mass consumption. He asks students to question whether these systems are really rational and efficient and to examine their effects on people and the environment. Class activities might include looking at labels to find where everyone’s clothing is made or visiting an IKEA store for examples of globalization.
“The concepts I teach are abstract, but in a sense they’re embodied by individuals,” Perez said. “In a class, especially with a diverse group of students, the people sitting right there in those chairs embody these issues.”
In addition to teaching introductory classes, Perez has developed and leads two upper-level courses that deal with another of the pillars he’s identified — what he calls the medicalization of society. He asks students to think about when a difference becomes identified as a medical diagnosis.
One of his 300-level courses focuses on this issue. “Diagnoses aren’t pulled out of the sky,” he said. “They’re constructions. It doesn’t mean they’re not real or that people don’t suffer, but we need to think about how diagnostic labels come about and how they’re applied.”
A second course, dealing with health and the environment, is based on Perez’s research in south Wilmington, Delaware, and the environmental and social justice issues in that community.
Both of the classes dealing with health and society are offered with no prerequisite. Perez said he made that decision in order to include a wide variety of students.
“The sociology department has a health concentration, but we also have a lot of different majors in these [health-focused] classes,” he said. “Inequality and social justice drive much of my research and much of what I teach, and we want to invite students from across disciplines to learn more about this and to share their perspectives.”
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How I Teach — Series
The How I Teach website provides a collection of the stories in this series.